The following article originally appeared in
The South Florida Sun Sentinel
on November 9, 2007.
Yvonne Robinson is one of Palm Beach County, Fla.'s most experienced elementary school teachers. Yet through 36 years in the classroom, she's never seen a student smile for scoring high marks.
"You don't have to see the expression on their face," Robinson says. "You know it in other ways." She feels, she hears, she touches, but she can't see all of the learning that occurs inside her third-grade classroom at Banyan Creek Elementary. Robinson is legally blind, and has been since she was struck by a rare disease in her youth.
While a number of the Palm Beach County School District's almost 13,000 teachers work with disabilities, only Robinson and perhaps one or two others are performing without sight using a full-time aide, district administrators say.
Robinson is such a natural educator - she's long had top evaluations and peer nominations for teaching and leadership awards - that her students and supervisors simply don't focus on her lack of vision. "She has to toe the mark just like anybody else," said Janie Peters, retired district administrator and former principal of Seminole Trails Elementary near West Palm Beach, Fla. Robinson taught there for decades until this fall. "Her disability does not interfere with the quality of her instruction."
Mia Caceres-Nielsen, 8, of Boynton Beach, Fla., describes having a blind teacher this year another way: "She's a mom and moms can see everything, they have eyes in the back of their heads. It looks like she's not blind from where we are."
Robinson, who lives near Wellington, Fla., with her husband and son, transferred to Banyan Creek in September to fill a need for a teacher in the school's gifted program. She met parents during an open house, and believes that she eased any concerns about her condition. "Once people meet me, they get over it," said Robinson, whose other senses, especially hearing, compensate for her lack of sight. "Just because I'm impaired doesn't mean I'm not capable."
Her classroom is typical for third grade - rows of student desks, books, test reminders, cursive writing charts, and plenty of fall season decorations. Robinson's aide for the past 10 years, Wendy Casperson, is with her at all times for support. She drives Robinson to and from school, and helps with nearly every aspect of classroom instruction and management. An Americans with Disabilities Act grant pays her district salary. Casperson, wheelchair-bound because of a broken leg, sits beside Robinson and helps grade homework, administer tests, read passages from books, and answer e-mails. "Even though we're two, we're one," Robinson said during a recent interview. "A lot of people say it's like we're a married couple."
Debbie Simon, of Boca Raton, Fla., said she believes her daughter Brooke, 8, and the other students benefit from observing someone such as Robinson who has overcome a disability. Simon says Robinson's blindness appears to be a nonissue. "Obviously she is adept at recognizing who the kids are and where they are," Simon said. Whenever a student wishes to be called upon, Casperson says their name and the student stands to speak so Robinson can hear; just like a lawyer before a judge. Robinson says she studies her environment and voices. "I can see everything," she says, "and nothing."
Robinson's new co-workers have noticed how she manages so well without sight. "She's certainly an inspiration to all of us around here," Principal William Fay Jr. said.
Robinson had normal vision until puberty, when she rapidly developed an inherited disorder called Stargardt's disease, the most common form of juvenile macular degeneration. The incurable disease affects 30,000 to 50,000 people in the United States, according to the American Macular Degeneration Foundation. Robinson has limited peripheral vision only and can see light, but is legally blind. She says her visual acuity is far worse than the minimum 20/200 for that designation. A legally blind person has to stand 20 feet from an object to see it as a normally sighted person could from 200 feet.
The Florida Atlantic University alumna always refused to let the disease beat her. "My mother never allowed me to be disabled," Robinson said. "You have to change your attitude. The world doesn't owe you anything." She has adopted that spirit in raising her only child, now 24, who has Down syndrome. Throughout her teaching career, she's had several legally blind students and one totally blind student.
Off campus, Robinson is a downhill skiing coach with Special Olympics, volunteers at her church, enjoys mountain climbing and gardening. "I haven't allowed my disability to be a disability," said Robinson, who even has applied for NASA's Teacher in Space program. "I'm the luckiest woman in the world."
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