The Bits that Make One See

After planning, designing and building learning tools for their visually impaired peers, on a sunny autumn day the ASW eighth-graders embarked on a bus that took them to the Laski School for the Blind. The visit lasted only two hours, but it was an intense learning experience. Their exact destination was Saint Maksymilian Kolbe school. The school offers various therapeutical workshops and classes for visually impaired kids who also have other special needs, and it is also a boarding house for boys. It is one of the many smaller schools for the visually impaired located on the premises of Laski.

A number of visually impaired students were outside, on the playground, accompanied by their caretakers.

Some of them could not talk or walk independently. The ASW students introduced themselves in unison. It was explained that they needed to do that in order to let their blind peers know how big is their group. The boys who were able to talk introduced themselves to the visitors.

Some 20 meters away, another boy was jumping on a trampoline. Engulfed in a vigorous aerobic workout, he seemed to have a lot of fun. One could sense incredible stamina in his young body. The surrounding net of the trampoline was fixed closer to the centre, so that a blind person jumping on it would not hurt him or herself. The boy was able to concentrate and maintain his balance, achieve different positions, jump high and prepare for the next position – all at once. His motor skills and coordination were knife sharp, but he was not able to see, nor speak. One of the ASW students observed, "When trampolining, the body releases endorphins, the feel-good brain chemicals."

Another one reflected, that his jumps might be somehow similar to the ways the mind of a blind person strikes to acquire new knowledge and skills when it is impaired by some sensorial disability.

The net, kept the boy safe, but it was also something that separated him from the school's guests in a clear way. As the ASW students approached the trampoline and saluted him, he stopped jumping and stretched his hand towards the net. The educator who was showing the ASW delegation around, did the same and they touched palms. She introduced him as Feng. He looked tense. Feng seemed to be expecting something special from this contact. The boy was born in a non-Polish family. His native tongue, therefore, is not Polish but Vietnamese. We were told that so far, there is no way of communicating with him verbally.

As we approached the school, a man carried an adolescent girl in his arms. He sat her in the car and locked her seat belt.

"Olivia cannot see, nor walk by herself," the ASW students were told. She travels to the St. Maksymilian school on a daily basis to see a speech therapist. Fifty kilometers one direction and back.

The walls were covered with [colorful] geometrical surfaces rich in tactile stimulation

The eighth-graders entered the school and visited the classrooms. Each classroom is used only by a few blind students at a time. There were artworks on the walls, done in various techniques. The ASW students were told that these are completed with a lot of help from the special educators. The students that attend St. Maksymilian school often exhibit fairly low manual dexterity. This is one of the main reasons why the ASW students were asked to design and build tools that incorporate simple twisting, screwing, pulling and matching exercises. The young visually impaired individuals need these kind of educational aids in order to become in time as much independent as possible from their caretakers. The educational tools made by the ASW students were stored in a special room.

The ASW students proceeded with a school visit. They saw another couple of classrooms, a speech therapy room, the building's cafeteria, the dorm. They met a boy, who could speak some English and introduced himself as Alan. He was delighted to be able to show his English knowledge to the visitors.

On their way out, they ASW eighth-graders also saw a group of older blind students who were coming back from a movie. The blind can also watch films. They watch with their ears. There is a lecturer who is reading to the blind audience out loud a special script of what exactly is happening on the screen. Interestingly the boys, although they could not see, walked confidently and quite quickly through the school corridors, without stretching their hands, nor touching the walls. Obviously, they were familiar with the building, but the boys' spirit also illustrated the elaborate and successful educational practices that the school is implementing while teaching them.

Although Saint Maksymilian school deals with severe cases of visually impaired children, and the building from the outside looked grey, the atmosphere indoors was incredible. The place was alive, joyous, noisy, neat, well organised and taken care of, the walls were covered with colourful geometrical surfaces rich in tactile stimulation, and there were big pots with green sansevierias on the window sills. All in all, the ASW students were quite enthusiastic about the trip. It was like they were jumping on the trampoline themselves, and got some extra oxygen in their systems, which improved their mental alertness. They became aware of the importance of their classwork. They also contributed, perhaps with just a tiny, elfin bit to all this tremendous work of helping the visually impaired to salvage their seeing by other means.

But this was not all. The ASW received some gifts as well - some clay-made orange leaves that could be worn like medallions. Back on the bus, the ASW students wondered what they may do with them. After some deliberation, they decided to design a lamp on which the leaves will serve as a lampshade. They decided that the best idea was to keep them visible and close to light.

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