Saturday, April 27, 2019

Flashback 2009: Blind kids on the brink of being shown the door

Pair of eyes, bronze and obsidian. Greek, 5th century BCE (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

     I dug up more vintage columns than were needed during my trip to South America, but  didn't want to simply toss this pair of columns back into the vault. 
     So for today, a visit to a class for the profoundly blind; tomorrow, we go shopping with one of the students from the class, Ali Krage, and catch up with her today. The really astounding thing about this column is that the parents of these blind children didn't know they were getting the boot until they read about it in the paper. The Vision Room, to answer the question of several readers, was moved to Addison Trail High School.

     Joe Lamperis reads quite well for a boy with no eyes.
     "I am blind, legally," he explains. "I was born with anophthalmia"—a rare condition where infants develop without eyes.
     "They had to put these in," he adds, casually referring to the handsome blue eyes he seems to have.
     Glass? "Plastic, actually," says Joe, 16.
     He reads by running his fingers over the tiny raised bumps of Braille, sitting at his desk in a small classroom in Willowbrook High School.
     Officially it's "The Program for Students With Visual Impairments," but at Willowbrook they call it "The Vision Room." This room serves the region's most severely visually impaired students -- 92 school districts in DuPage and western Cook County together send just 22 students here.
     The program has been at Willowbrook in Villa Park for 10 years, but with the high school undergoing extensive reconstruction, the blind students will have to find another place to study come autumn.
     "We told them over a year ago that we could no longer house their program due to space constraints," said District 88 Supt. Steve Humphrey.
     Parents of the blind children have not yet been told about the pending move nor the current lack of anywhere for them to move to.
     "We haven't communicated to the parents yet," said Michael Volpe, executive director of the School Association for Special Education in DuPage County, which runs the program. "We wanted, hopefully to get a solution." The Vision Room is not a traditional class where one teacher leads a group of students. Rather it is a home base, where blind students come and go, receiving one-on-one guidance, since their abilities range widely, from Reginald Harris, 20, who is autistic and sits matching toothbrush cases, to Beatriz Chavez, 19, who is attending College of DuPage next year, and has the white hair and pink eyes—and related vision problems—of albinism.
     "Mr. C., I need your eyeballs," she says. "Mine hurt." Mr. C—teacher Mario Cortesi— slides over to look at the economics textbook she's studying.
     Computers and tapes help, but mastering the 180-year-old Braille system is still an essential skill.
     "They have to touch those words and feel them to learn to read," says Nick Hildreth, a teacher.
     Joe learned Braille when he was 4.
     "It was exciting for me and my family," he explains. "I read for pleasure. I read for education. I love reading." As does Ali Krage, also 16, who lightly places her delicate hands on what at first seems like a blank page and draws her left index finger swiftly across the subtle raised dots.
     "Unless thou tell me how I may prevent it," she reads—lines from 'Romeo and Juliet'—"If, in thy wisdom, thou canst give no help, Do thou but call my resolution wise." She is reading the 32nd of 41 volumes of "Elements of Literature, Third Course." Braille texts can run 80 volumes, and storing them is a challenge, as is getting materials that are both current and relevant. A teacher hands Ali a Braille copy of ESPN The Magazine from last November.
     "Oh joy," says Ali, with typical teen sarcasm, handing it back. She too started reading Braille as a toddler—as with any language, those who begin later have a much tougher time.
      Nearby, Mike Wade sits laboriously translating a sentence in Braille—"I enjoy going to Outreach"—using an egg carton and golf balls to help him understand the tiny Braille grids.
     "I?" asks Mike.
     "You got it," says Cortesi, guiding his work. "You missed a letter, though. Can you feel the 'O'?" Ali says she often prefers Braille books to books on tape, because she can proceed at her own pace, though there are drawbacks. "I'm tired of reading," she once told her twin sister, Nicole. "My fingers hurt." Ali heads upstairs to collect some biology notes, which her teacher has transcribed into Braille for her.
     "We just finished evolution and now we're studying bacteria," she says, admitting that biology is not her favorite subject. "It's really visual," she complains. "There are a lot of diagrams." Those who assume the teens' situation is somehow grim haven't met kids such as Ali, or Michael Hansen, 17, in his third year of high school.
     "Most of us blindy types do it in five years," he says breezily. "I consider myself a junior when it's to my benefit, a sophomore when it's to my benefit." Michael plays the cello and the piano and heads off to the music room to perform his "Lamentation in A Minor, Opus 7." He sits at the piano, folds his white cane into four sections and places it on the rack intended for sheet music, and begins his composition's haunting quiet passages and crashing Rachmaninoff-inspired chords.
     Though blinded by glaucoma, his eyes swollen, milky and often painful, Michael is steadily upbeat. Returning to the Vision Room at the same time as Joe, Joe's white cane momentarily tangles in Michael's feet.
     "Sorry, I didn't see you Joe," Michael deadpans. "I must be going blind in my old age."     

     "You ARE blind!" exclaims Joe, whose sense of irony is not as keen.
      The blind students navigate the halls with confidence—even Ali, a freshman, who spent hours of orientation, feels her way around the school. She and her classmates will have to learn a new layout next fall.
     "We're just out of space," says Humphrey. "We're at a point where the program's gotta be moved." As to where they'll go, "we've got a couple of nibbles," says Volpe, adding that District 88 has been "very helpful and positive." "They're trying to work with us," Volpe says. "It's important to the kids—it's tough enough to make a transition from one high school building to another without also having to leave the district." Comment at

Today's chuckle . . .
     "You can't do anything about it, you might as well laugh about it," says Michael Hansen, rattling off the following:
     A blind man with a seeing eye dog walks into a convenience store. He grabs his dog by the tail and starts swinging him in a big circle.
     "What are you doing!?!" asks the horrified clerk.
     "I'm just looking around," says the man.

                                  —Originally published in the Sun-Times, March 18, 2009


  1. A bit of Googling seems to indicate that the program is now located at Addison Trail High School.

  2. A reminder to us all to savor what we have, that good fortune is where we find it and remember when self pity arises that some body always has it worse than you. I presume, Neil, tomorrow we learn where The Vision Room relocated.


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