Pupils find creative ways to learn about their world
IRISH LIVES: Child Vision school educates 370 pupils of diverse ages and visual capacities
Like most schools, Child Vision in Drumcondra has a designated noticeboard in one of its corridors to mark the achievements of its pupils. The achievements recorded on this school noticeboard, however, refer to the challenges these particular students face.
The many cards pinned to the board tell their own story. Abbie gets one for “walking all the way from the primary school, across the pedestrian crossing and along the wall of All Hallows independently”. Sam’s is for “Brailling a super letter to Santa”. Thomas gets one for “Writing so well about his PE when he walked with 10 beanbags on his head”.
The 370 pupils who attend the pre-school, primary and secondary schools at Child Vision are visually impaired in some way. Some are completely blind while others have differing ranges of vision. Recently rebranded as Child Vision, the National Education Centre for Blind Children, the school was formerly known as St Joseph’s School for the Blind.
“In the last 10 years, as a consequence of very premature babies surviving, there is a new group of pupils coming to us,” explains Brian Allen, Child Vision’s chief executive. “In addition to visual impairment, some will also have multiple disabilities.” Allen estimates that 75 per cent of their pupils fall into this category.
One of the 370 pupils is Paul Geoghegan (13), from Tallaght. He was born with Leber’s Congenital Amaurosis, which affects the retina, meaning he finds it hard to distinguish colours or light, and the little he can see is very blurry. He’s in sixth class, and since last autumn, has been a residential pupil at the school during weekdays, in one of the on-campus houses, Gentili.
“At home I don’t do that much,” he declares. “But here, I get to do judo, horse riding, athletics, swimming and baking. I’ve baked cookies, brownies, a chocolate sponge cake. I’m going to start cooking dinner things soon. By the end of the year, I’m going to go home one weekend and bake a cake.” Is he a good cook? Paul nods vigorously. “Yes! I’ve asked people what it’s like after they’ve tasted it, and they say ‘great’.”
Paul can see a little when objects are very close up, although he admits that he is “bad with colours.” At his geography lesson on the day we visit, he sits at a projector with a map of Europe magnified many times on the screen, his face pressed right up to the glass. There are six other children in the class, aged between 11 and 13. Some use portable magnifiers that resemble crystal balls split in half. One child can see nothing at all. Their class teacher, Sheila O’Mahony, has to attend equally to all needs.
PE is held in a cavernous hall, where an extra teacher gives one-on-one aid to the child who has no vision at all. The children pull out a gym bench, and take turns walking and then running along it and jumping off. Some take hold of O’Mahony’s arm. Others don’t. There are rubber studs close to either end, which tell them when they’re almost at the end.Other exercises follow.
Back in the classroom, Paul pulls out his €5,000 Braille Note laptop, which was supplied to him by the Department of Education. “I can go on the internet, do my homework, make documents,” he explains. The laptop is about the size of a large hardback book. It has six large buttons and a Braille keyboard that pulses up and down like tiny piano keys when he types at speed.
I ask him to look up the Irish Times website. He finds the site right away, and reads out the list of breaking news stories. This laptop can print in Braille or Roman print, and it also has voice commands.
The class follows the primary school syllabus, but the Braille versions of the books come in thick multivolumes. The children keep most of their multi-volume textbooks in the classroom, only bringing home the parts they need.
On familiar territory Paul knows how many paces everything is apart, and moves around freely with confidence. When he is not sure of his surroundings, such as when he goes to town, or anywhere new, he uses a cane with mobile ball at the end of it. How would he describe his school to sixth-class pupils in what he calls “normal schools”?
“Ours is different and better because we do pottery and judo and horse riding and things like that, and we have a swimming pool,” he declares proudly.