Saturday, June 13, 2009

North Carolina may close blind school due to state's budget shortfall

From the intro to a longer story in The Independent Weekly in Durham, N.C.:

Six-year-old Paige Strickland (pictured reading Braille) is eager to do the same things other kids in her class do, like writing with a pencil and making a rainbow-colored crab from a paper plate. She's proud to share the songs she can play on the piano. She's also learning skills her classmates don't know, such as how to read Braille and walk with a cane.

"Did you know your cane helps you, but you can trip people?" Paige explains as she shows off the "big girl" cane she recently began using. She walks through the kitchen of her family's north Raleigh home, moving the padded tip across the tile floor while her mother, Jennifer Strickland, looks on from the breakfast table.

Later, Paige picks up one of her storybooks and scans the raised characters of the pages with her fingers as she reads aloud. Learning Braille is hard work, she and her mother agree. "Working is very tiring," Paige says.

When Paige was 2 months old, she was diagnosed with bilateral optic nerve hypoplasia, an underdevelopment of the optic nerve, which sends signals between the eye and the brain. A related condition, nystagmus, causes her eyes to move involuntarily. While not completely blind, Paige can only see objects that are about an inch from her eyes. The cause of ONH is unknown, and there is no treatment or cure.

"I basically mourned for six months when she was born," says Strickland. She had never met a blind person and had no idea how to help her daughter—nor any notion of what future her child would have.

Strickland found solace in the help she received from the Governor Morehead School for the blind, which sent teachers to her home each week, helping her figure out how to do simple tasks like feed and play with her 3-month-old child. "They brought tons of information out to me. Any time I had a question, they were constantly there with an answer for it. It was like a friend sitting there, helping me."

Paige attended the Governor Morehead Preschool program from age 2 until age 5.

Today, Paige is a rising first grader at Durant Road Elementary School. Strickland believes the expert intervention and intense one-on-one instruction Paige received at an early age made it possible for her to be successful in a public school. "My child would never have been ready for kindergarten had it not been for preschool services," Strickland says.

Yet, the future of the Governor Morehead School is uncertain.

North Carolina faces an unprecedented budget shortfall of $4.6 billion, and state legislators are drafting deep budget cuts to education and health and human services programs that would affect thousands of people statewide. Teachers and teaching assistants could lose their jobs, Medicaid patients could lose their dental coverage, the dying could lose their hospice care.

As part of those cuts, House budget writers have proposed to close the Governor Morehead School, which they estimate would save the state $5 million a year.