February 14, 2006 > Becoming self-sufficient
by Vidya Pradhan
Jot Purewal, a visually impaired 11-year-old was struggling in her classes at John Sutter Elementary in Santa Clara. While she had an aide and a Braille teacher to help her deal with her disability, she was falling behind in her classes and it was getting more and more difficult to cope with coursework As Jot puts it, "I was just passing from one grade to another without learning anything." Middle school was approaching and both Jot and her parents were concerned about the transition to a more stressful and demanding environment. That's when they decided that Jot needed more help and contacted the California School for the Blind.
The California School for the Blind (CSB) provides intensive, disability specific educational services for enrolled students who are blind, visually impaired, deaf blind, and visually impaired/multi-disabled. While it is not an accredited school under the Fremont Unified School District, its objectives are to make the children under its care better able to cope with their environment and be as self-sufficient as possible.
When Jot's case came up before the school, it took about 50 days of evaluations to determine whether the school would meet her needs. She was observed at her regular school and a team comprising her parents, educators and psychologists drew up an IEP (Individual Education Plan) for her. She and her parents also toured the campus to find out what the various programs were.
Once Jot was accepted, she began schooling at CSB in the fall of 2003. One of the first classes she took was the Orientation and Mobility class, which taught her how to move about the campus independently and find her way to her classes. The campus is conveniently laid out in a grid with many 90 degree angles.
CSB's principal goal is to teach its students all the assistive technology they need to become independent. Jot takes computer classes where she learns word processing, Internet access, email and most importantly, how to download Braille books and files. (JAWS, a software program that reads words and commands out loud on screen, makes it possible to process what is essentially a visual medium.) The books are downloaded to a Braille Note, a device that pulls up the book line by line in Braille.
In her classroom Jot works on reading, language arts and math with her teacher Pauline Lee. Though students cannot obtain a high school diploma at CSB, they learn the basic grade level skills, so assimilation at some point into a regular school is easier. Jot is a good writer but math is a little harder for her. She learns math with an abacus and the Nemeth Braille code. She continues to take mobility classes to help her figure out her environment outside the school. Her training helps her to understand the immediate neighborhood and to cross roads safely.
Once a week, Jot attends Techbridge, an after school technology program developed with the assistance of the Chabot Space and Science Center. The program encourages girls to pursue academic and career options in technology. After class she stays overnight in the school dormitories. "I enjoy it very much," says Jot. "It gives me a chance to be independent and spend time with my friends."
It's not all work and no play at CSB though. Jot is a keen participant in the "Braille Bee" held every year. Kids also play "Who wants to be a Braille Millionaire." In winter, snow is brought to the green California campus so kids can have a "Snow Day."
Once Jot is 16, she will become eligible for the transitional and vocational services provided by the school. LaVernya Carr, director of Transition Services, says that about 80 percent of CSB's students typically take advantage of these services. The program helps students to get their diploma through correspondence courses if they are academically motivated. Or they can attend a few courses at Ohlone College or other local colleges. Some kids go on to join Kennedy High School where they take a half day of classes before returning to CSB for specific courses. This is Jot's aim as one day she hopes to graduate and become a Braille teacher herself.
The goal of Transition Services is to make all students fluent in functional reading, such as reading road signs, orientation and mobility, and basic money management. Transition Services also teach the students social skills and the students can attend life seminars after CSB. A work experience program on campus trains students to deliver messages, help with recycling and manage the dining room.
The basic principle behind all these services is to make the student responsible and disciplined in the workplace. Emphasis is placed on being on time and taking and processing multiple instructions. These are particular challenges for those students who have other development issues besides visual impairment.
Off campus, a job coach works with students at places like the DMV and Round Table Pizza to assist future employee with learning required tasks and making them comfortable with the work environment.
Older students are also encouraged to try out apartment living on campus. They are taught cooking and laundry skills and Carr's "Bank of Carr" helps them with money management. As far as possible, they lead independent lives, even setting up recreational activities.
CSB uses both technology and community to take visually impaired students as far as they want to go in academics and life. For students like Jot, whose worlds are in darkness, it stands as a beacon of light.
For more information, visit the California School for the Blind website at www.csb-cde.ca.gov or call (510) 794-3800.