Tucked away on a quiet residential street in Littleton above the railroad tracks, the Colorado Center for the Blind goes unnoticed by many. But the school, housed in an old YMCA, is world-famous among blind people, who strive for years to attend the …
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Tucked away on a quiet residential street in Littleton above the railroad tracks, the Colorado Center for the Blind goes unnoticed by many. But the school, housed in an old YMCA, is world-famous among blind people, who strive for years to attend the center's intensive nine-month program that builds confidence along with life skills.The center offers an array of classes, from using technology to reading braille to self-defense and woodworking. But the most important thing the center teaches is self-assurance.“We want our students to feel good about being blind,” said Julie Deden, the center's executive director. “People think it would be so terrible to be blind, but we don't think anything of it.”The center, at 2233 W. Shepperd Ave., received a perfect score in May after an inspection by the National Blindness Certification Board.Joining the school was a dream come true for Jayaram Lamichhane, a 21-year-old from Nepal. He's been at the school for four months.“It's frustrating to be blind in Nepal,” Lamichhane said. “Your parents treat you badly. Society doesn't want to talk to you, because according to Hindu mythology, if you are blind, you committed some crime in your previous life, like a curse or a sin. Then, there is no infrastructure or support. I used to say I wish I had been born without legs instead. Here, you and me talking, I don't feel blind anymore. I feel confident now, like I can do whatever you can. Now I'm happy to be blind.”Getting aroundThe Independence Training Program is the cornerstone of the school's offerings — an immersive nine-month program focused on home management, technology, braille literacy, and “cane travel” — the use of a long white cane to walk around.Cane travel is the most visible of the center's activities, with students roaming Littleton and the greater Denver area practicing wayfinding and public transit. Students who still retain partial sight often wear “sleepshades,” eye masks that totally occlude light, in order to prepare them for a possible future of total blindness.“Our goal is for people to go anywhere in the world they want to go,” said David Nietfeld, a cane travel instructor. “We start off with the basics, sending people around the center, using stairs and doors. Then we go to the bus station. Then we go to taking buses and trains and crossing different kinds of intersections, including Santa Fe. We often know the city better than sighted people, because we memorize the street grid. People using GPS can't even paint a picture in their mind where they're going.”An advanced lesson is called a “drop project,” where students are driven in circles and dropped in a mystery spot in the city, given a flip phone, and instructed to find their way back to the center.The final project is to travel solo to four different cities in the metro area in a day using public transit, and visiting a place of interest in each city.Tech skillsA computer for the blind looks odd — there's no monitor or mouse. But for the center's students, it's an essential life tool.“We do everything from keyboarding to programming, but mostly it's stuff in between,” said Chris Parsons, a technology teacher. Her classes cover word processing, email, Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint and beyond. “I've had students who wanted to make websites. I had another who wanted to make an audio game."I had no idea how to make an audio game, but I said let's figure it out.”Reading and writingIn the 1960s, almost half of blind children learned braille — “reading” raised dots on a page with their fingers — but today it's only one in 10, said Dan Burke, the center's public relations specialist.“A blind person who can't read braille is illiterate,” Burke said. “It's become a crisis. We're working hard on changing it.”In Jennifer Spears' braille class, students run their fingertips over what appear to be blank pages.“People think braille isn't important anymore because of technology,” Spears said. “But there are so many uses, especially reading signs in public. Plus, if you know braille, you're more likely to be employed.”At the table with Spears' students, Mickey Payne sat punching a braille slate with a stylus, writing each letter and word backward so it would be right when she flipped it over.“This means a lot to me,” Payne said. “I can read and write now.”Among braille's limitations are how much size it takes up. The center's braille library's dictionary is 72 volumes. “Gone with the Wind” takes up nine huge binders.The center offers classes beyond the core skills. Students in the woodworking class use power saws, drills and hammers to build a variety of furnishings and projects.“I'm finishing up a cake stand,” said Libby Connor of Arizona, tapping footers into an elegant stand composed of locally harvested cottonwood. “First I cut the logs to size with a chain saw, then I sanded it down and now I'm just putting it all together.”Other classes and events include art, rock climbing, skiing, canoeing, and whitewater rafting.For those who had sight into adulthood, the center is a lifesaver.“I went blind my senior year of college,” said Kosy Asabere, 28, from Pennsylvania. “I had to stop going because I just didn't have the skills. I couldn't use a computer, I couldn't read my textbooks. I didn't know how to get to class. I was just stuck. The center gave me the tools to go back and finish. I feel like I can go for my master's too. I came here for the tech skills, and now I've learned to program. I found my calling here.”Public learns, tooThe center aims to educate the public as well, Burke said.“One of the biggest misconceptions about the blind is that we don't know where we are,” Burke said. “My person is not as private as a sighted person. People might grab my hand without asking, thinking I need help.”Deden said the public could stand to appreciate the blind better.“The unemployment rate among blind people is 70 percent,” Deden said. “We need the public to understand that blind people are very valuable, and to give blind people an opportunity and a chance.”Deden said many blind people rely on Social Security and Medicaid. She said 80 percent of the center's students go on to college, vocational training, or jobs.Chaz Davis, who graduated at the end of July, will go on to graduate school at the University of Denver.“Right now I'm making a big meal for everyone to celebrate my last day here,” Davis said, chopping veggies and herbs for curry chicken salad wraps. “I lost my sight about 3 1/2 years ago. It was a genetic thing I didn't know I had. I was in the middle of college and didn't know how to navigate life.”Davis said he was a runner in college, but didn't let blindness stop him — he competed in the Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro this year.“I feel extremely independent now, and that's what it's all about. There are so many blind people who are confined to their blindness because they don't have the skills to travel, to be employed. That's what they teach here. So many people who have come through this program have gone on to great things.”More informationMore information on the the Colorado Center for the Blind can be found at cocenter.org or by calling 303-778-1130.
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