If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, six-year-old Dustin Todd must be beaming in his Guthrie Center Elementary first grade class. Everybody wants to be like him this year.
Dustin has sight in only one eye, caused by a detached retina at birth which could not be repaired. To help Dustin access his education, a teacher of the visually impaired from Iowa Educational Services for the Blind & Visually Impaired (IESBVI), teaches him braille for 30 minutes three days a week.
It was on a such a visit when Sara Zimmerman, his teacher of the visually impaired, noticed other students in the classroom pretending to read brailled textbooks she had placed in the classroom. “I showed them how to track braille so it looks like they are using it correctly,” she said. From there, the students’ curiousity soared.
When Dustin’s classroom teacher, Mikayla Downing, brought in a walking stick, the students tried to use it like a white cane. Zimmerman invited Brian Werts, an IESBVI orientation and mobility specialist, to give a presentation on how white canes are used for safety and independence. Then, Zimmerman and Downing planned a series of activities leading up to the Jan. 4 birthday of Louis Braille, the inventor of braille. The activities were academic and also expanded the first graders’ knowledge of how a person uses braille and compensatory strategies. “We wanted to bring more empathy into the classroom for Dustin,” said Zimmerman.
The activities included singing songs about braille, using cards brailled with the students’ names, braille alphabet cards and enjoying microwave mug birthday cake in honor of Louis Braille. The highlight of all the activities was when a local t-shirt business, which happens to be owned by Downing’s sister, got involved. Faith’s Fashions of Guthrie Center donated t-shirts to the students so they could glue beads or gemstones on them and spell their name in braille. When a guest story reader from the Iowa Department of the Blind visited class, everyone wore their t-shirt to celebrate braille and show support for Dustin.
Dustin’s mother, Debbie, describes him as a typical boy who loves the jungle gym, swing set, the outdoors and bugs. “He does not let it (his vision loss) slow him down at all,” she said. Todd says Dustin particularly enjoys using his iPad to photograph and video nature because the screen allows him to enlarge the images. “He asks questions about everything,” she said. He loves to examine bugs and also fills the food and water bowls for Sandy, the family puppy.
And now, Dustin can also enjoy being the center of attention. The positive response from his classmates has changed Dustin’s attitude about learning braille. “He wanted to be like his peers- he was curious why I would be getting out a brailler if the others didn’t use it,” said Zimmerman. “Now he’s not nervous to use it, and is excited about the extra time he gets with Mrs. Downing. He is much more purposeful about his braille.”
Zimmerman explains one aspect of IESBVI services is to help students access their materials. “That’s our thing,” she said. “Does a student need a tactile representation of the lesson, or an experience book (contains objects from an event rather of a lot of print)? Can they access learning materials through braille, large print or a multisensory approach?”
IESBVI staff covers the state with teachers of the visually impaired and orientation and mobility specialists who are generally assigned to boundaries within one of the nine area education agencies. IESBVI also offers teachers and families access to consultants for literacy, STEM, math, and other specialty areas. There are more than 650 students in Iowa served by IESBVI in their local school districts.