With an almost daily onslaught of high-stakes tests and the challenges that come with a lack of funding, school is challenging enough these days. How much more so, then, for those who have trouble seeing the chalkboard or reading their books?
Fortunately, many districts and communities are doing what they can to support these students in particular in an effort to minimize another potential “gap” among students.
In April of 2014, educators and administrators from the Peabody Federation of Teachers (PFT) got together with Peabody Mayor Ted Bettencourt and members of the Peabody Lions Club (including current interim Superintendent Herb Levine) and Peabody Access TV to establish Beyond Vision: A Tribute to Peabody’s Sight Impaired Community.
According to former Peabody High School student and current Peabody parent Jen Buchanan, Beyond Vision was intended to be a recurring celebration to recognize the contributions of students, adults, and seniors who experience a visual disability.
“Because vision loss has traditionally affects a smaller group of people in the population,” Buchanan points out, “the perception most people have is we are deficient or helpless individuals who can only hold a tin can to collect money to survive. So how would it be possible for someone with a visual impairment be productive in their community? This is a perception that needs to change since it is not accurate. “
The first Beyond Vision event was initiated and developed by Peabody Public Schools Vision Specialist and Lions Club member Pamela Sudore. Having served as director of the Lowell Association for the Blind, and having worked with the Perkins School for the Blind, the Carroll Center for the Blind, Sudore and was one of two teachers involved in developing the bill that became the Braille Law that ensures Braille literacy for all legally-blind students.
“Pam is among the hardest working teachers in the system,” says Peabody Federation of Teachers President Bruce Nelson, “and is, obviously, very passionate about her work.”
When asked how the event came together, Sudore explains, “I initially approached the Peabody Lions Club to do a special event to acknowledge the successes and contributions of Peabody’s visually Impaired residents…. They eagerly accepted the challenge!”
At this event (for which Superintendent Levine served as Master of Ceremonies), 38 individuals ranging in ages from two to 100 were recognized with Braille and large print certificates for their bravery, fortitude, and dedication both to learning and to educating others about the sight-impaired community.
“It was…[an] enlightening event,” recalls Lions Club President Stephen Calhoun.
“We wanted people to know there are over 300 sight-impaired citizens in the City of Peabody that need help,” Calhoun explains, noting that, according to Massachusetts Commission for the Blind Deputy Commissioner John Oliveira, this is third-highest population of in the region, behind Lawrence and Lynn. “We [also] wanted people to know that here are over 30 students in our school system that are imbedded in our classrooms and functioning alongside sighted students and functioning well.”
Not only are the Lions the world’s largest service organization, but, Calhoun points out, eye research is among their top priorities. In addition to hosting events like “Beyond Vision,” Lions groups all over the nation raise funds for research and provide community support for people dealing with challenges in their daily lives. In addition to donating glasses and vision examinations, Lions Club members have also donated supportive technologies to students and community members in need.
Among the many beneficiaries of this support is Peabody High School Freshman Mandy MacKenzie.
“I have learned how to use technology in school,” MacKenzie says when asked how the Peabody programs have benefitted her, expressing special thanks for the iPad that she received from the Lions Club that she is able to use to enlarge or even read print and to email her work to teachers and to develop her Braille skills. “I felt honored at the Beyond Vision event and hope there will be more!”
Another beneficiary of academic support from the Peabody Public Schools is Kayla Bentas, who works in Secretary William Galvin’s Corporations and Elections divisions. “I do data entry, mail notifications, and checking annual report filings for corrections,” she explains, noting that she also helps train other clerks in the use of voting machines for the legally blind.
Blind since the age of nine, when a benign tumor impinged upon her optic nerve, Bentas was able to use the supports of Sudore and her colleagues to continue her education in public school, instead of having to transfer to a specialty school.
“I got my books in Braille, my worksheets in Braille, graphs and charts along with all other images in raised 3-D style so I could feel them,” she recalls. “They even were very supportive when I got my guide dog and brought her to school with me every day!”
