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Blind children traverse city

MINNEAPOLIS - Making his way across the University of Minnesota's Northrop Mall with a white cane, eyes covered by night shades and wearing a flower in his hair, 12-year-old Ian Moon of Apple Valley, Minn., and his friends - 10 blind or visually ...

MINNEAPOLIS - Making his way across the University of Minnesota's Northrop Mall with a white cane, eyes covered by night shades and wearing a flower in his hair, 12-year-old Ian Moon of Apple Valley, Minn., and his friends - 10 blind or visually impaired kids - drew smiles and stares from students on their way to class and work.

"I can kind of see, but I have a tendency to run into poles," Ian said matter-of-factly.

Middle school students from around the country are in the middle of a three-week summer program that has them sleeping in Comstock Hall and riding the city bus to Blind Inc., where they take classes in cooking, Braille, "cane-travel" and computers.

On the way to the bus, Patrick Barrett, one of the group's chaperones, also blind, blasted his whistle four times over the sound of power drilling nearby, signaling that there was an "issue" - the need for an immediate head count of the 10 participants.

"That whistle kind of sounds like a bird," one participant, 9-year-old Brandon Pickle, responded.

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Barrett shouted above the din of construction: "We're losing people left and right - literally." After a quick count, chattering resumed and the phalanx mobilized once more.

The purpose of The Buddy Program, Blind Inc.'s camp for kids ages 9 to 13, is to teach blind and partially sighted youth to have fun and be independent without using their sight. During the program, partially-sighted youth wear night shades so they can fully immerse themselves in the training.

Staying away from home on a college campus adds challenges and extra learning opportunities like doing laundry, dealing with construction detours and navigating unfamiliar places.

"Whether you're sighted or blind, you have to problem solve," said Charlene Guggisberg, director of the Buddy program.

Ten-year-old Anna Walker, a Buddy Program participant from Pennsylvania, said well-intentioned bus passengers have asked elderly people to give up their seats for her when they saw she was blind.

"I don't really like it when people try to do things for me," she said. "I like to do things by myself."

Other participants must prove wrong the doubts and fears strangers have about their safety and competence in the "real world."

Muzamil Yahya, a counselor for the Buddy Program who teaches cane travel, graduated from Blind Inc.'s adult program in 2009 and then came back to teach.

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"I like to be with kids," he said.

Yahya worked with Megan Shermer, 9, from Springfield, Mo., recently, showing her how to find the side of a curb with her cane then listen to the pattern of traffic. Each time the light changed, the perpendicular cars stopped moving and the parallel traffic started whooshing past, indicating it was safe to walk.

"Keep listening," Yahya told Megan, ignoring a frantic, agitated pedestrian who yelled, "Don't go!" and attempted to stop oncoming traffic for them.

Aundrayah Shermer, Megan's mother, grew up with blind parents and has high expectations for the blind and visually impaired. That's part of her job as a blindness skills specialist through Missouri State University. While a number of summer programs for blind youth exist, the common age for a blind child to start is about 14 years old, Shermer said. Knowing that Megan was ready and excited to learn, the Shermers went searching out of state.

Their local chapter of the National Federation of the Blind also footed the program fee of $250 so the Shermers only had to buy the plane ticket. The program fee is low because of grant support.

"I wanted Megan to be exposed to the big city, where she has access to the things she needs, like mass transportation," Shermer said of her daughter.

"She can do anything she wants. I needed her to see that from other blind people," Shermer said.

Copyright © 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. The information contained in the AP News report may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without the prior written authority of The Associated Press.

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