Side By Side

November 01, 1989 13 min read

Her teacher handles the question adroitly. “Well, did you touch anything? Did you ride on the bus?’' she asks. “Tell me about that.’' While her classmates return to their seats and take up pencils and paper, the girl hammers out her report on a braillewriter located off to the side of the classroom.

“Having a chicken on my shoulder was fun,’' she types, with the help of a special vision teacher who works with her for part of each school day. “The horse had short hair. I got to pet the horse.’'

It is a typical school day for Olivia Mary Denys Norman, the only blind child among about 450 students at Takoma Park Elementary School. Olivia has been in classes with her nonhandicapped peers at this school since kindergarten.

She is one of the estimated 85 to 90 percent of the nation’s blind and visually handicapped children who spend all or part of their day in regular public schools, according to the American Foundation for the Blind. Some are taught in separate classes. Others split their days between the regular classroom and a special education resource room. Still others, like Olivia, spend their entire day in the same class as their nonhandicapped peers and are tutored part of that time by vision teachers and mobility specialists.

The story of Olivia’s 1st grade year is just one example of how, with the right combination of educational resources and family support, handicapped children can do more than survive in the neighborhood school. Some can actually thrive.

“It’s gone so well and so smoothly,’' says teacher Cohen, as she reflects on her year with Olivia. “I definitely wouldn’t think twice about doing it again.’'

Cohen’s classroom looks like any 1st grade classroom in any elementary school. The walls are plastered with bright-colored posters and decorations. The students sit at low, round tables with name cards marking their places. But there are important differences: The furniture here must always remain in place; Olivia’s seat never changes; her coat hangs on the same hook each day; and her books are always stored in the same cubbyhole. The arrangement is so familiar to the child that she can move about the classroom skillfully without the aid of a cane or a classmate.

The more subtle adjustments that the teacher must make have, by now, become second nature for Cohen. “If I have visuals, I have to make sure they’re being described to her,’' she says. “I have to make sure I’m often touching her or letting her touch me when we’re together.’' And, if she is writing on the blackboard, Cohen makes a point of spelling the words aloud for Olivia’s benefit.

To keep Olivia and her classmates working at the same pace, Cohen works closely with Olivia’s vision teacher, Catherine Hula. A veteran of 18 years in the field, Hula is one of seven itinerant vision teachers employed by the school system in Montgomery County, where Olivia lives. These instructors, called “itinerant’’ because they move from school to school working with individual students who have vision impairments, teach the compensatory skills their students will need to succeed in school.

Olivia is among 19 students with whom Hula works. She visits some of those students for as little as an hour or two each month. But Olivia is the only one of Hula’s students who is totally blind. She has worked with her since kindergarten.

Hula translates the class worksheets and lessons into Braille for Olivia. When she works individually with her pupil, they sit at a small alcove to the side of the classroom while the other students work independently on tasks or in reading groups.

She teaches the child the complex Braille system. In addition to the “contracted Braille’’ code that is the medium for most of her written work, Olivia must also know, for example, a numerical version of the code, in which the same raised dots used in the contracted version take on entirely new meanings. Eventually, Hula says, Olivia will also be taught to use an abacus for mathematics, to type, to use a computer, and to develop her auditory skills so she can listen to textbooks on tape.

Hula also helps Olivia learn independence skills and visual “concepts’’ often taken for granted by sighted people. In kindergarten, for example, when the class was told to sit “crosslegged’’ on the floor, Olivia had to learn for the first time what the term meant.

The only other special tutoring Olivia receives comes from a mobility specialist, who comes once a week to help her learn to use her cane to move around the rest of the building as independently as she negotiates the classroom. Next year, Hula says, Olivia may also receive the services of an occupational therapist who can help her increase her upper-body strength for work on the braillewriter.

Otherwise, Olivia’s school day differs little from that of her classmates.

When the rest of the class marks the day of the week and the date on a poster-board calendar, Olivia follows along with her own version: a magnetic calendar with grid lines marked in thick tape and Braille numbers and letters. And when Olivia’s reading group gathers on the floor, she brings a Braille version of the reader they use, My Best Bear Hug. The four-volume Braille notebook is three times as thick as the other children’s 223-page reader.

