BELL in the Buckeye State

Kaiti Shelton

Last summer, I had the privilege of working alongside some of Ohio’s most dedicated federationists to facilitate Ohio’s first BELL program. The efforts of all, from President Eric Duffy and Teachers of the Visually Impaired Debbie Baker, Marianne Denning, and Shelley McCoy, to our kitchen staff and various teacher volunteers were rewarded with a very successful program. Here is my account.

Preparations for BELL began shortly after the 2012 Ohio state convention, and newly-elected president Eric Duffy was ready to get down to business. Resources were quickly gathered to make BELL happen in Ohio. Before I knew it, an entire conference call devoted to curriculum was scheduled, and the program was less than 2 months away. The Ohio State School for the Blind graciously allowed me and four other women who traveled to Columbus from various parts of Ohio to stay in one of its new cottages for the duration of the program. The Glenmont School, which is now the headquarters for the Autism Society of Ohio, served as our location for the program. It was not very far from the OSSB cottages, and we were able to make use of two large classrooms and a kitchen area. The staff was wonderful and very friendly as we carried out our program.

There were seven children who attended, but two could only come for the first week. Our BELL students had a wide range of abilities, differences in the amount of prior braille instruction, and unique personalities. We had a very diverse group, but that only emphasized the idea that each child is different. With the staff on-hand we were able to give each student what he or she specifically needed to improve while making the learning enjoyable.

Some of my favorite memories with the students are still funny to me several months later. Early in the week one of our older students began to banter with Eric Duffy. This amusing exchange continued throughout the entire program and was very fun to watch. Each morning Eric would make some reference to being king, to which the student would respond with mock disapproval and announce enthusiastically that Eric was fired. I joined in the banter and even created a song to the tune of “There’s a hole in your bucket,” that went, “There’s a crack in your crown, King Eric, King Eric.” The song became a success with students and teachers alike, and had several verses narrating an exchange between King Eric Duffy and Queen Barbara Pierce by the end of the program. Another student was a very happy, very enthusiastic braille reader who was really fun for me to work with. Blindness was not his only disability, but I loved seeing how excited he would get to read “bumpy books,” as he called them. Our youngest student, age five, was as smart as they come and was wonderful to watch in action. He came to Bell knowing all his letters and most of his contractions, and could easily spout them off in games of Braille Twister and Tasty Dots. Although he was painfully shy on the first day, he opened up and became quite a talker by the end of the program. It was great to see him come out of his shell.

All students learned something about orientation and mobility. Our cane users learned proper techniques, and our students who had some vision and didn’t regularly use a cane learned as well under sleep shades. It was difficult to explain the sleep shade concept to students in the program for a variety of reasons; our students with vision wanted to peek and weren’t comfortable moving around without their sight at the beginning of the program, while those with no vision wondered why they had to wear the shades if they did not make a difference. Eventually, everyone wore the shades without much complaint, and the peeking was minimal. Everyone seemed to grow more comfortable moving around with their canes and sleep shades on. They realized that they were all blind and they were all learning to travel better than they had before. They also discovered that their teachers were blind too. It was gratifying to tell the students that yes, teachers can be blind. Some students had likely never met a blind adult before coming to BELL, so to see them and their parents realize that there are such things as successful blind adults was really inspiring.

The program was filled with other great memories, including a visit from firemen and a firewoman who allowed the students to climb around in their truck, making yummy desserts like cake in a cup, playing Goalball, and going on sound scavenger hunts. Along the way the staff introduced independent living techniques such as pouring, writing in journal entries, problem-solving and matching, and travel etiquette. Stay Out of My Bubble, a game in which students wear hoola hoops suspended from their shoulders and practice nicely asking others to respect their personal space, became another favorite game to play. Through each activity the students grew in their braille knowledge, their skill, and their can-do philosophy. One student left her old phrase of “I can’t” behind for “I’ll try.”

On the last day we held a parent seminar so that the parents could hear from the BELL staff about their child’s progress and gain some additional resources. One of the highlights of the seminar was when the parents were given sleep shades and canes and asked to take a short walk from the gymnasium in which the seminar was held to the classroom where the children were playing some of their favorite games from the program. That experience gave each parent a small dose of what travel is like for their child, but they all made it from point A to point B successfully even without the use of sight. This experience seemed to have a very positive impact on the attitudes of some of the parents.

BELL was a very exhausting two weeks, but it was also one of the best things I think I have ever done. I do not regret an ounce of energy I gave to the program, and I think I can safely say that the other volunteers did not seem to either. It was a very worthwhile experience, especially after hearing updates from two of the families at our state convention this past November. We made a difference, and changed what it means to be blind for seven children in Ohio. I can’t wait to do it again in 2014.