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Empowering students with visual impairments to embrace the future

Each week, nine-year-old Ariel has two extra classes added to her schedule. With the help of Catholic Charities Maine’s Education Services for Blind and Visually Impaired Children (ESBVIC), Ariel is learning Braille.

“It’s been instrumental. She is legally blind, so her corrected vision with glasses is about 20/400. She has no depth perception, and her eye conditions are degenerative, meaning they will only get worse,” says Courtni Clausen, Ariel’s mother.

Ariel was born with congenital glaucoma and was subsequently also diagnosed with degenerative myopia and nystagmus, a condition that causes her eyes to move uncontrollably and, as a result, to fatigue quickly.

“In her left eye, her worse eye, she only sees fingers from anyone six inches to a foot away. With her better eye, her vision is about 20/400,” says Clausen.

Ariel has been receiving services from ESBVIC since her family moved to Maine in September 2020. Her mother says that even though Ariel has some vision, it is important for her daughter to get assistance now, so she can continue to engage with the world.

“It allows her, even now, to be able to access things she wouldn’t otherwise be able to access, but also, because there is a high probability for her to lose all of her vision, these services are preparing her now to be able to access the world around her when and if she loses her vision in the future,” Clausen says. “I think early intervention is key because children learn so much more quickly than adults. I found that as Ariel is progressing, it’s becoming easier and easier for her.”

Ariel is one of 300 students receiving services through ESBVIC, which has been offered by Catholic Charities Maine for 48 years. The program assists children in cities and towns from Aroostook to York County. Teachers of students with visual impairments, more commonly known as TVIs, travel to wherever a child is being educated, whether it’s a home, preschool, or school. The TVIs don’t teach subject material, such as math or science. Rather, their aim is to help students understand the implications of vision loss and to work with them, their families, and their teachers to identify and implement the best ways for them to learn and grow.

“A lot of times, we’re consultants, so we’re just going into the school and making sure the student has what they need and helping teachers think about how they can best teach this student. Sometimes, you walk into the classroom, and you see teachers writing on the board, and they think nothing of it, but the student who can’t see, they need the teacher to read what they’re writing,” explains Nancy Moulton, who is the program director and a TVI. “Even if it’s a student who seems to be doing pretty well, you want to go in and see how they’re using their vision and how you can help facilitate their education and make it as meaningful as possible. Sometimes, it’s working with kids to be good self-advocates.”

“Advocacy skills are important because a lot of these kids are so embarrassed about their vision that they try to hide it, or they want to act like they don’t need help when they do need help. So, in those cases, we try to provide strategies for the teachers to provide the help in a more subtle way,” says LeeAnn Ward, a TVI who works with 20 students in four counties, including Ariel.

ESBVIC serves students from birth until their 22nd birthday. Moulton says it means that, on any given day, you might find yourself sitting on the floor and playing with toys to help a baby with tactile exploration or teaching a high school student the Braille code needed to study calculus.

Currently, TVIs with Catholic Charities have as many as 27 students, a number dependent on geography — a lot of travel is involved — and the needs of students. While students like Ariel who are learning Braille may be seen regularly, others may only need to be visited quarterly to ensure no issues have arisen.

When students enter the program, they receive a functional vision assessment, which evaluates how they use their vision, and a learning media assessment to determine what will best help them learn. Ward says, for instance, that Braille is not always the right fit.

“There are so many factors as to whether or not a student is a candidate for Braille. Their vision may actually be where they don’t need to learn Braille, or they may not have the ability to learn Braille for various reasons, such as other disabilities they have,” she says. “There are some TVIs who haven’t taught Braille for years and years, and then, there are some who teach Braille all the time.”

Ward says teaching Braille is one of her favorite things to do, in part because it benefited her so much. She was born with a visual impairment and received services from ESBVIC when she was a child.

“Teaching Braille to students is a case-by-case basis, but for me, it was the right thing for sure, because now, I don’t have any vision,” she says. “The TVI was invaluable to me. My TVIs pushed me maybe harder than I liked as a kid, but I’m grateful for that now, and I think it informed a lot of how I teach my students. I think sometimes TVIs might get a little pushback from students: ‘You don’t know what it’s like.’ But they can’t say that to me.”

Clausen says she believes having a TVI like Ward who can relate to her daughter’s situation has been a benefit to Ariel.

 “I think it is a tremendous help, because there isn’t anyone else in her life who has a vision issue,” says Clausen. “As she becomes older, she realizes that she does see differently than her peers. For instance, she can’t see her classmates on the playground. She can’t recognize their faces, so she tries to recognize the color of a shirt or something else that will stick out. So, having a teacher who has gone through and is going through the same kind of thing that she is, she is able to relate to her, and that is huge.”

Ward says while her personal experiences help her in her work, each child’s situation is unique.

“You can’t assume everyone is the same, so I can’t go too far with, ‘Well, I did it like this.’ I have to be really careful not to do that because I’m not them, but I can at least relate to a point and think back to how I did do that as a kid or how a TVI taught me to do that and then take the good parts from those experiences.”

ESBVIC currently has 17 TVIs, but more are needed. Moulton says there is a national shortage of TVIs because not enough people are entering the field.

“We deliver great services, and we have a great program, but we have kids whose needs we’re not able to meet because we don’t have enough people. That is the reality for us, but we are doing the absolute best we can,” she says.

Moulton says there is federal grant money available that will significantly lower the cost of tuition for those who wish to pursue a degree in the field.

She says what Catholic Charities looks for first and foremost when hiring a TVI is someone who loves children.

“We want people who can see the potential of the students, whatever that child’s potential is. For some kids, it may be going to college. For other kids, it may not be. It may be that they could live independently, or it may be that they can’t but that they can communicate with someone.”

“It’s such a rewarding job,” says Ward. “It’s fun to be able to think outside the box and say, ‘How about if we try this? We could try this and see if this will work.’ And when it works, it’s kind of cool. Or, you can tweak it a little bit until it does work. I think you use your creative brain but also the practical part of your brain.”

Ward and Moulton both say they enjoy their work.

“It’s a great program to work for. I feel like all of us TVIs, we get along well,” says Ward. “If we have a need or a question or need some advice, there is always more than one person who is happy to give advice or to help out.”

“I’m approaching retirement, but I used to say that if I won Powerball, I wouldn’t stop,” says Moulton, who has been a TVI for 31 years. “I would continue to do this job because I love what I do.”

How you can help ESBVIC

ESBVIC is funded through a contract with the Maine Division for the Blind and Visually Impaired, part of the Department of Labor, with a small amount of funding coming from the Maine Department of Education. The program is also supported by your gifts to the annual Catholic Appeal. Donations to the Appeal may be made online at www.portlanddiocese.org/Appeal.

If you are interested in learning about becoming a TVI, contact Nancy Moulton at [email protected].