Cohen says the other students long ago became accustomed to having a blind child in the class. Some have even become especially sensitive to the kinds of tasks and activities that are harder for Olivia. Cohen often finds that when she is busy working with other students, a classmate steps in to help Olivia.

“It’s like having to go around with your eyes closed all the time, except you have to learn a lot more,’' explains classmate Mark Koenig, who has known Olivia since kindergarten. He said he remembers tying yarn around his pictures that year to help Olivia “see’’ them.

“At first, I didn’t really think I could be friends with her and be very close, but it turned out that I really can,’' says Gretchen Raff, another classmate. “Sometimes I think of her as a regular person or just a friend, but sometimes I think of her as a real special person.’'

Olivia herself takes all the attention and difficulties in stride. “Oh, it’s not too bad,’' she says, her speech reflecting the accent of her parents’ native Great Britain. “It’s just being blind itself that I don’t like.’'

But the smooth rhythms of this 1st grade classroom reveal only part of Olivia’s story. It took several years, a few tears, and much preparation to help Olivia make her transition into the mainstream of public education. And the formula for her success in school is a complex one that includes the strong involvement of her family, early-intervention efforts on the part of the school system’s special education department, and the support of the local school administration.

A key ingredient, parents and teachers say, is Olivia herself. Eager to learn, Olivia’s first question upon meeting her vision teacher in kindergarten was: “When are you going to teach me to read Braille?’' Polite and unusually mature for her age, she handles questions about her disability in a matter-offact way.

The child’s knack for surviving despite great odds was apparent almost from birth. When her mother, Anne Norman, went into premature labor with Olivia, the doctors told her the baby would be stillborn. Not until an hour later did the Normans learn that their daughter was indeed alive.

Three months later, they discovered that she was blind in both eyes, the result of a condition known as retinopathy of prematurity, once known as retrolental fibroplasia.

Weighing only 1 pound 10 ounces at birth, Olivia’s early development was hampered as much by other physical problems associated with her premature birth as it was by her blindness. For nearly two years, she breathed through a tracheostomy tube, making it nearly impossible for her to utter a sound until she was a year old and had grown enough for air to get past the tube. By the age of 3, she had been hospitalized 16 times for operations and illnesses.

“It was just so terrible those first three years,’' Norman says. “You’re barely able to get from day to day.’' Even during that difficult time, however, the foundations were being laid for Olivia’s educational development.

On the advice of an ophthalmologist, the Normans contacted their local school system soon after it was determined that she was blind. A new federal law, the Education of the Handicapped Act Amendments of 1986, provides strong incentives for all states to offer special education services for handicapped infants and toddlers. But in Montgomery County, the school system has had an earlyintervention program in place for visually impaired children since the 1970’s.

The program provided a social worker and a parent-infant specialist who began visiting the Normans on a regular basis when Olivia was only 3 months old.

“The specialist had good ideas about touching and massaging her,’' Norman says. “She told us to tie bells on her arms and legs so she would know where her extremities were and to put things in the crib so that every time she reached out she was touching things.’'

At age 3, Olivia entered the school system’s preschool program for visually handicapped youngsters, the Early Childhood Learning Center in Rockview Elementary School. There, says Hula, Olivia began learning to become “tactually observant’’ and to interpret the world around her by touch. She learned, for example, how to recognize shapes and textures and how to interpret verbal descriptions of visual concepts, among a number of other skills.

The Normans, meanwhile, set out to learn the Braille system.

“If her homework is real bad, I make her do it again, just like I would any other kid,’' Norman says now. “But if I hadn’t learned Braille I wouldn’t be able to do that.’'

Norman also put a hold on her career as a freelance editor in order to devote time to Olivia’s needs. And she and her husband, Colin, a journalist, also gave up plans to return to Great Britain, where the idea of mainstreaming handicapped children is only beginning to take hold: They feared that Olivia would have to attend a special boarding school if they returned home. “We knew we didn’t want to do that,’' she says.

When Olivia turned 6, there was no question that she would enroll in a half-day kindergarten program in a regular elementary school. The Normans visited three schools, settling on one just three-quarters of a mile from their home. “We liked the feel of the school,’' Norman says. “It seemed very warm and nurturing, and it is.

