Students in Cathy Peters’ kindergarten class at Sherwood Forest Elementary School got a crash course in blind awareness on Monday.
A group from Winston-Salem Industries for the Blind (IFB) led the children in a variety of activities they designed to improve the sighted community’s understanding and acceptance of people who are blind. The program, dubbed “The Blind Side,” was held on National White Cane Safety Day, a celebration of the white cane that affords independence to countless people who are blind and visually impaired across the nation and the world.
“We’re here today to celebrate White Cane Day,” Chris Flynt, director of A Brighter Path, a nonprofit that supports IFB, told the youngsters. “The white cane is what we use for our eyes.”
The students were exposed to a variety of gadgets and devices people who are blind or visually impaired use to do everything from matching clothing to measuring distance. IFB’s Paul Washington showcased a talking dartboard for people who are blind or visually impaired, and IFB’s Anastasia Powell and two students who are visually impaired typed each student’s name in Braille.
“I am super, super excited to be here today,” Powell told the students. “I hope you learn a lot of cool stuff that you can go home and share with your parents.”
For many of the students, the highlight of the program came when the IFB’s Rick Gaefe introduced his $60,000 guide dog, Baldwin. Gaefe talked to the students about the importance of not petting or distracting a guide dog when it is working. He showed them how to identify a guide dog by its distinctive harness. Baldwin, a flat coat black lab, also pays close attention to the harness, Gaefe said.
“It’s like flipping that light switch,” he told the children. “It’s the difference between night and day.”
Gaefe demonstrated by removing the harness. The dog, which had been lying motionless on the floor moments before, leapt to his feet, wagging his tail and licking the hands of everyone within reach.
“Anybody want to pet him?” he said, inciting a chorus of “Me’s!”
Flynt said IFB employees developed The Blind Side program last year to help a student in a neighboring county.
“We got started giving services to a student in Wilkes County,” he said of IFB, which offers after school programming for children and youth who are blind or visually impaired. “He was the only visually impaired child in that school, so we wanted to do something so his classmates would understand what it’s like.”
IFB also presented the program to students at East Forsyth Middle School last year, which is home to a student who is visually impaired, Flynt said.
“A lot of folks, when they see somebody with a disability, they don’t know how to react,” he remarked. “… (This program is designed) to bring about just awareness that, just because you have a cane you walk with doesn’t mean you’re not a regular student who can’t compete in life.”
Sherwood Forest is the designated elementary school for local children who are blind or severely visually impaired. Principal Jacob Lowther said he chose to host The Blind Side in Peters’ class because she has a student who is visually impaired.
“We chose kindergarten because they have lots of questions about blind students,” said Lowther, who is in his third year at Sherwood’s helm. “…The hope is for the students to have a better understanding of what it’s like to be blind and hopefully have less questions going through the year.”
Sherwood is home to roughly a dozen students who are blind or visually impaired, and thanks to mobility teachers and adaptations to classroom materials, many of them are able to enjoy the classroom experience just as the sighted children do, Lowther said.
“We have two students in the upper grades that are blind and they fit right in with the other kids,” he reported. “It’s wonderful to see all of them work together and the excitement that the students that are partially sighted or blind have to be able to participate.”
Elizabeth City native Arthur Saunders was among the IFB employees who were on hand to facilitate The Blind Side at the school. Saunders, who lost his sight to glaucoma 12 years ago, said he is happy to represent IFB in any way he can because of what the organization, the nation’s largest employer of people who are blind, has done for him.
“I really appreciate IFB because they give me a chance to work, they give me a chance to actually be a part of something,” commented the Greensboro resident. “Because of my job, I’m able to maintain my standard of living. I own a home and I’m able to go out and do things just like anyone else.”
Saunders says The Blind Side provides a valuable service to students in the community, regardless of their visual ability.
“I think it’s important to educate the community because a lot of people are actually afraid of things that they don’t understand, and unless they take the time to learn, they’ll never understand,” he remarked. “The loss of sight has no limitation on what we can do, except drive.”
Peters, a veteran educator with nearly three decades of classroom experience under her belt, described the program as “a very positive experience for the children.”
Peters, who has been teaching at Sherwood for four years, said even she got an education through the program.
“I thought it was very interesting. I did not realize all the things that IFB provided for the clients,” she remarked. “I learned just as much as they did today.”
For more information about Industries for the Blind, visit http://www.wsifb.org” www.wsifb.org or call 336-759-0551.