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Hudson visually impaired students take educational trip to Chicago

Hudson visually impaired students wait for the train during their trip to Chicago on April 24. Photo courtesy of the Hudson School District1 / 4
The Hudson school district visually impaired students and their chaperones are pictured outside of Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria in Chicago. The group made the trip to and from Chicago on April 24 as a way to learn how to navigate planes, trains and buses in a big city. Photo courtesy of the Hudson School District. 2 / 4
Hudson students wait for the bus to arrive in Millennium Park in Chicago. Photo courtesy of the Hudson School District3 / 4
Hudson students with visual impairments used their long white canes, along with several other skills and techniques, to navigate their way from the airport in to downtown Chicago and back again. Photo courtesy of the Hudson School District4 / 4

For most people, there isn't much to think about when it comes to getting yourself to and from work, or to and from the grocery store. However, for anyone with a visual impairment, those simple tasks aren't quite as simple.

"I have yet to gain a lot of knowledge on what I would do when I'm out of college, including how I would get to work or home from the grocery store," said eighth grader Silvia Liberatore. "It is important to me to pay attention to figure out and learn these things so I can be successful in my life."

That is why a group of six Hudson middle and elementary students, along with school staff and chaperones, spent a full day journeying to and around Chicago by plane, train, bus and subway on April 24.

"My experience in Chicago helped me realize to never give up and that there is always a way," said student Matthew Yacoub.

Liberatore had a similar feeling about the trip.

"It is empowering to know that I can use transportation to have a life and succeed. You can do anything if you can get there," said Liberatore. "We also took this trip to spread awareness. We'd like the community and public to understand that, if you are visually impaired you are not blind. Glasses don't always fix it and we do need to figure out other options because we need to be able to go to work."

According to Liberatore, visually impaired is classified by vision that cannot be corrected by normal means. The legal qualification for being visually impaired is 20/70 for acuity. That means if you are 70 feet away from something, someone with 20/20 vision could see it from 20 feet away. The Hudson School District, according to special education teacher Micaela Smith, has 20 visually impaired students with varying levels of need.

"One thing I'd like people to know is that being visually impaired does not hold me back from doing anything that I want to do. I am in track and I'm an athletic person who loves taking part in sports. I'm also in geometry and advanced math where I've exceeded. I'm excelling even though I have my visual impairments. I don't want it to be a thing that people think I can't do these things. I always figure out a way," Liberatore said.

The group started early in the morning to get to the airport to catch a plane to Chicago. Once the students departed the plane, they took a train and several buses to get to downtown Chicago to visit the John Hancock Building.

"This is one of the best trips I've ever been on! It was nice to get out of Hudson for a while and explore. The train and city bus experience was pretty new, too," said student Joey Repphun.

Then the group traveled to Lou Malnati's Pizzeria. After lunch, the students made their way back to the airport to fly back to the Twin Cities.

"I think we could talk your ears off forever about all the skills these students learn to make them have equal access in comparison to others that don't have the same vision needs," Smith said. "This is also a great way to let our students come together and socialize and share their experiences."

The six students who took part in the trip were in fourth to eighth grade. The group included: Liberatore, Danny Caron, Everett Alms, Yacoub, Jack Pomeroy and Repphun.

"This was so much more than just a 'fun' field trip. It was an experience that left room for failure, encouraged critical thinking, and ultimately promoted individualized success. I am incredibly proud of these students' courage to take risks and persevere," said Smith.

Chaperoning the trip were Smith, Kim Wilke, Isabel Barr and Shanna Swenson.

"Watching the students ask for lessons, learn and then apply orientation and mobility skills throughout the day made me proud to be part of the Hudson School District," said Wilke, who is interning as a teacher of the blind and visually impaired. "This sets the bar high for what I know is possible in my future job as a TVI."

Throughout her day at school, Liberatore uses several different pieces of technology and software to be as independent as possible in the classroom.

"I am very independent, but that means I have to have a very good and strong relationship with my teachers so that they understand what I need to be successful. They want me to succeed as much as anyone," Liberatore said.

According to Liberatore, the visually impaired students and staff have been planning to make a trip to Chicago, but the execution of such a plan was something they weren't ready for, both financially and developmentally.

"Over the last few years, we've been doing a lot of mobility training and little trips to prepare ourselves for this trip. We also raised our own money to fund the trip," Liberatore said. "We held several community events, like our 'Dining in the Dark' event, to help raise funds. We also sold Braille bracelets and chocolate covered pretzels that resembled long white canes."

The entire trip was student-driven, with students putting out a survey to see what everyone wanted to eat for lunch, what modes of transportation they wanted to experience and what they wanted to do throughout the day.

"From there, they kind of drove their own timeline. Students looked at what we could fit into a day while relying on those public forms of transportation. We also discussed what strategies we would build in if we miss a bus or train to make sure we have a successful trip when we aren't in control of that transportation," Smith said.

According to Smith, visually impaired students in the Hudson district learn a wide range of strategies and have several options for technological support to make their lives as easy as possible in the classroom. There are students who rely more on technology, while others learn Braille and use their long white canes for orientation and mobility skills.

"For the most part, it is a blend of in-classroom support, that focuses on those self advocacy skills, and direct instruction for specific skills that are related to building their skills and allowing them to have the same amount of access that everyone else does," Smith said.

Above all else, Liberatore and her fellow students hope that the benefits of their trip to Chicago go beyond the skills and techniques they learned while making their way around the city.

"For me, being a teenage girl, a lot of people are insensitive or just very unaware of what being visually impaired means. I always try to handle it with a smile on my face, but it would be a lot easier if people knew more about it. I wish it wasn't as confusing or I didn't have to retell it on a day to day basis," Liberatore said. "It is something that is way more common than most people would think. I hope this event would spread some awareness to help people understand what being visually impaired is and what it means. Not being blind doesn't mean you still don't use a long white cane. I know how to read braille. Even though I'm legally blind, that doesn't mean that I still don't have a lot of vision left."

Jordan Willi
Jordan Willi is a reporter for the New Richmond News. Previously, he worked as a sports reporter at the Worthington Daily Globe in Worthington, Minnesota. He also interned at the Hudson Star Observer for two summers and contributed to the Bison Illustrated sports magazine at North Dakota State University.
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