Honor student stays focused on goals

Teachers say teen with impaired sight is driven, ambitious

Education beat

December 04, 2005|By CASSANDRA A. FORTIN | CASSANDRA A. FORTIN,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

As part of her nighttime ritual, Melinda Taylor checks on her seven daughters.

Sometimes she finds one or two of them reading long after bedtime by the glow of a flashlight.

And then there are the times when she discovers her oldest daughter, Teisha Collins, reading in darkness.

Teisha doesn't need a light to read. She was born with a rare vision impairment that left her with limited peripheral vision and no front vision, so she can only read in Braille.

Despite her condition, the Edgewood High School sophomore has excelled academically. Teisha, 15, takes predominantly honors classes, studies three or more hours every night and aspires to attend Harvard Law School and become a prosecutor. She also plays in the school's chamber orchestra.

"I don't want to not try something because I can't see as well as everyone else," Teisha said. "I want to be a prosecutor and I don't have to have 20/20 vision to do that."

Teisha describes her vision as having limited sight without the ability to see detail.

"I can see people, but not the color of their eyes," she said. "I can watch television up close with the lights on and from the couch with the lights off. I can see permanent marker on my math work, but most of my work is done in Braille."

Doctors have diagnosed Teisha's condition as possible macular degeneration, a disease of the retina that causes severe blurring of central vision. Typically the disease is seen in people older than 60, but Teisha was born with it. The condition is genetic and rare.

"We tried to trace Teisha's vision problem back as far as we could go and couldn't," her mother said. "And the doctors say when it shows up again, they won't be able to trace it back to Teisha because she'll be long gone by then."

But for now, Teisha is making her mark at high school. Among her courses this year are honors biology, honors English, advanced algebra and trigonometry. Special permission was required for Collins to take the two math courses.

"We don't typically allow students to take two math classes, but Teisha can handle it," said Karen Karnes, a teacher who works with visually impaired students throughout the county. "She's very self-sufficient and she can do the work. She's driven and she doesn't look at her problem as a handicap."

Planning for each school year begins in March, Karnes said. All of Teisha's textbooks must be in Braille and the sooner her instructors begin searching for the books, the more likely they are able to borrow them from the Maryland School for the Blind or other facilities.

"We have a very difficult time obtaining the books some years, even when we purchase them," Karnes said. "She's taking pre-calculus next year, and we checked on the book, and it's out of print in Braille and would have to be done specifically for Teisha. The cost would be about $70,000 for the one book, so we will have to borrow that one."

Teisha's textbooks cost about $1,000 each and typically consist of several volumes. For example, she uses an algebra book that cost $995 and has 53 volumes. Her trigonometry book cost $1,027 and has 50 volumes.

The books are large because Braille paper is much thicker and one page of print in a regular textbook is equivalent to three pages of Braille, said Roxanne Constantino, a Braille technician who translates Teisha's homework and textbooks.

Teisha's textbooks fill two walls in the office Karnes and Constantino share in the guidance office at Edgewood High. Constantino said that although she tries to get Teisha everything that other students have, there are some books she doesn't order because of their size.

"We'd like to get Teisha a Spanish dictionary, but the glossary alone would be several volumes and the entire dictionary would be hundreds of volumes," Constantino said.

One tool that takes up little space and makes the Braille process easier for Teisha is a nine-key Braille keyboard that Teisha uses much like a computer. She types her homework assignments in Braille and saves them to a memory card, which is inserted into a printer. She can print out her work in Braille, which enables Constantino to translate the material for her teachers in print.

Despite her success in working around her condition, Teisha said there are times when she faces limits to what she can do. For example, although she earned straight A's in the first quarter this year, Teisha has to spend more than three hours a day on homework.

"It's faster to read with the eyes than the hands," she said.

Teisha said her biggest frustration comes from something she hasn't been able to achieve: learning to drive. While her friends are getting learner's permits, she can't.

But she hasn't given up hope. She plans to try laser surgery, a procedure that improves vision by removing corneal tissue and reshaping the cornea to adjust focus.

"I have to wait until I'm 18 to try laser surgery because I have to sign permission for the surgery for myself," Teisha said. "But I want to try, because if it works, then I can drive."

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