Thursday, August 02, 2007

Teachers for the visually are not plentiful!

Cheryl Edmonds is not, at first glance, the sort of person who would plunge her hands into her salad bowl. But Wednesday evening, at the Olive Garden in Vancouver, Edmonds was blindfolded and desperate to connect with her entree.

Edmonds, of Vancouver, was among 37 people, most of them educators, who agreed to a blind dinner. The exercise is part of a five-day intensive workshop on blindness.

By the end of the meal, Edmonds, who was seated with two other blindfolded women, had ditched etiquette.

"I'd like to touch it all," she said, fingering a leaf. "I don't even know how much I ate. Oh! There's a lot left."

Sitting next to her, Diana Graham, a kindergarten teacher from the North Mason School District, north of Olympia, used her fingers to wrap fettuccine noodles around her fork.

And Heidi Stump, a paraeducator seated at their table, was taking sips from various glasses of soda.

The three women, poised and socially aware without their blindfolds, behaved like giddy children learning table manners.

The idea behind the blind dinner was to provide a blind experience, and also to help explain how specific directions ("Your iced tea is 5 inches in front of you with the straw bobbing out") are key to working with blind students.

Educating the teachers

Dee Amundsen, director of outreach at the School for the Blind, said the five days are a time for teachers who work with blind students to learn about blindness.

In Washington, there are 80 teachers for 1,300 visually impaired students, Amundsen said.

"Finding teachers for the visually impaired is like finding a needle in a haystack," she said. "A lot of kids don't get services. All these people who are teaching visually impaired kids don't know anything about blindness."

At the restaurant, the educators learned they can't just "say when" to a waiter grinding pepper over their entrees. Someone must read the menu to them. And then there's going to the restroom - an awkward dance that involves dodging patrons, slinking into a stall and finding the toilet seat.

For Graham, the veteran kindergarten teacher from North Mason School District, the five-day stint is worth it. She will have a blind student in her class come fall.

"I want to figure out how best to teach a child," Graham said. "I want to get her reading for Braille. I want to get some academics into her."

Then she paused.

"Are you still there?" she asked, also attempting to land a small pile of fettuccine into her mouth.
Yes, everyone was still there.

"I feel stupid," Graham said. "I don't normally miss my face when I eat."

Cheryl Edmonds, a consultant, agreed.

"I get a sense for the independence thing," she said. "If the lights went out tomorrow, I don't know what that would mean for me."

Did you know?

There are 1,300 visually impaired or blind students in Washington.

Eighty teachers are trained to teach blind students in the state.

About 70 students attend Washington State School for the Blind in Vancouver. The school serves about 600 students per month statewide.

Isolde Raftery writes about education. She can be reached at 360-759-8047 or


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