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'I Enjoy Seeing What's Next': Visually Impaired Kids Sharpen Reading Skills In Pilot Program

Bill Zeeble
Deborah and Rusty Gilliam adopted Xiomara two years ago to not only love their then 7 year old daughter, but to teach the blind child (since birth) to read. This summer, Xiomara read 40 books!

North Texas students with visual impairments improved their ability to read — and to enjoy books — this summer with the help of a pilot program in Tarrant County.

 'Super summer readers'

Perkie Cannon stands in the middle of a large room where a dozen families sit with their kids. Some are visually challenged. On this Saturday morning, in the Region 11 Education Service Center, she praises her “super summer readers” as stars who’ve learned to enjoy reading. 

Xiomara Gilliam is one of those super summer readers.

Credit Bill Zeeble / KERA News
Xiomara has learned to love to read. Beatrix Potter is one of her favorite authors.

“I read 'Sheep in the Jeep' and 'Ed and Ted and Ted's Dog Fred,' and I read…Oh, dear, I can’t remember what the others were,” Xiomara says.

She’s 9 and has been blind since birth.    

I read 40 books this summer,” she says.

Accessible literacy

Cannon helped organize this program to get visually impaired kids interested in books.

“Reading is a foundation of everything that you do in life, and when you don’t have literacy, your options are limited,” she says.

Cannon’s partner in the state government is Stephanie Walker, who aims to increase some of those options. The statewide lead for vision impairment says parents need both resources for their visually challenged kids — and ways to access them. 

“Many times our students don’t have access to braille books or to large-print books throughout the summer,” Walker says. “So [the goal is] to help them learn how to gain access and then just to increase their reading over the summer and get them reading for fun.”

That can be a challenge all by itself, says Karen Beard, but one that must be overcome. She’s with Bookshare, a free online source of tools and books for the visually impaired, and a partner in this pilot program.  

“For students who have print disabilities, it doesn’t take them long to hate reading,” Beard says. “Because it’s the hardest thing that they’ve ever tried to do, and we’re able to avoid things that are really hard for us. We choose different careers, we choose different paths.”

"Reading is a foundation of everything that you do in life."

Gavin Gibson, who’s 10, considered that different path for a while.

“I think I said one time, 'Who cares?'”

For the last five years of Gavin’s life, reading’s been like climbing a steep mountain.

“I can’t see anything out of the left eye and very little out on my right eye," he says. "I had a brain tumor when I was 5.”

The tumor’s long gone, and Gavin still struggles to read, finding braille easier than using his right eye alone. Gavin’s mom Melissa credits this summer program for motivating him to read more.   

“They said they would be sending some prizes in the mail and who doesn’t like a little prompting?” Melissa Gibson says. “Something comes in the mail. Everyone likes to get mail. So when that package came in the mail, he was extremely excited to pull out the items.”

Credit Bill Zeeble / KERA News
Gavin, 10, lost sight in one eye and most vision in the other after a brain tumor five years ago.

Gavin chimes in, “I enjoy reading now. I enjoy seeing what happens next in books.”

Solid start, but more work ahead

Cannon hopes Gavin will remember forever the good reads he tackled this summer, among them, "Love That Dog" and the Newbery Award-winning, "Hatchet."

She’ll be back to spread the word next year, with lessons learned from this summer pilot.

“I may need to do something different for older children,” Cannon says. “Because we were finding this really appealed initially to the parents of young children, who were just getting started reading.”

Cannon had 25 readers sign up this first summer. She says there are about 800 visually impaired learners in her Region 11 alone, which includes Tarrant, Denton and eight other counties farther west. She says there’s a lot more to do.

Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues.