While waiting for her daughter and Calvary Lutheran High School senior Elizabeth’s after school practice to begin, Louise Whitworth passed out a children’s book to Liz and the second oldest of her five children, Catherine.
These books were not just their reading pleasure. The family made sure each book had proper translations so they can join thousands of others available to the more than 11,000 people who use Wolfner Talking Book and Braille Library in Jefferson City.
Louise and Liz looked for Braille errors in their books, corrected them and carefully replaced the translations. Catherine developed picture descriptions to go along with the written words, allowing someone with any degree of vision loss to fully indulge themselves in the story which, in this case was “Prudence the Part-time Cow.”
“Once you read all this, we need to think about what we need to describe. Prudence is winking at us, and the milk cows have all been released from the barn. Do we need to tell them Prudence has pink hair? No other cows have pink hair,” Louise said to Catherine.
During Christmas break, Louise and her family delved into more than a dozen books to help translate and edit for Wolfner. Since Louise started the Calvary Lutheran High School’s Braille Club a few years ago, they have worked on close to 300 books in the evenings and on weekend, during school breaks and in the summer for Wolfner, among other Braille translations at Calvary. The club also received recognition from Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft for their volunteer efforts in the fall of 2017.
For Louise, Braille education does not stop there. After becoming certified in the subject, she transitioned her teaching career from music to helping kindergarten through 12th-grade students reach their academic goals while learning Braille. That education is paired with advocating for equipment and resources to make sure these students throughout Mid-Missouri have the necessary tools to succeed in life despite their vision impairments.
“I totally loved working in music and with all of those kids, but there is not a day that I don’t want to go to work doing what I’m doing now,” she said.
A Jefferson City High School graduate, Louise knew teaching was in her future.
She started out as a music teacher and rebuilt programs that were previously cut due to a shortage of funding in the late ’80s and early /90s, the first being in Washburn, Missouri. After two years there, she went back to get her master’s degree in opera from the University of Missouri, already holding an undergraduate degree. She continued to restart music programs, spending six years in Van Buren, Missouri. She then moved closer to home, helping out at the Cole County R-5 School District in Eugene for about five years and also teaching humanities and giving voice lessons at Lincoln University.
With two daughters – Ann and Catherine – already in the Whitworth family, Louise had her third daughter, Elizabeth. When Liz got to kindergarten, she found out she had a vision problem.
“She has low vision. … They thought it was a starburst (or a series of concentric rays or fine filaments radiating from bright lights that can cause refractive eye defects) in the center of her eye. However, it was the macula (which provides the sharp, central vision needed for reading, driving and seeing fine detail),” Louise explained. “She lost 90 degrees on both of her eyes toward her nose and is now starting to lose the outer peripheral area. However, she’ll tell you she doesn’t really notice it. She has really learned to pay attention to where she is and she memorizes places.”
When Liz was first diagnosed, the doctors advised Louise that her daughter needed to learn Braille. Louise discovered that there was not a teacher in the Jefferson City area that specifically taught Braille.
“I wanted to learn it, and I needed to learn it, too,” she said. “So, I went ahead and did the certification.”
Louise took all her classes online through Missouri State University, which is the only school in the state that does certifications for visually impaired education. Taking courses online sometimes made it difficult to ask questions, however, Louise said living in Jefferson City made the year and a half process to get her certification easier with resources like Wolfner available.
“I could go to Wolfner to check out their Braille books and played around looking at things locally like McDonald’s that used Braille signs,” she said.
Once Liz started learning Braille, Catherine decided she was interested in the language and wanted to learn it, too.
“Now my youngest daughter Isabella (is learning) and my son John has shown interest, so he will start learning this coming summer,” Louise said in December.
Louise did her student teaching in Jefferson City, and ended up teaching Braille on a part-time contract work basis at first. Only having four students in the Jefferson City area school district there wasn’t enough to do a full-time position. She also would drive from place to place to teach students, working with another student in Eldon, Missouri. However, now Louise teaches Braille to 10 students, which does not include Liz or anyone outside of the school system.
“I’m all over the place,” she said, noting another teacher assists preschool age children with vision impairments. “Since I am just in Jefferson City now, I go to Lewis and Clark Middle School, Lawson Elementary, Cedar Hill (Elementary), North Elementary, Helias High School, Jefferson City High School and Calvary Lutheran (High School). … It was one of those things, I was supposed to be here.”
The reason why visual impairment is more prevalent now is advancements in the medical field that allow doctors to diagnosis children at younger ages, Louise said.
“The first things to form are the eyes and the ears, you notice that there having hearing issues as well that are young,” she said. “God Bless those doctors that can save those babies, but we still have to take care of the ones that didn’t have enough time to develop that will have those issues.”
