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Raised dots raise the bar for students
Technology and teaching skills keep visually impaired students on par with their peers
Kayla Mulling, 10, types along with dictation given to her by teacher Sheila McCleary, one of two teachers for the blind in the Hall County School System who travel to different schools offering special instruction in Braille and other classwork. - photo by Kristen Morales

Kayla Mulling, 10, would need a wheelbarrow to take all her books home from school each night.

Her social studies book, for example, comes in about a dozen volumes. Its thick, floppy pages are spiral bound instead of tightly held with a hardcover.

Within its pages lie the same world lessons her classmates are getting, only Kayla’s are told with raised dots instead of glossy pictures and smooth text.

Kayla is one of more than a dozen students across the Hall County School system who are visually impaired, but with the help of technology and a traveling teacher for the school system she is able to turn in her lessons and take her test right along with her classmates at Chestnut Mountain Elementary.

Kayla was also one of four Hall County students who recently competed at the Georgia Regional Braille Challenge at the Academy for the Blind in Macon. The students, representing a range of ages and county schools, competed in Braille reading, dictation, charts and graphs and proofreading. Chestatee High School senior Efren Chavez placed second in the varsity level, and Brenda Torres and Angel Lopez of Spout Springs Elementary also competed.

On a recent afternoon, Kayla demonstrated for her teacher, Sheila McCleary, how quickly she can type up dictation, as well as her comprehension of books, such as one from the “Jenny B. Jones” series.

“School pictures is when you wear your bestest dress,” she read from the book, halting at the grammar. “Bestest — does that make sense?”

In class, Kayla takes notes using a keyboard that translates them into Braille. Lelys Emerson, a ParaPro and substitute teacher who has worked with Kayla for two years, looks over her notes and helps type up assignments.

“It’s really nice because I’ve learned a little bit of Braille,” Emerson said, motioning to Kayla. “But not like this one.”

When Kayla gets older, McCleary said, she will start using the PacMate now used by Chavez, who graduates this year. McCleary, one of two teachers for the blind in Hall County schools, said the device allows a student to quickly type and save assignments and notes, organizing them all into a folder system. In front of the space bar on the keyboard is an electronic Braille line that changes according to what’s being typed.

Chavez said he had the opportunity a few years ago to attend a school for the blind, but opted for the challenge of a regular high school. He has been working with McCleary since the fourth grade and said he is looking forward to attending Gainesville State College in the fall — and even getting a guide dog.

“I wanted to challenge myself; it is a challenge in a regular class,” he said. “Even teachers learn from me. They always tell me, ‘I was nervous,’ but then they say it’s not that bad.”

But there is a little more preparation involved for teachers with both blind and sighted students in their class. McCleary said she often needs assignments in advance so she has time to translate them to Braille, and math assignments are even trickier, because charts and graphs need to be embossed on a special machine she keeps at home.

But the years of learning essentially a new language — advanced Braille users use a shorthand form, almost instinctively knowing what subtle changes in the dots on a page mean — pay off, the students say. Kayla devours the Braille version of books, and Chavez said he can’t stand hearing dictation. Instead, he said, he would much rather be holding a book and feeling the words.

“I like Braille a lot; I prefer it over listening,” he said.