From School To Shining School: Educating My Blind Children Is An Effort That Reached Across the Nation

School bus driving away
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I don’t know about you, but school was my fun zone growing up.  I have the most extraordinary memories  of all the levels of my education.  I loved every class (well, until high school science LOL). I loved almost of all my teachers (I still don’t understand why some had to be so dang mean!) And I had great success, achieving lots of awards and high honors.  What I reallllllly loved though, was all the socializing that school provided  and when I got to high school and found the sports and after school activities… jackpot!  

I loved it so much that I wanted to stay in school forever!  I followed that dream and became an elementary school teacher.

In the year 2000, when my first born baby was diagnosed as blind, I panicked over all that he would not be able to do.  No baseball.  No driving.  Would there be prom?  What would he do? I had no knowledge of how a person accessed the world without sight.

I spent a few years crying over lost dreams paralyzed by fears of the unknown journey ahead.  And then a new panic hit: how would he “do school”?

As Moms in the toddler playgroups My son and I were in were frantically exchanging info about what preschools were “elite” and which had good chances for eventual Harvard acceptance (oh my freaking God) and which ones had “valet” (drive through drop off)… I was simply trying to figure out how my son would navigate and how he would learn.  I had a new fear causing tears:  how would he be able to enjoy school as much as I did?

Lucky for me, the school district I lived in then was one of the top in the country and it hosted a large preschool program.  Every classroom had 10 “community kids”  and 5 special needs spots.  Inclusion was built in to this district from the day the children started!

Michael loved the school. He loved the socializing and all of the activities.  I loved that there were a ton of adults to help him and teachers with full education degrees.  He thrived in that school. 

When we moved back to my hometown and into another stellar school district in time for Michael to start Kindergarten,  you can imagine my excitement when he headed to the bus stop for his first day.  He was so excited with his bus tag and his big kid backpack.  Off he went with a big smile  to the big school. Most Kindergarteners were crying going into school and smiling coming out.  Michael was the opposite!  He couldn’t wait to get there and cried when it was over.

Michael on first day of Kindergarten at the mailbox smiling
Michael’s first day of Kindergarten

And then about 3-4 weeks into the school year, new tears.  Sad tears.  From my happy-go-lucky Michael.  “It’s just too hard” he sniffled.  “Mommy, school is just too hard.”

After a nonstop 24 hour investigation, I found that a few things were going haywire.  For one, the regular Teacher of the Visually Impaired had an emergency medical leave and a sub was in for her, a sub that I had found a year prior to be not up to par of what my boys needed.  Second, there wasn’t a Co-teaching partnership between the classroom teacher and the TVI.  It was as if Michael was this side show or “guest” that no one but the TVI was responsible for.  Third, the TVI had barely any time in the classroom with Michael to guide him through all the visual learning he just could not see.  

And finally, the biggest mistake I have ever made: Michael was using insanely large print instead of learning Braille.  Although he was the brightest kid in the room, he was reading one letter or one word at a time on a computer screen.  It was wasting his time and depleting his energy. I was also adamant that he learn all that the other kids learned and do what the other kids did.  Imagine a 5 year old with barely any vision trying to do all the cutting and pasting and moving around that kindergarteners do…. with adult guidance only a fraction of the time.

Needless to say, I freaked out.  Like f-r-e-a-k-e-d out.  I barged into the school.  I scheduled a meeting.  And I was quite vocal about being completely pissed off. It is way out of my comfort zone to raise holy hell, but I was not only upset for Michael, I couldn’t imagine going through this a second time with my second blind child!

Once I got myself over the fact that THESE people at THIS school district SHOULD know better, I asked myself: HOW? How would they know how to put a plan in place for my son when most had never met a blind kid before and the ones that did had certainly never met a blind and BRILLIANT kid like mine! (Cue “Greatest Love of All” to play while you read that.)

So, I set out to build a program for Michael, at our neighborhood public school, that would equip him with the tools he would need to level the playing field in a very competitive place.  The rest was up to him.  

I spent every waking hour on the Texas School for the Blind’s (TSBVI) website.  They are the #1 resource for educating blind children.  I clicked on every page and pdf they offered. I joke about the fact that the TSBVI IT folks probably have my picture up in their offices as I am sure I am known there as the woman that constantly crashed their servers due to my being on that site ALL THE TIME!

I also found another one of the best resources for educating blind children: St Lucy Day School for the Blind,  which lucky for me is right near my hometown.  Armed with info from TSBVI and St. Lucy’s, and a stroke of luck to connect with great, open minded staff on my son’s IEP team, I was able to work with the team to build an extraordinary – outside of what it typically expected – program for my blind sons in our neighborhood district.

I am proud to say that with a ton of dedication and relentless determination from my boys and their IEP teams, Michael and Mitchell have surpassed all expectations and truly thrived. Michael graduated at the top of his class of 600 kids and achieved more honors than I could have ever imagined. And Mitchell is following his lead.

Michael at themailbox on first day of Kindergarten and High School Graduation Day
Michael on his first and last days of his K-12 career

 I am not gonna lie – it was exhausting in the beginning of this journey.  However, with each year came a new confidence and new level of independence for them, and a few steps back from me. Watching them grow into the high achieving, happy, social butterflies they are now is extraordinary.  I am truly living my parenting mantra: get them what they need and follow their lead.  

Side note: It’s an extreme honor to give back to TSBVI and hang out with my heroes for a bit as I am the 2020 Keynote Speaker at their huge annual Texas Focus conference.  I am double-honored and beyond grateful that I also get to launch my new Thriving Blind Program at the conference too!  Follow @ThrivingBlind on Facebook and @KristinSmedley on LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram for pictures!