Braille uses a series of six raised dots for each letter in a word and for numerals and other characters, and a blind person is trained to feel those dots with their fingers and understand what they mean. Louise teaches her students one-on-one, modifying lessons to the child’s academic level and to what they are learning.
When she gets a new student, Louise looks at their diagnosis. She said her students vary in their degrees of vision impairment including some having islands of sight, others seeing outlines and shadows, some that can only see light and dark and others that do not see anything at all. That is when she asks one of the most important questions to help her move forward in her teaching.
“I say, ‘I’m going to ask a rude question, but what do you see?’ They are the only ones that know and it is not rude for them. Sometimes it is hard when someone says, ‘I’m so sorry you can’t see.’ Liz says, ‘What are you sorry for?’ (Those people) are only comparing it to their own experience, but what they see is normal for them,” Louise said. “As a parent, I questioned myself, is this my fault, did I do something I shouldn’t have when I was pregnant? How am I going to deal with this? For the parents, you go through a mourning period with this huge mountain in front of you; but then you climb out of it. The students go through the same thing.”
After Louise finds out what they can see, she does a functional vision assessment. She will watch them while playing some games, doing some testing and to find out what they can really see and they is needed for the classroom, extended planning at home, daily living and how they can advocate for themselves.
“Nobody is going to be at the same level as someone else. Since I do work with them one-on-one, if they need to focus on something longer than their peers, I can do that. I have that freedom, and I also have the freedom to push them,” she said. “If they are working above their grade level, I can keep pushing them.”
One such student is Shianne Ramsey, a third-grader at Cedar Hill Elementary. Shianne competed in the regional competition for the National Braille Challenge of the Braille Institute of America in 2017, earning a third place spot. Receiving a gift certificate pushed her to go all the way in 2018, earning first place in the regional competition and representing Missouri at the national competition last summer in Los Angeles.
“I was so proud of her. It was amazing, and she is ready to go this year,” Louise said. “She is learning sentence dictation and spelling, and that little girl can spell rings around me. I told her the next word is supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. She is like ’s-u-p-e …’. I’m like, ‘I’m kidding, honey.’ She laughed and said, ‘I can spell better than you can anyway.’”
Louise covers a variety of subjects at all grade levels including reading, math, science, music, art, chemistry, Spanish, German – anything that is tactile in Braille.
“I have done second grade math, American literature, math, science, textbooks – those are the books I have to translate. Sometimes I carry more electronic books than any person should,” Louise said with a laugh, noting if anyone calls or emails a question, she needs to be able to answer them. “I am learning music in Braille, which is really cool. It has been fascinating.”
Depending on their level of vision, Louise will also use fun ways to introduce young students to the letters such as little fuzzy pompoms, raised stickies, puff paint and other aids that create big cells and a fun game to retain the information.
“It helps get them to want to explore Braille,” she said. “I also make a lot of flashcards and have them practice. They will also be able to see both the letter name and dots that is is. … If they have difficulty Braille-ing it, I also say what fingers they may use, such as 1, 3 and 4. This helps parents as well in making sure they have the answer.”
Louise also provides and shares resources and equipment with the students that will help them. She often teaches them to learn Braille slate writing, which allows them to purchase a smaller, portable and inexpensive device that allows them to write, flip it over and double-check words and expressions using both sides of the equipment.
“Slate writing is very important because you can’t carry a 15-pound Perkins everywhere,” Louise added.
Perkins Braillers are helpful for school work, but are quite costly. Louise said she bought two after she began learning Braille with Liz, and they cost $700 a piece. She added that is one of the biggest drawbacks of teaching Braille.
“We can borrow them from the American Printing House for the Blind because they are covered under federal quota funds,” she said, noting specialized paper is another item covered under that funding. “But (the students) can’t take them when they graduate.”
Once the students are done with the Brailler, it must be shipped back and needs to be in the shape it was in when they received it. Specialty Braillers are also hard to come by.
“I have a student that uses one hand because of cerebral palsy. He can use a special machine that helps him read the left and then the right hand of Braille by using only one had. However, to purchase this machine, it is about $900, she said. “The school is very good about trying to get the equipment that the students need. They did get our refreshable Braille reader for me, which was about $3,000,” she said, noting the students can take the refreshable Braille readers home to do their homework. “Because it is such a selective market, the prices really don’t come down. As with many electronic products, you might get four years out of it before it is totally obsolete.”
The students also use a variety of electronic books and programs that allows them to email their homework to their teacher. Louise said this allows the teacher to read the submitted homework instead of having to translate the Braille.
