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School's Vision, Courses Help Blind Beat Barriers

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: Blind students from all over the world have taken courses via correspondence through the Hadley School for the blind. The following article is re-printed from the Chicago Tribune, October 16, 2000.

David and Betsy Brint's 8-week-old son had gone through a series of tests, and the doctor told them he was about to deliver some "devastating" news. Alan was born with Lebers amaurosis, an inherited retinal degenerative disease. He was blind. He would never be able to drive a car, the doctor said, or to play sports and games enjoyed by "normal" children. Alan is now 3 " - a happy, playful child who enjoys the outdoors more than any other family member, his mother says. And while she wasn't happy with the way the doctor delivered the news, she credits him with telling her where to find some help. He was the first to tell her about the Hadley School for the Blind, a Winnetka institution that every year provides free instruction to more than 10,000 visually impaired, blind and deaf- blind people and their families.

"The key is to focus on what they can do, not on what they can't," said Brint, a Highland Park resident who has taken courses offered through the mail by Hadley. In 1998, she started her own Foundation for Retinal Research, which funds medical research and tries to raise awareness about retinal diseases. The school, which is celebrating its 80th anniversary, is the largest of its kind worldwide and has had more than 100,000 graduates since 1920. Hadley offers more than 90 courses in normal and large-print format, Braille or audio tapes. The organization is also working with new technologies to make its material available on the Internet. The students learn at home, at their own pace, and can call an instructor through a toll-free number if they need help. The school can be contacted via its Web site, at www.hadley-school.org.

Alan's and several other stories of success on dealing with a dark and sometimes silent world were shared last week during the organization's annual awards ceremony. "Before finding Hadley, I kept thinking he wouldn't be able to do things normal children do," said Sandra Giles, of Van Buren, Ark., whose 9-year-old son, Nicholas, is almost totally blind. Nicholas' twin brother, Christopher, is able to see objects up close, with the help of thick glasses. Giles and her husband, Paul, also have a 6-year-old son, Cody. Sandra Giles received the institution's Parent Award after taking 10 Hadley courses, including Braille. "I can't imagine helping him do his homework and not knowing what he's doing," she said of Nicholas.

Hadley helps parents who have to worry about things that others take for granted. The Gileses, for example, had to teach Nicholas correct posture, with his head up. Ordinarily, children hold their heads up in response to all kinds of visual stimulation. The Gileses had to find "noisy toys" that would motivate Nicholas to play, because he wasn't interested in the toys that have a mostly visual appeal. The biggest difference between Nicholas and his peers is that "he works twice as hard as the other kids," his mother said. For Ronald Eshoo, winner of the Challenge of Living award, performing everyday tasks is a victory. Eshoo, of Lake in the Hills, was born deaf and discovered he had retinitis pigmentosa at age 21. Today, at 49, he is totally blind and communicates using sign language. He learned Braille and is training to become a replacement manager for a vending machine company. Eshoo also enjoys playing chess and cooking. "I can make pizza, and when I make it my two sons usually eat it all and I end up without a piece for myself," he said with a smile, using sign language. Betsy Brint said one of the greatest lessons she learned with her son was that "rather than seeing, he perceives things." She recalls "bursting into tears" when she saw a rainbow on Lake Shore Drive and felt she would never be able to describe it adequately to her son. Now, she said, she realizes that she will never be able to hear, feel and smell reality like Alan can. Sandra Giles knows her sons' opportunities may be narrowed by their visual problems, but she believes they have dreams that cannot be suffocated. "Nicholas wants to grow up to be a professional basketball player," she said. "I'm not the one who is going to tell him not to."

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