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Q&A with Caitlin Hernandez, Part One

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I met a number of wonderful students when I visited Los Angeles for my recent story on Braille literacy, including Caitlin Hernandez, an 18-year-old high school graduate from Danville, Calif.

Caitlin is a three-time winner of the Braille Challenge, which tests students' spelling, reading comprehension, transcription speed and accuracy, and proofreading skills. She plans to attend the University of California at Santa Cruz in the fall, and is interested in being an English teacher.

She has been generous enough to offer some great thoughts on what it's like to be a student with a disability in a mainstreamed environment. She has been blind since birth, with a rare condition called Leber's congenital amaurosis. It appears in about 3 out of every 100,000 births.

Tell us a little bit about yourself. Have you attended public school your whole life?

I was born on April 5, 1990 in Walnut Creek, Calif. My mom, Debbie, who works as a Braille interpreter for a blind middle school student, and my dad, Mark, who is a San Francisco police officer, raised my sister, Courtney, who is four years my senior, and myself in Martinez, California until 1994. Then we moved to Danville, where we stayed.

From age 5, I was fully mainstreamed in our district. "Blending in" was never an issue. I loved my teachers, my schoolwork, my friends, and, of course, the playground. Elementary school was where I began to exercise my three main loves in life: reading, writing and singing. By the time I finished second grade, I had completely mastered the Braille code. I had begun learning it at age three. Braille literary code supposedly came to me easily, but Nemeth, or the math Braille code, was and is another story. I've always been an English lover, and math was a struggle during elementary school and onward. Still, as I moved through school, my parents, regular education teachers, special education teachers, TVIs (teachers of the visually impaired), and O&M (orientation and mobility) instructors all worked together to enhance my education.

Have you always been fully included in the classroom? How did your school district handle your Braille instruction? Was there a teacher in your school, or did a teacher visit you a certain number of hours or days a week? How did this change from elementary school to middle school to high school?

I always saw myself as "just another kid" in the classroom, and I mean that in an extremely positive way. I didn't like a big fuss made about the fact that I was different -- that I had Braille books and a clunky Braille writer and walked around with a white cane (when I was a good kid and remembered to use it instead of just tearing off with my friends) -- and I think that everyone knew and respected that. My blindness rarely caused me to feel singled out or even "different" from the other students. In elementary school, regular ed classroom teachers usually had me present a little schtick at the beginning of the year: "This is my Brailler...this is my enormous version of our history book, which is fat for you and is twenty-six volumes for me...this is my cane...don't ask me to guess who you are, because it kind of bugs me." But as I moved into middle school, such explanations became more common knowledge, and I integrated and mingled with my sighted peers with fewer questions on their part.

The San Ramon Valley Unified School District worked in tandem with the county to send me itinerant Braille teachers. As I grew older, became more independent and learned to become my own advocate, the assistance from TVI-S and O&M instructors lessened. In kindergarten, I had an aide every day at almost any given time. By fifth grade, I had an aide for about half the day. By eighth grade, I only had help in math, science and my resource period, which was basically a study hall. And by my senior year, the aide and I spent most of our allotted four hours a week talking about the books we were reading and our weekend plans.

How did your teachers handle having a blind student in their classroom? What were some of your best and worst experiences with this?

I am lucky in that I have had very few negative experiences in the mainstream classroom. I never minded being the only blind child at my elementary school, probably because I never really thought about it. I never felt isolated from my classmates. After all, we all liked the same things: having sleep-overs, going roller skating, eating ice cream, hanging out at the park, reading, watching Arthur and Rugrats and Bill Nye on TV, playing Go Fish and Trouble and Monopoly...the list goes on.

In high school, though, things sometimes got trickier. Not all high school teachers are aware of or prepared for the planning that goes along with educating a blind student. Math teachers, in particular, were fantastic about letting me have extra time on tests because of my difficulty with the subject, and science teachers, too, were incredibly accommodating and clever about adapting activities in a way in which I would understand and benefit. As for bad experiences, they certainly did exist. My favorite teachers were those that gave me all my work on time, didn't give me any "special treatment" and, quite frankly, let me do my thing without interfering. But sometimes there can be teachers who see a special needs student as an opportunity to educate the class. "If Caitlin can do this," they might say, "then you, who can see, should certainly be able to." I don't see myself as a better or worse student because of my being blind, so, of course, I resented being held up and singled out in this way.

Where possible, I always like to take my exams in class with my classmates, so that they know that, even though I get double-time for some of them, I'm not getting outside help. Some teachers don't like me taking tests with their students, though, because they feel that my typing and Braille reading are distracting to the other students. This was often cause for some embarrassment on my part, not to mention questions from my classmates: "Why is Caitlin leaving again? Is someone helping her with the test?" And then, of course, if I got a good grade: "It's because she leaves the room...she couldn't really have gotten an A on her own." If there's one thing that I don't like, it's people thinking that I'm not as good as my sighted peers, or that I need more help than they do just because I read and learn in a slightly different way.

Tomorrow: Caitlin talks about participating in her individualized education program meetings, and gives tips for teachers who have a student with a disability in their classroom.

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