Friday, August 24, 2007

Visually impaired teenagers enjoy camp!

Busing his lunch tray took both hands, so Chris Maae tucked his distinctive white cane under an arm and walked to the conveyor belt that would take away the remnants of his sloppy Joe and popcorn chicken.As he did, he bumped gently into a pole. He heard whispers around him. “Does he need help?” one girl quietly asked a friend. “Should we help him?”

Take a blind kid like Chris out of his normal life, send him to college, and up pop all sorts of obstacles. New stairs. New bureaucracies. And lots of people who aren’t sure how to act around a blind kid like Chris. “I mean, they could have just walked up to me and said, ‘Do you need help?’ ” he said a few moments later. “They didn’t have to be all whispering.”

Chris, 17, has Leber’s Congenital Amaurosis, an eye disease that affects about 3,000 people in the United States. He and about 30 other visually impaired Southern California teens are living at UC Irvine this week for Independence University, a weeklong camp put on by the Braille Institute’s regional center in Anaheim. They’re doing laundry, eating dorm food, going to classes and climbing the rock wall – yes, really – in the university recreation center.

The program is as much about motivation as it is about teaching. And it represents the maturing ethic of the institute’s Orange County chapter. In recent years, the institute’s youth center has been recast as a youth-and-career center so it can help teens prepare for the obstacles they’ll face as independent adults. This is the third year it has organized Independence U and the first time it has taken place at UCI.

The result, the institute’s leaders hope, will be a group of teens mentally ready for college.“We realized, on the longitudinal studies, that playing games and giving them gifts because they’re blind isn’t going to get them anywhere. It only demeans them,” said Christina Tam, who organized this year’s Independence U.If the program succeeds, Chris will be better prepared for college.

If not, the numbers say, he could struggle with college and employment for the rest of his life.Blind teens – even the ones who do well in high school – are rarely prepared for college or the workforce, says John Zamora, a former coordinator of the Braille Institute’s youth programs.Federal laws force high schools to provide materials and services to blind students. Those materials must be accessible in college, but the standard is lower.

High schools must identify students who have visual impairments; college students must identify themselves, and have the paperwork to prove it.Anecdotally, Zamora says, he saw smart high school students drop out of college at alarming rates. Sixty percent of blind people between the ages of 18 and 55 are unemployed, according to the American Foundation for the Blind. Visually impaired kids aren’t usually involved in athletics, where most teens learn about teamwork.

And most entry-level jobs, which teach kids about punching clocks and obeying a boss, require sight. “Of all the disabled groups, this is the most educated. But it’s the most unemployed,” Zamora said.Chris blames the way parents treat blind children. “They overprotect the child. ‘I’ll cook you dinner. I’ll make the bed. I’ll fold the laundry,’ ” he says. “They don’t learn the skills of being an adult.”More than anything, Braille Institute leaders say, visually impaired teens aren’t accustomed to advocating for themselves.

If the professor doesn’t have a syllabus ready for them in Braille, they aren’t prepared to request it. That’s a big theme at Independence U.“In K-12,” Christina tells them at one seminar, “success is more of a right for a student. In college, there is no guarantee of success. Nobody knows (you are blind), and in some ways, nobody cares. They may see you with a cane, but they may be like, ‘so what.’ ”“Jesus,” Chris mutters.“When you’re in college, it’s up to you to succeed,” Christina continues. “You are now on your own, and you need to take care of yourself.”

Chris isn’t worried. He’s going to be a senior at Bolsa Grande High School this year, and he’ll be filling out applications to UCLA and Arizona State University. Since birth, he has been unable to see anything but light. Still, he plays percussion in his school band and listens to bootleg Bob Dylan albums at home. He describes a Braille Institute staff member as “the guy with the tattoos on his legs” – even without sight, he’s observant.“I take the Metro. I take public transportation. I take the bus to Griffith Park on my own,” he says, while his Independence U classmates climb the rock wall. “I’m most nervous about the stress (of college) and having a lot of books to read.”

But what about the numbers that say blind college students are more likely to drop out and less likely to work? “Those are just numbers,” he says. “We can beat the numbers.”Look around, he says. “None of these people are even afraid of this rock climbing. We can feel all the ropes. We can adapt to it.”

A few minutes later, he steps into a harness and begins his own slow climb up the wall. An instructor hollers directions until he reaches the top, where his sweaty hands clutch a metal bar. The rest of the teens cheer.No big deal, he says when he returns to the ground.“It’s scarier for staff (to climb),” Chris says. “They know how high they are.”


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