Future Reflections

Winter 1994, Vol. 13 No. 1

GIFT OF INDEPENDENCE: Teacher Helps Blind Find Their Own Way

From the Albuquerque Journal, September 21, 1993, by Tracy Dingmann.

Jefferson Middle School student Jennifer Espinoza shuffles down the crowded hallway, tapping her white cane uncertainly and hunching her shoulders as if to shield her body form students charging around her toward class. Her eyes see nothing, and her ears strain to hear clues from her cane over the din.

From a spot down the hall, Jennifer's teacher Gail Katona watches but makes no move to help. "If I walk with her, then she depends on me," she whispers, as Jennifer slowly makes her way to class.

For the ten years Katona's been teaching visually handicapped children, that's been her passion: to keep such students from thinking they must depend on others to live happy, educated, and successful lives.

This past summer the National Federation of the Blind named Katona its 1993 Distinguished Educator of Blind Children. The prize means a lot to a woman who grew up inspired by a blind aunt, a "really regular, normal person" who skied, golfed and worked as a probation officer.

"Through her and the National Federation of the Blind, I met blind people from all walks of life-successful, capable people," said Katona, 30. "Then I met some blind people who were not very independent, and I tried to figure out what the difference between them was."

What did she find? "It all boils down to education, attitude, and the expectations others have of them," she said. Katona learned Braille at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania and earned a degree in elementary education of the visually handicapped. Her first job was at Zia Elementary in Albuquerque, where she co-founded a program to teach visually handicapped children from throughout the district in one classroom. The program is the only one of its kind in New Mexico public schools and has been nationally recognized, Katona said. It was for her work there-her last year at Zia-that Katona won the Federation's top honor.

This year Katona moved to Jefferson to start a program that concentrates services for visually handicapped middle school students at one school. Four students from Zia, including Jennifer, came with her. For most of the school day, Katona follows her students to the classes they attend with regular students, staying to help them with especially difficult subjects such as math and science.

"Middle school is tough for any kid. It's been a rough transition for both of us," said Katona last week while watching Jennifer navigate the crowded halls. But the Jefferson program makes it easier for such students. Visually impaired students at other middle schools have only the help of one part-time special teacher, who travels from school to school, Katona said.

At Jefferson, Katona also tells staffers about the special needs of blind students. And she punches out all of her students' lessons in Braille and translates their work from Braille for their regular teachers.

Katona spends considerable time dispelling the fears and stereotypes kids have about blind people. "We sure had some stares the first week. We had kids stopping dead in the hallway," she said, smiling wryly. Katona has since talked to all sixth-graders about what it's like to be blind. "I've had several students say, `Can you teach me Braille?'" she said.

Kids at the Jefferson program can also look to each other for support, Katona said. Jennifer and her best friend, Michelle Lopez, went to school together at Zia for years, and now they help each other at Jefferson. Michelle is legally blind but can make out large letters. Like Jennifer, she walks with a cane and reads Braille. But they can't be together every minute.

Jennifer's sighted lab partner in science class Friday happens to be Abby Browder. The task- looking at various objects through a microscope.

"You're going to have to be Jennifer's eyes as you actually look at it," Katona tells Abby. "You've got to give good verbal descriptions." "It's veiny," says Abby, peering through the microscope at a leaf. Abby said later she enjoys working with Jennifer.

"I've never really had any experience with blind people, but Jennifer's nice," she said. "It's different. It's interesting."

Across the room, Michelle scrutinizes a hair and crystals of salt with her lab partner. Jennifer doesn't say much, but bubbly Michelle makes it clear how they feel about their special teacher. "Very fun, very intelligent," she says. "She's a really neat person."