Saturday, November 15, 2008

Visually impaired teen lives dream as broadcaster!

Laurel Wheeler knows that when she offers commentary during Birdville Hawks football games, she must be careful not to criticize the players.

They are, after all, her classmates.

"You have to separate being a fan from being a broadcaster," said Wheeler, 17, a senior at Birdville High School. On Friday nights, Wheeler teams up with her dad to do radio broadcasts of Birdville football games over the Internet. You’d never know by listening that Laurel is blind.

"I don’t remember a time I didn’t like football," she said. "Ever since I can remember life, I can remember football. It’s not always easy to announce because I can’t see what’s going on on the field, but it’s not difficult to come up with things to say because I’ve been watching football for so long."

Tonight, Laurel and her father will be at the Boswell High School stadium, where the Hawks will take on Denton Ryan in the opening round of the Class 4A Division I playoffs.

"There are some times that we’re sitting there in the booth and we just give each other elbows and say, 'Can you believe we get to do this together?’ " said her father, Larry Wheeler. "For me, this is something we’ll look back on the rest of our lives."

'Always smiling’

When Laurel was born, her eyes were not completely formed.

Doctors performed surgery to create a right pupil, and she can see light, color and some shapes and movement with that eye.

She writes and reads in Braille and uses a cane to get around the hallways of Birdville High.
But in no way does the visual impairment slow her down.

"She is an independent student," said Laura Hampton, her visual-impairment teacher, adding that she’s in Advanced Placement classes and participates like everyone else. "It takes her a little longer to do some things. She has to work a little harder. But even with the visual impairment, she stays on top of her course work."

Laurel also writes for the school newspaper, plays drums, and speaks Spanish, French and Russian.

Her classmates are impressed with her attitude and work ethic.

"She retains so much more information than I do," said Katie Waldrip, 17, also a senior at Birdville. "There are things I have no recollection of the teacher saying, and she remembers it all. I help her some, but she probably helps me more. She’s actually smarter than most of the kids at my school. And she tries a lot harder."

But Waldrip said Laurel’s personality is what sets her apart from other students.

"I love how she’s always herself," she said. "Everyone needs to get to know her, but they don’t. And I love that she’s always smiling."

After graduating, Laurel plans to major in French and Russian at the University of Texas at Arlington. After that, she’d like to earn her master’s degree in linguistics.

"I believe God will heal me someday," she said. "And when he does, I want to join the Navy maybe and become a linguist. Until then, I plan on working as a government translator and trying to do something to help the military."

Family affair

Laurel’s blindness has had an impact on other family members. The Wheelers were living in Fort Hancock, near El Paso, when Laurel was younger, and the small school district did not have a strong program for the visually impaired.

So Laurel’s mother, Jamie Wheeler, already a teacher, went back to school to learn how to teach visually impaired students.

"When she was little, I got to teach her how to read and write and help her with developmental skills," Jamie Wheeler said.

The Wheelers moved to North Richland Hills in 1997, and Jamie Wheeler now teaches visually impaired students — but not Laurel — in the Birdville school district.

"I’ve been a part of the community support for her in the school district," Jamie Wheeler said. "It’s been wonderful."

The father-and-daughter team started doing the radio broadcasts this year.

Larry Wheeler said the family was going to be at all of the Hawks games because his 15-year-old son plays in the school’s band, so why not do a radio broadcast?

Mostly, he saw it as a way to do something special for Laurel.

"She faces a lot of challenges in life," he said. "There’s no way in the world I’d want to walk into that high school every day blindfolded, finding my way around with a cane. So I have a lot of admiration for her."

He contacted Live365, the Web site that broadcasts the games, and approached school officials, who approved the plan.

Laurel looks right at home in the press box, wearing a green polo shirt with a Birdville Hawks Radio logo, microphone in hand.

When she wants to say something, she taps her dad’s arm and jumps right in, talking about the importance of a well-rested defense to explain why a team can defer the option to kick off to the second half.

She says she will never forget these Friday nights.

"Just the fact that I can broadcast these games on the radio has meant a lot to me," she said. "It’s going to be my No. 1 high school memory."


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