To make sure the students have equipment that last and use throughout their education, she often will fix up old retired pieces of equipment to use for her students. A school had an old Brailler that they said they couldn’t fix. She took it apart, cleaned it, put it back together and it works. “Skippy,” named for having a glitch that will sometimes skip cells in the Braille, is used at the school, as is a donated Braille printer, “Romeo”, that simply had grass in it and needed to be cleaned and cared for.
“The school district gave me a Perkins repair manual … I was like, ‘Yay!’ This is amazing,” Louise said with a smile. Learning to do some of that yourself is important. … It is an investment in their future, too. You learn to take care of things.”
To help further take care of her students’ needs, Louise is currently finding funding sources so Jefferson City area schools have their own Perkins Braillers and accompanying equipment. She also appreciates many other donations she received students learning Braille.
Even though Louise cannot take her students to Wolfner during the school day, she brings Wolfner to her teaching. She can find specific subject matter that corresponds with the curriculum the student is learning, with Wolfner staff sending her the book, allowing the child to read it and send it back, all for free.
“We can also do books on tape that way, too,” Louise added. “There is also an online digital download called BARD, where students can listen to it and it also has Braille; they are books at the touch.”
Even though the Calvary Lutheran High School Braille Club now primarily volunteers at Wolfner library Braille-ing, fact checking and provide picture descriptions for such books, it started when a student with low vision needed extra help learning Braille after school, Louise said. Catherine wanted to learn at that time, as did a few other students. Louise formed the group, and outside of learning Braille, the club created a variety of signage, Braille pictures and scripture throughout the school.
After the club was featured in the local media, a Wolfner volunteer coordinator contacted Louise to see if they wanted to Braille books. Despite Louise’s initial nerves that they would make mistakes, they agreed, Brailling out their first set of books out on paper until they knew it was correct before putting the overlay in the book to Braille.
“Once they got through that, I had a couple that wanted to do picture descriptions and they would Braille,” Louise said. “It got to be really fun.”
From their first book, “Carrot and Pea,” to now about 300 books on Missouri, children’s books and games like Exploding Kittens and Cards Against Humanity, the club enjoys getting together at school, at home, McDonald’s and the library itself where they can do this fun activity that helps so many others.
“Two summers ago, we were working at Wolfner and sitting around a big table, and I most of my family was there. We were having a great time, laughing and probably being too loud for the library,” Louise said with a laugh. “The time we spent, which was like seven hours that day, as a family without any electronics, was wonderful. You get to meet the neatest people from all over the state who are not only teaching it but learning it. It is fun to be able to encourage them. … What is the one place you can go anywhere and do anything and be anyone? It is in a book. Listening to them is great, but to read the words themselves and see it in your head and hear it in the voices in your head, that is the best. To be able to share that is amazing.”
Even though it is primarily Whitworth’s family volunteering at Wolfner now, she has seen more interest from her students wanting to help the club. A third-grade student has shown interested in proofing books this summer, and another third-grader who has low vision wants to learn Braille and help out.
“We have a couple of schools that the kids want to start a club of their own, too. … It is fun and you get to learn a secret language,” she said. “Just like we want to learn Spanish, there are so many ways to communicate. We have so many veterans that are blind; how do you share a thank-you note with them if you can’t Braille it? … I have a brand new student that his grandmother lost her vision, and he is going to teach her. … It is fun to be able to share that.”
Louise also enjoys working with students as the faculty head of Calvary Lutheran High School’s Drama Club, presenting the annual One-Act Festival with students directors – including her daughter Liz – at 7 p.m. Feb. 22 and 2 p.m. Feb. 23 at the school. Louise’s passion for all students is evident, and her love for educating visually impaired children is one that she truly treasures.
“You get to know that child and they become your kids. You are not getting them for a year and sending them on. Once you got them, you got them through school unless they move,” she said. “You really get to watch them bloom.”
The year begins with recognizing National Braille Literacy Month throughout January. However, it is good way to start thinking of how to help the more than 150,000 Missourians that have some degree of vision loss.
Like the Calvary Lutheran High school Braille Club, inquire about volunteering at Wolfner Library, which is a division of the secretary of state’s office and free library service for Missourians unable to use standard print materials due to a visual or physical disability.
Louise Whitworth said donated Braillers, printers or other equipment that assists Jefferson City students who are visually impaired are welcome. She also appreciates stickers, scraps of rick-rack or other items used for teaching Braille, tactile pictures and more are also encouraged.
“I love to take things apart and put them back together,” she said. “They may be trash to someone else, but it is not for us. Anytime people would like to donate things, we will use them.”
To donate items or for more information, contact Louise at 573-659-6092 or Calvary Lutheran High School at 573-638-0228.