After much thinking and discussion, my husband and I decided to enroll our four-year-old daughter, Abi, in the same church-based preschool her older brother and sister attended. Taking this step made me really nervous for a number of reasons. The main one was that Abi had only been home from Ethiopia for seven months. She was still bonding with us and still learning how to live in a family. I was worried that preschool might seem too much like the orphanage where she used to live. A second worry was that the school had never enrolled a blind student before, and really weren’t set up for disabled students. Were we making a huge mistake? What if the teacher was too overwhelmed by Abi’s needs? We considered switching to a special-needs preschool, but we decided to give this school a try first.
I realized early on that I needed to be proactive in making the school year a success. Since my older two kids had the same teacher, I knew her and trusted her. I approached her with the idea of putting Abi in her class, and asked if she would be willing, if she had a lot of support. Rather than demand Abi have her rights, I approached as a friend, willing to do whatever I needed to do to help. She told me initially she was reluctant, as she hadn’t had any training and was worried that she might not be able to make the learning experience meaningful for Abi. Thankfully, she kept an open mind, and together we began brainstorming.
Years ago, I obtained my Braille transcriber’s certificate, so I was able to offer transcription as a resource immediately. I also showed her some of the ways I’ve adapted materials at home, using textured fabric, puffy paint, or bump dots. I explained how adept Abi already is at navigating. She began to get excited that she would be able to teach Abi in a meaningful way. We chatted about Abi’s work on bonding with me as her mother, and she mentioned that rather than interfere with that, she would be able to enhance and support it by teaching her appropriate interaction with a non-parent such as a teacher. The other children who go home each day with their parents would show her examples of other families.
So far, with three weeks of school past us, Abi is doing better than I could have ever hoped. Her teacher constantly finds creative ways to adapt her materials, such as gluing fabric “clothes” on pictures of friends, asking me to Braille extra copies of a book being read, using her intern as an aide to do one-on-one work with Abi, allowing Abi some independent exploration when it’s safe and appropriate, making an audio recording instead of pictures–the list keeps getting longer! I am completely impressed with her enthusiasm and skill in making each activity meaningful for every student in her class. Truly, we have a gem of a teacher.
One thing the teacher mentioned that she’s learned from us is that Abi is just a normal little kid. She’s no longer intimidated by Abi’s blindness, and she now has confidence that she can teach her just as she teaches the other kids. She realized she has already been making adaptations: if a child is extremely shy, she works with that child to feel more secure. If a child struggles with learning letters, that child gets additional help. Teaching Abi requires little more than the right supports, tools, and being willing to think creatively. Blindness ceased being a defining characteristic of Abi’s personality and became merely one of her many attributes.
For her part, Abi loves preschool! She loves making friends with other children her own age. She loves the routine and the challenge of learning. Playing on the playground, walking in line, singing songs and doing crafts all engage her interest. She hasn’t had any attachment confusion and seems to understand that after school each day, she goes home with her family. She’s learning to recognize letters and names in Braille, and learning to navigate around the halls and playground.
For my part, I’m glad I went with my instinct to enroll Abi in preschool there. I’m glad I did not choose a school based only on Abi’s blindness either, and teachers who may have had special education training but lacked in other areas, like enthusiasm, creativity, or individual care. Abi’s teacher has been reading articles on best ways to teach a blind child, but her attitude of wanting Abi to have a meaningful experience goes a lot farther in my opinion than all the training and methodology in the world.