It’s Saturday morning at the Albert Falls Reserve in South Africa, and a group of rowers scull through tranquil waters. But these are no ordinary rowers; the boat is propelled by students who are blind and visually impaired from the Arthur Blaxall School (ABS), with the goal of preparing for the 2012 paralympics. Just three months ago, they were floundering and uncertain with the oars; today, as they participate in the first rowing program for the blind in South Africa, they row confidently toward their goal. It is an apt symbolism of life at Arthur Blaxall School, which is highly regarded as an international leader in the field of special education needs.
The rowers in the program – Angeline, Fortune, Sipho – are just a few of the over 200 learners attending ABS, a residential school in Pietermaritzburg for children who are visually impaired and may have additional disabilities and deaf-blindness. The sports facilities, which also include swimming, athletics, goalball, soccer and netball, are a compliment to the academics and a multi-disciplinary team of educators. ABS, established in 1954, also plans to become a full-service institution, accepting children with a wide variety of disabilities.
Fiona Parker, an occupational therapist at the Arthur Blaxall School since 2009, was a participant in Perkins 2011-2012 Educational Leadership Program. There are an estimated 300,000 children who are blind in Africa, and according Parker, unemployment, poverty and accessibility to resources are obstacles that many ABS students grapple with, who range from pre-primary to grade 12. Parker said Perkins has taught her to embrace the knowledge that “every moment is a teachable moment.” “This principle seems so basic yet but is just one of the messages I hope to bring home to the staff at my school,” said Parker.
At Perkins, Parker has learned to read and write basic braille; brushed up on American Sign Language, which is slightly different to South Africa Sign; and used different adaptive equipment. “So many gaps have been filled in for me, and I’ve been able to consolidate my understanding of the multi-handicapped. This is information that I will include in my sessions with learners back home to give them the best possible education and skills development for life.”
Parker has a special interest in sensory integration, using all the senses to explore the world around us. Since ABS has no dedicated orientation and mobility instructor, Parker plans to incorporate and work with other ABS instructors to develop such an approach, such as incorporating distance, size and directional concepts which are critical to children with deafblindness. Most of all, she aims to be a role model of how to handle learners by teaching them independence. “Independence comes not by not doing things for them, but by providing the least amount of support to facilitate their own faculties.”
Meanwhile, back at the school’s rowing club, students wear T-shirts that proudly say, “A lack of sight does not mean a lack of vision.” It is a motto that Parker heartily agrees with as she carries new knowledge back to her home country.