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There Are No Barriers to a Three-Year-Old's Curiosity Born Blind, Ethan Warren Grows, Changes and Engages The World

Editor's Note: The following article is reprinted from the Waterloo Record, April 7, 2007.

Elmira--Ethan Warren was born blind, and that has made him extraordinary in so many ways.

The three-year-old can race around on his tricycle in his family's Elmira home without ever bumping into a wall or a piece of furniture. He can walk up and down stairs without holding onto the banister, feeling for the edge of each step with his toes so he won't fall.

When his father unwraps a piece of gum, he knows by the sound. When his mother opens a tube of hand lotion, he knows by the smell. When he's in the family van, he knows if the road is curving to the left or the right.

Like many other children his age in Waterloo Region, he's beginning to learn how to read.

But while sighted three-year-olds are looking at picture books and recognizing letters as part of "pre-literacy", Ethan uses Play-Doh and marbles to develop the finger strength and touch perception he'll need for braille, the written language of raised dots used by visually impaired readers.

When a teacher from the W. Ross Macdonald School for the Blind in Brantford makes her regular visit to Ethan's home once every two weeks, Ethan rolls Play Dough into a ball and presses marbles into it.

"We're making applesauce," he says playfully.

Teacher Jocelyn Cook has him search for the embedded marbles with his fingertips and count them. Then she buries one in the soft yellow dough and has Ethan find it.

It feels like a game to Ethan, but it also helps develop the fingertip strength and sensitivity he'll need for braille.

Then there are other activities that any preschooler would enjoy, like pushing large beads onto a stiff string, or imaginary play with a plastic cup and spoon.

Ethan sits on the floor and stirs with the spoon inside the cup, pretending to make hot chocolate.

He tastes the make-believe brew. "We need some chocolate chips to make it good!" he declares, drumming his heels on the carpet in excitement.

Like many three-year-olds, Ethan has sailed out of that awkward toddler age, when most children become easily overwhelmed and frustrated by life, and don't have the words to express themselves.

Now, language starts spilling out, allowing easy communication of wishes, questions, fears and feelings to the adult world. Now, children are developing curiosity about the world around them, sympathy for others, even a conscience.

"A young child does not emerge from your toddler on a given date or birthday," says child-rearing expert Penelope Leach in her well-known book, Your Baby and Child: From Birth to Age Five.

"She becomes a child when she ceases to be a wayward, confusing, unpredictable and often balky person-in-the-making, and becomes someone who is comparatively cooperative, eager and easy to please at least 60 percent of the time.

"Children change and grow up gradually. They do not transform themselves overnight, turning from caterpillars to butterflies under our eyes, but this particular change from toddler to child, whether it takes place at two and a half or four, does have something of that sudden and magical quality.

"Looked at factually, the developments that take place in your child's third year will probably not be as great as the changes of the second, but they seem tremendous because they make her so much easier to live with and to love.

"It is as if by making it safely through infancy and toddlerhood, your child has, in some almost mystical way, got there."

Ethan is still working on some basic skills, like toilet training, but he is a master of words. Most children at their third birthday are expected to speak in two-to five-word sentences such as, "I go home now." But here's how Ethan tells a story about a lawn mower that was resting in the shed all winter and is being made ready for spring.

"I think he (Grandpa) drove it out and he checked the oil, and he put some new oil in it, and cleaned it all up, and cleared the grass (off the blades), and he cleaned it all up, and he got it ready for the spring. It goes Br-r-r-r."

His long concentration span and thirsty curiosity mean he'll likely have an intellectually rewarding life. It's usually around the age of six that visually impaired children learn to read braille. But "with Ethan, I won't be surprised if it's earlier," said Cook.

To help him along, Ethan's parents, Jeremy, 29, and Leanne, 26, recently purchased a "brailler," a sort of typewriter that imprints braille words on paper. Ethan uses it sometimes, and there are already braille sentences pasted into some of his books, as a translation of the printed letters he can't read.

"He needs to have braille in his environment," Leanne said, just as sighted children need to look through picture books with simple sentences inside, before they learn to read for themselves.

When Ethan was born at Grand River Hospital in Kitchener, his father worried that something wasn't right, because Ethan wasn't opening his eyes or looking around, the way other newborns did.

Within a few days, he was seen by an ophthalmologist in Hamilton. She explained that Ethan had a congenital coloboma, and a significant portion of his retina was missing. He had very bad vision, with only a small part of one eye that could see brightly lit colours or sharp contrasts between light and dark.

Perfect vision is described as 20/20 and legal blindness is 20/200. Ethan had 20/800 vision, far below the boundary of legally blind. There was no treatment possible.

"She said, 'We cannot do anything,' and she left the room, and we sat in her room. It was shocking," Leanne recalled.

She and her husband found strength in each other, in their family and friends, and most of all in God.

They carried on, determined to do what they could. They worked hard at helping Ethan learn physical skills that are difficult without sight, like rolling over and walking.

They had another child, Connor, now one year old and sighted, and another baby is on the way. Leanne plans to home-school her children.

Meanwhile, Ethan makes the most of the small bit of vision he has. He can detect a full moon in the night sky. At night, he can tell when traffic lights have changed colour.

When his parents play DVDs or videos for him, he can see movement and shapes if he peers closely at the screen. He knows his colours, thanks to transparent sheets of plastic that glow green, yellow, blue or red when laid on top of a brightly lit tabletop surface called a "light table."

Recently, he got a small cane and is learning to walk with it.

His parents, who are of Mennonite background and attend Moorefield Christian Fellowship, know that there's still a rich world of opportunity for him, despite his blindness. They wonder if, with his gift for language, he might become a preacher.

"The Christian world view we embrace is, there is a God, and everything is orchestrated by His divine plan," said Jeremy. "Children are not an accident, they are a gift from God.

"God has a plan for our lives, and God has a reason for him to have this condition."

ldamato@therecord.com