Transitioning into Teaching after Vision Loss

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Adjusting to vision loss is always challenging but having to do it in an entirely new and unrelated career is especially difficult. The following article, which originally appeared in the Palm Beach Post
on June 4, 2015 explains how it can be done. It is worth noting that the professional transition was managed teaching early elementary school, traditionally the most difficult area for a visually impaired teacher to obtain employment.

The day after Tiffany Bowman interviewed for a teaching job at Somerset Academy, she had to call them back.

Teacher Tiffany Bowman is legally blind. She uses a magnifying machine for reading.

“I said, ‘I failed to mention something that you need to know: I’m vision-impaired.”

Bowman hadn’t been trying to hide it, but during the entire, engaging 45-minute interview, it hadn’t come up. “It’s not something that I lead with,” Bowman said. “It’s not who I am.”

Bowman, 42, is legally blind.

Principal Bonnie May, who knows a good teacher when she sees one, hired Bowman without hesitation. Now Bowman is in her third year teaching second grade at the charter school for grades one to seven in Boca Raton. “I’m actually proud of the way I’ve been able to adjust,” Bowman said.

Bowman has Stargardt’s disease, an early onset form of macular degeneration. “It’s genetic, but it’s very rare to have it so early,” Bowman said. Most people don’t get macular degeneration until they’re in their 70s or 80s, but Bowman started getting symptoms in her late 20s.

The Palm Springs resident worked in the restaurant industry in management until she was in her 30s, but with her vision worsening, she knew she needed to find a new vocation, one that wouldn’t be derailed by her failing eyesight. She went back to college at Florida Atlantic University and earned a degree in elementary education, graduating with honors in May 2012. As her vision worsened, she got help from the Division of Blind Services.

Her first symptoms were those annoying floaters most people have. But Bowman’s got worse and worse until there was a black dot blocking her center vision. She still has peripheral vision, which helps, but she cannot read without a magnifying machine. Bowman uses an Acrobat CCTV (closed circuit TV), which “magnifies writing to a size where I can read it.” The Division of Blind Services came through for Bowman again by purchasing the expensive equipment for her.

Then, at a parent/teacher night, Bowman met Karin Potts, whose son Camden is in her class. “Mrs. Potts noticed the magnifier and asked me about it,” Bowman said. Potts was surprised to learn how critical the machine was to Bowman’s job and stunned to learn that Bowman had to cart the machine back and forth every day. Bowman agreed: “Toting it back and forth is a hassle.” It’s not heavy, but it has to be carried in big, foam-padded case that’s bulky and hard to handle. But if Bowman doesn’t wrestle it home each night, she might get stuck grading a weeks’ worth of homework on a beautiful South Florida Sunday afternoon.

Potts is one of those women who always has a Plan B. She went home and researched the machine, which is basically a 22-inch flat screen monitor with a camera attached to a moveable arm. She got a price: $3,500. Then she spoke to the principal, saying “I understand Mrs. Bowman doesn’t have a back-up.” Then she suggested the fund-raiser.

“After Mrs. Potts secretly contacted my principal, the principal came and asked me how I felt about it.” Like the good teacher she is, Bowman said she wanted to make it a teachable moment. “I really don’t feel right getting something for nothing,” Bowman said. She suggested “a special talk about the etiquette of how to speak to and act toward people with disabilities. Then I went class by class and did a 35-minute presentation in each class.”

They further integrated the message using Dress Down Fridays, where kids paid money to wear fun clothes instead of uniforms. They asked the kids to choose a disability or challenge and wear clothing the color associated with that. Kids came in breast cancer pink and autism purple and many more.

“It snowballed! Kids came dressed head-to-toe in their support color. We asked for a $3 donation and raised all the money we needed in that one day! I was completely floored,” Bowman said, her voice cracking. “Our children handled it with such maturity and grace. Some kids with silent disabilities shared information with their friends for the first time. They talked about having dyslexia, ADHD, and seizure disorders. They shared information that they may have been afraid to share. It was almost cool to be disabled for the day.”

Potts contacted Barbara Brown, the rep from Enhanced Vision, and told her they’d raised the money for the machine. “She was impressed that we’d gotten donations to buy the machine, so she gave us a discount.” They saved at least $500 on the new HD Acrobat. About raising the money, Potts said, “I was shocked it only took one day.”

Principal Bonnie May had set a good example when she hired Bowman in 2012, and in October, 2014, she and the school were recognized for it. Somerset Academy and May were named Exceptional Employer of the Year by Vocational Rehabilitation and the Division of Blind Services for hiring Bowman despite her visual disability.

Now, Bowman said, the kids are showing the same acceptance of each other that May showed, and it makes her heart skip a beat, she says.

“In the deepest part of their hearts, these kids care for other people.”

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