BROOKFIELD, Conn. (AP) – Sighted students at Brookfield High School sit side by side with visually impaired peers to study the Braille alphabet and learn about daily challenges facing the blind.

This is extremely unusual, according to teacher Kathryn Sudol.

“Brookfield High School has the only sighted Braille program in Connecticut,” said Sudol, who works with blind and visually impaired students from Brookfield and Monroe.

The program, which began in January 2007, is open to town residents and non-residents, but non-residents must pay tuition to attend the school, she said.

When the BHS Braille program was created in 2001, it met in the corner of an office and was only open to visually impaired students. Three years ago the program was given its own classroom.

That was when Sudol first entertained the idea of making it available to all students.

“We only had three visually impaired students left in the school,” said Sudol, a Southbury resident. “To make a larger class, I thought it would be an interesting experiment to bring sighted students into our Braille room.”

She couldn’t have been more pleased with the result.

“The sighted students learned first hand what it was like to be a blind student,” she said. “One of the ways they did this was by engaging in blindfolded activities throughout the course of the year.”

These included learning to prepare, cook, and eat meals by relying on senses other than sight.

“Students also learned how to walk with a cane and were taught how to guide both blindfolded and visually impaired students through the hallways,” Sudol said.

In addition, they were taught the importance of giving detailed verbal descriptions of everything they see. They were able to put what they learned to the test on a class trip to the Bronx Zoo in May.

“When I first started describing what I saw, I wanted to make sure (the visually impaired students) understood me,” said sighted student Erin Connolly, 18.

She figured out how to do this on her own by “comparing sizes to them – hand, head, leg, fingernail, and, in the case of the tiger, taller than your whole body stretched up,” she said.

Not only was the sighted Braille class a huge success from an academic standpoint, it provided many unexpected benefits as well.

“Bringing the sighted kids into the room changed the whole dynamics of the class,” said teaching assistant Gene Zager of Sherman.

By being a small group and working closely together every day, students got to interact with each other in ways they never had before. They learned one another’s likes and dislikes, hobbies and talents, and became very comfortable being around each other.

“Getting to know the blind students gave me a newfound respect for them,” said sighted student Courtney Parente, 17. “By seeing how independent they are, it changed my whole perspective towards people with disabilities.”

Courtney plans to become a Braille teacher after college.

Hamit Campos, a 19-year-old blind student, said he got to show off all the “cool” stuff he has, such as his PAC mate, to all his new friends in the class. A PAC mate is a hand-held computer with a speech and Braille display that blind students can use for assignments.

In addition to the Braille 1 and Braille 2 classes the school now offers, Sudol is currently developing the curriculum for Braille 3, which will be offered in the fall.

Those who complete Braille 3 are qualified to be a Braille transcriber, a job that’s in high demand throughout the country.

According to the American Foundation for the Blind, the U.S. currently needs about 380 full-time transcribers. It will need 735 more in five years, and another 1,020 more in 10 years.

“I would like to make people in the community aware that a sighted Braille program exists at Brookfield High School,” Sudol said.

“This has been a great experience for all of us,” said Courtney. “We’ve all had a lot of fun.”

AP-ES-06-28-08 1749EDT

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