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Legally Blind Art Teacher Opens Students' Minds

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: The following article is re-printed from the New York Times, May 9, 2001.

The art teacher, Elizabeth Castellano, moved carefully from one table to another, appraising one sixth grader's handling of perspective, assisting another in rendering a charcoal line more sharply, gently suggesting to a third how to capture the bend of the model's elbow with a purposeful smudge.

"Only draw what you see," Ms. Castellano said as she moved among the students, reminding them to look at the classmate who was posing, not at what their neighbors were drawing. "Draw in pencil first, start with geometric shapes. Be open-minded."

What made this ordinary art lesson in a gritty neighborhood in Rockaway Park, Queens, so extraordinary is that Ms. Castellano can barely see. Ms. Castellano is legally blind. If someone is sitting six to seven feet away from her, she can see the person's basic shape and color of clothing, but cannot distinguish facial features. To size up a visitor, she walks right up so that her face is within inches of the other person's.

Ms. Castellano examines artwork by taking home student projects, spreading two or three out on the table, and bending as close as she can to the work to judge how well the student handled color, composition and overall design. Ms. Castellano, who teaches at the Active Learning Prep School, a small academy within Middle School 180, estimates that grading the work of a single class of 25 to 30 students takes her one and a half to two hours.

But there is more to her career than a desire to teach; she thinks it is important that she chose to teach in a field that requires the use of the one sense that is impaired. She believes that that choice imparts an important lesson.

"I always tell my kids on the first day of school about my visual impairment, what it is and what happened to me, and about the people who didn't think I could achieve my goals about being an artist and art teacher," Ms. Castellano, 24, said. "Everyone has his or her own obstacles that may not be a physical impairment. Some of the kids I teach come from broken homes; some kids come from poverty. If they see someone like me get off the bus every day with her cane and walk into the school to teach, they see that I'm doing something against the odds. I hope that they'll remember that when they face a challenge."

Ms. Castellano was born with a condition known as corneal opacity, in which her corneas were clouded over with a thick white film. Her noncorrected vision was 20/2,000. Even after she received corneal transplants during high school, her corrected vision never improved beyond the range of 20/200 to 20/400 for her overall vision. New York State defines legal blindness as having corrected vision of 20/200 or worse.

Ms. Castellano tends to use her right eye for distance and her left eye for reading, but her vision is not fine enough, for example, to discern the cursive writing of her students. So when she assigns essays, Ms. Castellano asks her students to print. At her home in Elmhurst, Queens, Ms. Castellano has a closed-circuit television that enlarges and projects texts so that she can read her students' papers. When she gave her students a short-answer test recently, her paraprofessional, Carolyn Benjamin, read each student paper aloud to Ms. Castellano, who indicated whether the answers were correct.

"I thought it was unusual to have a visually impaired visual arts teacher," said Patricia Tubridy, the principal of the Active Learning Prep School. "Then I met her and became aware that legally blind doesn't mean totally blind. We're about diversity here at the school. I was impressed with her portfolio and happy to have her. We put it up front with the parents, and they've been fine. Elizabeth is dedicated and a hard worker. It opens people's minds."

Under the Americans With Disabilities Act, school districts may not discriminate against applicants with disabilities and are required to make necessary accommodations, unless the district can prove that such adaptations would impose undue hardships. Larry Becker, chief administrator for the division of human resources at the Board of Education, said the board last year approved 129 requests from teachers for "reasonable accommodations" to perform their jobs. The group included those with hearing impairments and multiple sclerosis as well as visual impairments.

Following Ms. Castellano in her classroom, like a patient and unobtrusive shadow, is the paraprofessional, Ms. Benjamin, who takes attendance for her, enters grades in the grade book, keeps an eye out for any disruptive students whom Ms. Castellano may not see and sets up the classroom for a particular project. Still, it is fairly clear to any visitor that Ms. Castellano is the one in charge of the class.

Ms. Castellano has spent most of her life insisting on getting whatever help she needs to realize her ambitions. As a public school student, Ms. Castellano was assigned the use of an aide for one period a day to help her study class material. She also received additional time to take tests. She managed to graduate 20th. in her senior class at Westlake High School in Thornwood, a hamlet in Westchester County; to earn an undergraduate degree in studio art and art education from Manhattanville College in Purchase, N.Y.; and to produce her own artwork for both student and gallery exhibitions.

"I've always loved art," Ms. Castellano said. "When I was in kindergarten, I met a girl who became one of my best friends all through school. She was a phenomenal artist who could reproduce anything realistically, her mother and grandmother were artists, and I would try to copy her drawings. Mine came out recognizable, but semi-abstract. The teachers saw the facility I had with drawing, and I guess they got excited that this little almost-blind child could do this."

Some advisers at Manhattanville suggested that she consider teaching art in a special-education school, where the classes would be smaller. When she was a student teacher, her first placement in a suburban school district did not work out.

"The classroom teacher felt that there were things that were unsafe, that a child left the room and Liz didn't see that, or that two kids were fighting in the back of the room that she didn't catch," said Gail Robinson, director of field experiences for the Manhattanville School of Education.

Her next job as a student teacher was at the Pocantico Hills School in Sleepy Hollow, in Westchester. The district superintendent there, Peter Lisi, said: "Liz was capable of the instruction piece, and she got the students enthusiastic. She worked with an art teacher who is outstanding, and we were supportive and realistic. We have a very diverse community, and parents could see the benefits of having a teacher who sends a clear and empowering message to children that you can overcome obstacles."

When it came time to interview for full-time teaching jobs, Ms. Castellano was discouraged that districts in Westchester, her home county that might be put off by the added expense of a paraprofessional , seemed reluctant to give her a chance.

"The paradox is that the city is more open-minded than many of the suburbs," Ms. Castellano said.

Finally, District 27 in Queens hired her in March 2000, and she started working last September when she was chosen for the Active Learning Prep School.

As far as most of her students are concerned, Ms. Castellano's disability is barely noticeable. "I wasn't an artist until I came to this art class," Danielle Gregory, 11, said. "She helped me."