“We went into this with a great deal of trepidation,’' she adds. “We weren’t sure this was going to work, but this was our best shot.’' akoma Park Elementary School is a small kindergarten-through3rd-grade school in suburban Washington, D.C. Unlike many other schools in this affluent county school system, there is considerable racial and ethnic diversity among the students--a plus for the Normans.

The family also found a receptive staff and administration at the school. The same year Olivia enrolled, two hearing-impaired children also began attending the school.

“We’ve never looked at a child with special needs as being someone to fear,’' says Phinnize Brown, the school’s principal at the time. “The first year, I told the staff we would be having a blind child and two hearingimpaired students, and that we should be prepared and prepare the children. Right away, I had staff members volunteer.’'

The administration held a workshop at the school to help teachers and other staff members work with children with special needs. Meanwhile, the summer before she entered kindergarten, Olivia visited the school frequently. Sometimes she explored the building with her parents and at other times with the school’s guidance counselor or her mobility specialist.

And a local police officers’ organization and a garden group raised money for schoolwide performances by “Kids on the Block,’' a theater troupe that uses life-size puppets to increase children’s sensitivity toward people with handicaps.

In the beginning, Norman remembers, Olivia cried a lot. And deviations from the normal school-day pattern only increased her insecurity, according to Hula. To help get through those difficult times, Olivia often visited the school’s guidance counselor, Ann Dorworth.

“I thought it was important to make my office a safe place where she can talk about her concerns,’' Dorworth says. Olivia still meets with the counselor, leaving notes for her when she wants to talk or politely touching her arm and saying, “I’d love to speak with you sometime.’'

But, from all accounts, the tears and concerns lessened as Olivia’s kindergarten year progressed. In 1st grade, she took on a new set of challenges--a full-day program, lunch in the cafeteria, and a new class and teacher.

“It helped to see that she was doing so well in kindergarten,’' says Cohen, who learned toward the end of that kindergarten year that Olivia would be in her class the following year. “I felt more at ease than if I hadn’t known her at all,’' she adds. “I thought it was going to be the biggest challenge of my career, and I welcomed that.’'

Cohen, who has been teaching for four years, says her training at the University of Maryland taught her little about teaching students with special needs. “I was nervous,’' she recalls. “I thought, ‘Do I have the capability to meet all her needs?’ But I think they were met.’'

At the beginning of the school year, Olivia and Hula talked to the class about Olivia’s handicap. They demonstrated how the braillewriter worked and answered questions.

“Helpers’’ were chosen from the class each day to assist Olivia during the lunch period and on the playground; the children in the class vied for the job. Sometimes the other children were almost too helpful, keeping Olivia from becoming as independent as she could be.

In the beginning, there were a lot of questions. “They asked, ‘Can you really not see?’' Cohen recalls. “Can you see light? Do your eyes hurt?’'

At times, Olivia wearied of the questions. “The first time, I answered them,’' Olivia says. “The next time I said, ‘I already told you, so I don’t want to hear it again.’'

Within months, however, the questions had dwindled. To her classmates, Olivia had become just another member of the class. “I began to hear normal 6-year-old fussing, which I think is wonderful,’' says Cohen. “The first time someone came in crying, ‘Olivia did this or that,’ I thought, ‘Great. They’re getting along just like any two 1st graders would.’'

As for Olivia, her parents and teachers say she has flourished in the regular classroom environment. She entered kindergarten without knowing the alphabet or numbers, but now she reads and does math at grade level, says Hula. Olivia also scored high enough on standardized tests to win a spot in a countywide school program for children deemed potentially gifted. “I think now she’s feeling very good about herself,’' Hula adds.

After school, Olivia follows a schedule like that of any other active child in this middle-class community: Brownie troop meetings on Tuesday afternoons, science club on Wednesday, and a Thursday after-school French program sponsored by the local Parent-Teacher Association. When she’s not busy with such activities, her classmates sometimes visit her at home, spending the time together playing “pet store’’ or “pet show’'--a concession to Olivia, who is a devoted animal lover.

“Olivia’s Braille might not be as strong as it might if she were in a special school, but her social skills are much stronger,’' Hula concludes. “And that, along with what the other kids have learned, makes it worthwhile.’'

A version of this article appeared in the November 01, 1989 edition of Teacher as Side By Side