Rebecca Abrego said she was always a little fearful of her daughter, a pre-teen with visual and hearing impairments, getting out on her own.
“I always kept her close to me; I didn’t want anything to happen to her,” the mother recalls. “She is trying to make it in my world – the seeing/hearing world – not in hers. It’s very scary for me.”
But Abrego knew there’d come a day when she couldn’t be with her daughter 24/7.
“I don’t want her to be lost without me; I want her to be able to take care of herself. She has no mental impairments. It’s just that she is limited on seeing and hearing.”
A chance meeting with Golden Triangle National Federation of the Blind (NFB) chapter president Gracie Jackson gave Abrego just the opportunity she was looking for — access to the BELL program. Through the program, Abrego’s daughter and other children with visual impairments would receive instruction on how to read Braille, be given a long white cane to use as an added appendage to maneuver in a world they can’t fully see, and receive one-on-one instruction on how to be self-sufficient. Funds for the program were mostly provided by the Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services, with volunteers acting as mentors and the NFB providing course materials and instruction as well.
Help me help her
Abrego and her daughter, Cameron, have had a harrowing journey through childhood in the public school system.
“It was obvious from that first year in public school the journey would lead me into ‘un-charted waters,’” Abrego wrote in a newsletter to an audience of parents of children with disabilities. She still gets teary-eyed when recounting the early years. “I would love to say that the journey has been without suffering, but that would be inaccurate.”
It was a fight to keep her daughter from being classified as mentally disabled, Abrego said. The lack of Braille literacy training kept her daughter from advancing her reading skills, and writing was unheard of. Still, Abrego felt that if her daughter could gain access to the right tools, she could succeed scholastically.
“I continue to believe that Cameron could become anything that she wants to if given the proper tools, skills, support and accommodations that will afford her the real opportunity for an American Dream,” she said. “It all begins with an appropriate education, does it not?”
The doting mother said she petitioned the Port Neches-Groves school district, the Regional Educational Service Center and the Texas Education Agency seeking knowledge and information on how to ensure her daughter was afforded an appropriate education. In 2009, daughter Cameron was provided a teacher for the visually impaired and an auditory teacher to provide direct services 45 minutes once a week. But Cameron still continued to have problems in public school.
“My child is scared to death to go to school,” Abrego said. “There is nothing to identify her as visually impaired so she gets hurt a lot, being pushed into things and falling and so forth. I need the tools to help her, and she needs the tools to help herself.”
For the blind, by the blind
National Federation of the Blind spokesman Anil Lewis didn’t lose sight until he was 20 years old; his brother lost his sight much earlier. Lewis’ mother struggled to help her young child, as has Abrego.
“She wasn’t blind; she knew how to raise kids, but not how to raise blind kids,” Lewis said of his mother. “She felt it was her fault my brother was blind, so she had to get over the guilt. Then she had to educate herself.”
There was no BELL program when Lewis and his brother were trying to learn how to navigate without sight. A Georgia native, Lewis went to a rehabilitative center in Atlanta for instruction.
“They teach you certain things, but our centers teach you how to do things for yourself,” Lewis said. Whereas centers for instruction for persons with visual impairment in the past have focused on living with a disability, the BELL program and others offered through the NFB are centered on the notion that if given the proper tools, blindness should not prevent self-sufficiency.
“A lot of time schools for the blind are just parking lots for students, but our overall goal is to get them thinking and doing for themselves, and get them into mainstream society with everyone else.”
Lewis, an educated professional, is just one example of vision impairment not equating to social exclusion.
“It’s good for the parents to see there are successful blind adults; it gives them hope for the future of their kids,” he said. “If they see a blind person is independent, it can be a really good mentorship opportunity. That’s the type of model we want to perpetuate.
“I want our blind kids to be challenged every day. If you get into an environment that you need to take care of these kids and coddle them, trying to shelter them from society’s potential ills, then it’s just wrong.
“Our goal is to get them in mainstream programs so they can be competitive with their peers. There’s no reason that can’t happen if they’re trained properly.”
Enter the BELL program. Created in 2008 in Maryland, the BELL program – Braille Enrichment for Literacy and Learning – was offered to a small group but quickly gained momentum when targeted as a much-needed service to the blind community. In two years, the program had grown to six sites in five states; 11 states offered the program this year, with four sites in Texas alone. Cameron Abrego attended the Beaumont BELL program, along with eight other area children.
The NFB BELL program is designed to provide intensive Braille instruction to blind and low vision children through fun, hands-on learning and activities. The program specifically targets blind and low vision children not currently receiving enough Braille instruction in school. In addition to Braille crafts, games, and other projects, children enjoy field trips and are given tools such as the long white cane, which others recognize as a symbol of vision impairment, to assist them when they go back into the public school system.
“She’s never been exposed to anything like this before,” Abrego, overwrought with emotion, explained as her daughter graduated the Beaumont BELL program July 20 with instruction and instruments to help the youth flourish into adulthood. “It was fabulous they would come here and do this for these kids. None of these kids has ever used the white cane before, and most haven’t ever read Braille, either. This was a wonderful experience for them.”
Volunteer Ashly Wells, who has been blind since childhood, said there wasn’t programs like BELL offered when she was a kid.
“I didn’t find out about this organization until later in life, but I wish I had something like this back then,” she said.
National Federation of the Blind Texas president Kimberly Flores, a Mid-County native, was at the Beaumont BELL graduation program to pass out diplomas and kudos to the group.
“We’re really excited to offer this program, and that so many families are taking advantage of it,” she said. “This is something these kids can use for life. Our philosophy is that we try to equip ourselves with as many technologies as possible.
“I don’t expect everything else to adapt to me; I need to be resourceful and adapt to the world around me.”
“It’s amazing to see the transition,” NFB’s Lewis said. “They come out of that training with a whole new paradigm shift. I think it’s a powerful time for these kids.”