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Fingertips make reading these childhood books come alive for visually impaired

When 5-year-old Cassidy Carney was learning how to read, one of the words she found easiest to grasp was “coffee.”

She made the connection with help from the Tim Hortons’ signs she would see during the frequent stops her mother, Marlene Ortiz, made at the shops around Buffalo.

“Even though she couldn’t read the word, she knew mommy needs coffee to function,” said Ortiz, a teacher at Olmsted Center for Sight Early Education Program in Amherst.

It isn’t as easy for the preschool students in Ortiz’s classroom. Most of them are visually impaired; some totally blind. That’s why Cassidy and her older sister, Sophia Ortiz, 10, have been helping mom to create multisensory books that allow their mother’s young charges to feel – and smell – what they’re reading.

“We frequent Jo-Ann Fabrics, Michael’s. We had to do an emergency run on Sunday to get different textured papers. They also have metallic paper. That’s easier to see for some of our kiddos that have severe visual impairments,” said Ortiz, 29, who lives in Kaisertown with her fiance, Thomas Carney, and the girls. She holds a bachelor’s degree in childhood education and childhood special education from Daemen College and is working on a master’s degree as a teacher of the blind and visually impaired from Dominican College outside New York City. She is taking a mix of online and weekend campus courses.

Her professors nominated her for a Delta Gamma Leadership Award, which she will soon receive during a national conference for educators of the visually impaired in Washington, D.C. At the Olmsted school, in a wing of Temple Beth Zion, she leads a class of 10 students ages around 3 to 5 years old. One-to-one aides, and physical and occupational therapists also tend to the needs of the students.

The books Ortiz and her daughters have created include plastic worms, spiders, a frog, and cloth cutouts of ladybugs, shamrocks, even a cloth mouth with a missing tooth. They put together one or two new ones each month.

Q. How did you come up with the idea for the books?

My teacher assistant and one-to-one aide in my class last year were planning for lessons and trying to figure out a way to explain colors to a student in the classroom who was totally blind. We did some research and found the best way to do that would be by association, something she has a personal connection with, and helping her associate with that color. How do you take an abstract thing like a stop sign and make it concrete for a kiddo that doesn’t know what green, yellow and red are, and that cars stop at a traffic light? We were talking about comparing the colors on a traffic light to fruits and vegetables. The red would be an apple. So we thought, “How can we make this multisensory?” We started talking about using scents, maybe bringing in baby food jars. We decided on scented stickers and Googled the term. The first thing that popped up was Scentisphere. I gave them a call and spoke with Megan Rota and ... two weeks later, she sent us a couple hundred stickers. She gave me a huge list to pick from and got them out to us right away. She’s been so fabulous. She’ll email me every couple of months to see if we need more.

Q. How are they used?

For everything. We went to a field trip to the University at Buffalo called “Pop, Pop, Popcorn” and we brought props with us and the popcorn stickers, and the kiddos that weren’t able to view the play were able to listen to the play and smell the stickers, and use all the manipulatives that they had. We also were trying to think of fun ways to use them at school, and how to incorporate them in our literacy groups. That’s when we came up with the idea of making the tactile books.

Q. What scented stickers are most popular?

The popcorn was a big hit.

Q. Any that weren’t a big hit?

The coffee. I greatly enjoyed the coffee. That’s what I do when my Tim Hortons runs out.

Q. What is the range of students you’re teaching?

We have some kiddos who have very minor visual impairments that have to do with misalignments of the eyes. We have others who are legally blind, which means their vision is at 20/200 or less. They might be labeled legally blind but they still have some functional vision. They can discriminate colors and objects in their environment. Then we have kiddos that are either blind or have light perception, meaning they don’t have much functional vision, but they’re able to see shadows and some light. Then we have totally blind, which is no light perception at all.

With every kiddo in the classroom, their ability level is different and the amount of vision is so different, so we kind of have to find a way to balance all their needs at one time. That’s why I just read to only two kids at once because it can get a little hairy. For kiddos who have visual impairments, a lot of how they explore is just touching everything, so it’s hard to stay still when I want to know what my friend across from me is doing, what my teacher’s doing, who the person in my speech path is talking to. I want to give them that freedom. Just because they’re not sitting in circle doesn’t mean they’re not listening to me. I have some kiddos who are sitting across the room, reading a book in the corner, and I’ll catch them clapping along with us or singing along with us – so I know they’re listening.

Q. Is it a challenge teaching children who are blind how to read with appropriate books?

All of our kiddos are pre-emergent readers. They’re just starting to develop an awareness of print, an awareness of sound. Getting a sense that letters mean something and words have a connection with what’s going on in their environment. But with emergent text, the problem is that they’re so heavily dependent on illustrations. You might have a picture and words that say, “I like pizza.” The kiddo might be able to read the words “I” and “like.” They are not able to read the word “pizza,” but they can look at the illustration and based on the image they can say, “This word is pizza.” A kiddo who is blind lacks that information. They don’t have access to that decoding strategy, so we have to think about other ways to substitute, so typically with kids that are blind we would go to a tactile format. But with certain manipulatives, it doesn’t really match the concept. In one of the bags, I have a plastic pizza, but it’s just a hard triangular object. It doesn’t have much meaning, where if I used the scented sticker of pizza, they have a better connection. They’ve eaten pizza before. They’ve smelled pizza before. I’m sure they’ve worn it.

Q. Do you find that students lacking in one sense still have the resiliency you would expect of any child?

For some areas that need improvement, they always flourish in other areas. Eva (one of her students), even given that she’s labeled totally blind, is very artistic. She loves painting. She loves coloring. We have scented markers and I feel bad on the days we use them and send her home with her whole face painted as much as the paper because she loves to smell the markers and then she paints and smells them again. I call and text her mom and say, “I’m sending her home multicolored. I’m sorry but we had a really good time during free play.”

Q. What’s her mom’s reaction been to that?

She loves it. She’s so happy with the progress she’s made here. Seeing Eva happy makes her happy. We have really, really great parents.

Q. For someone who has limited vision, how do
they learn to read from preschool on? Does it tend to click a little bit later?

It’s different for every kiddo. At this phase, we’re working on exposure to braille. For kiddos that are sighted, they see print everywhere. It’s in their environment, whether they’re able to process the information or not. Kiddos who are blind miss out on that, so we’re trying to help them harness the fact that words in braille have meaning tactually and in their environment. We focus right now on preparing them to be future braille readers, so we start out on finger desensitization, their overall finger strength, coordination.

Q. At what age to students with visual limitations read braille enough to get through a book?

We have some students who are 4 years old upstairs that are starting to identify some words, some letters. Research differs. Some people say around age 5 is when the skill develops, but it’s different for everyone. We want to expose kids to braille as often as possible, as early as possible. The more exposure they have, the better that skill develops.

Q. How important are these early years and what do you see these students going on to become?

The early years are the most important because they get the most life experiences. This is when it’s OK to get your hands dirty and it’s OK to be covered in paint, covered in pizza, and roll on the ground, and have wild hair and make a mess. It’s when you get to know the world around you. If you can’t have those experiences now, they might not get them later in life. So we make a mess, and we have a messy classroom. We do it all. And I hope that because of those experiences they can make connections in life later on.

Parents who want to learn more about the Olmsted Center for Sight Early Education Program are encouraged to call Director Mary Beth Peters at (716) 836-7556, email: mpeters@olmstedcenter.org or visit olmstedcenter.org/early-education-program.

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