Since graduating from Peabody High School, Bentas has received a Bachelor’s degree in Business Management at Suffolk University. When not working at Secretary Galvin’s office, she volunteers with the Lions Club.
“I want to make a difference in the Peabody community and also spread awareness to those who are new or have dealt wit being blind,” she explains. “There are so many resources out there for our disability, but, unfortunately, not all of us know about the benefits and advantages that are out there to help us and take our side on things.”
Bentas credits the “Beyond Vision” event with helping her city realize that there are many legally-blind people in Peabody and that they can be productive contributors to the community, just like everyone else.
Like Bentas, Buchanan became legally blind later in life due to a medical situation that involved a brain tumor. Though she admits to going through “a few months of…true and utter despair,” the mother of two says that, with the help of her family and her community, she was able not only to find her way out of that thought process but to also find that she can do pretty much everything she did before she lost her sight.
“I want my kids and anyone else experiencing vision loss to feel the same way,” Buchanan says. “It has always been important for me to be as strong as possible for my children and going through vision loss is no exception.”
Even with her family’s support, Buchanan admits to feeling moments of isolation. That is why she is so grateful that Sudore introduced herself.
“It was really nice to have a person approach me,” Buchanan recalls, noting how “energetic” Sudore was and how comforted and supported she made her feel.
“She talked to me as though I was a person first and vision impairment just happened to be something that I had to cope and adjust to,” Buchanan says. “She was amazing!
In addition to bringing attention and support to the vision-impaired members of the community, Buchanan suggests that Beyond Vision also gave them an opportunity to meet and support each other.
“It was an opportunity to exchange information about the achievements of a person with visual impairments and resources available in the community to support those efforts,” she says. “The Beyond Vision event did a great job raising awareness in the community about blindness and vision impairment and how extremely accomplished most people are even with the challenges of vision loss. It was also an opportunity to share the value an individual person provides to another person or the community as a whole.”
In addition to Superintendent Levine and other members of the Peabody academic community, the event in Peabody City Hall was also attended by Senator Joan Lovely, State Rep, Leah Cole, and City Councilors Tom Walsh, Joel Saslaw, and Tom Gould. There was also a personal video message from blind mountain climber Erik Weihenmayer (the first blind person to climb Mt. Everest) and signed copies of a book by Michael Hingson, whose guide doe had helped people escape from the 78th floor of the World Trade Center on 9/11.
“Peabody’s award recipients represent the No Barriers mindset,” observed Weihenmayer, citing the name of his foundation. “Despite the challenges we face, what’s inside of us is much stronger than what’s in our way. It’s not about breaking records, adrenaline sports, or climbing Mt. Everest. We are responsible for each other, accountable to each other, believe in each other, and we all win together”.
That collaborative spirit was well represented at the event and continues to be so in the community.
“As an active Lions Club member for many years the Beyond Vision event was the best tribute I have ever attended,” said Jeannine Gentleman, who served as Lions International District Governor from 2010-11. Gentleman went on to suggest that the Peabody Lions Club was “the first to recognize the contributions of an entire community while establishing lasting partnerships with the residents, local businesses and community leaders.”
Another major supporter of the event was WGBH, the public broadcasting station which pioneered both Closed Captioning and Descriptive Video Service (DVS) to support viewers and listeners with visual and hearing impairments.
“WGBH has been serving those with sensory impairments in MA and the country,” said WGBH’s Director of Community Engagement Larry Goldberg.
“Beyond Vision…[was] a pioneering event,” Sudore observes, noting it represented the first time visually-impaired residents have been supported and recognized by their own community. “We are currently working on nominations for our next Beyond Vision event to be held annually, as we continue our community recognition and support for those who live with vision loss. It is my hope that the Beyond Vision concept will spread to other communities in New England and throughout the country!”