Let’s Chat About … Self-Advocacy and Supporting Your Child’s Education with Beth Borysewicz
Children living with visual impairment become more independent and empowered when parents set high expectations for their kids and challenge them every day.
Just ask Beth Borysewicz. In her role with Connecticut’s Bureau of Education Services for the Blind, she makes a living helping children with visual disabilities realize their potential as strong, self-determined adults. And she’s the first one to say, often with tears in her eyes, that her job is to work herself out of a job.
She described her work in helping children from birth to 22 years old with visual impairment or blindness become more independent as adults as part of the Hope in Focus “Let’s Chat About …” webinar series. Our March episode, moderated by Courtney Coates, Director of Outreach and Development, featured Borysewicz, an Education Consultant for the Department of Aging and Disabilities, Bureau of Education Services for the Blind.
We developed the series with those living with Leber congenital amaurosis (LCA) and other rare inherited retinal diseases (IRDs) in mind, but we invite all members of our community, including those in research, industry, and the regulatory communities to join any of the sessions, as we look ahead to a common goal of advancing treatments for rare retinal disease. Click here to view this episode.
Borysewicz found her passion working with the blind and low-vision community unexpectedly 16 years ago, when she had a 3-year-old student named Sofia, who was diagnosed with LCA. Yes, that would be the same Sofia as in Sofia Sees Hope, our organization’s original name until a recent rebranding to Hope in Focus. Borysewicz also is Vice Chair of our Board of Directors.
She said parents need to be the biggest advocates for their children.
“If you think your child is not getting what they need, you can ask for it.”
She also encouraged connections with people who have been on this journey before, bringing to mind the Hope in Focus Family Connections program that helps ease feelings of isolation that can arise when a family member is diagnosed with a rare disease.
“It’s the people that have already gone through it who will help you the most, including Hope in Focus. That’s why I’m on the board. What Hope in Focus does for families is immeasurable.”
All the Little Things We Do Every Day
As a Teacher of Students with Visual Impairments (TVI), Borysewicz focuses on teaching students self-advocacy and exploring the Expanded Core Curriculum (E.C.C.), distinguished from a school’s standard core curriculum consisting of courses in math, science, reading, and the like.
E.C.C. comes from the perspective of teaching students with blindness or low-vision and encompasses nine areas: Compensatory Skills, Orientation and Mobility, Social Interaction, Independent Living, Recreation and Leisure, Sensory Efficiency, Assistive Technology, Career Education, and Self-Determination.
The curriculum is more than a checklist or lesson plans for learners with a visual impairment, according to The E.C.C. and Me website. It’s all the little things we do every day, done with intention so children with visual impairments can learn skills they need for a fulfilling life.
“I wish everyone would do what I do,” Borysewicz told her webinar audience. “There is a shortage worldwide of TVIs.”
She advised parents to set expectations high for their children, challenge them every day, and give them a safe place to learn.
“Children can do anything they set their minds to. Do anything you can do to empower them,” she said. “Celebrate everything. Celebrate every little thing.”
She talked about self-determination, saying it’s her favorite part of the curriculum and the most important.
“It’s teaching a child to believe in themselves and just take that leap,” she said. “It’s taking that step off the curb to cross the street with a cane or initiating a conversation at a lunch table that builds self-confidence.”
Making Learning Fun and Exciting
Her work with people from birth to age 22 encompasses figuring out resources for newly diagnosed children, for school-aged students, and for young adults transitioning to the workforce or college.
“I switch hats from appointment to appointment every day,” she said. “As you can tell, I love my job.”
Working with individualized education plans (IEP), she and her team helps students become the best they can be in all the E.C.C. areas.
“It’s so important for the student to say, ‘This is what I need and why I need it,’ and just building those skills will make them successful as adults.”
And a lot of it is fun, especially with Borysewicz who excels in the Recreation and Leisure department. It goes back to when she was growing up and her dad always told her she was good at playing with people and should get a degree in play.
She implements that play degree often by creating board games to make math more fun or putting together programs to help students from prekindergarten through grade 3 explore the nine E.C.C. areas in their daily lives.
In an Expedition to Explore, students in the Young Passport Program worked on accumulating life skills at home over the summer. Each student has a passport consisting of pages designated for each of the nine E.C.C. areas, with a slant toward adventure. For example, “Career Education Caves” focuses on conversational skills, encouraging children to stay connected with their friends over the summer, known in the business world as networking, and holding mock interviews with their siblings or stuffed animals.
In “Self-Determination Safari,” a goal is to get the child to ask for help. A parent asks a child to do an unfamiliar chore, such as taking out the trash or putting toys away but doesn’t give guidance on how to do it or where to put the trash or toys, prompting or encouraging the child to ask for assistance or directions.
“Social Skills Glaciers” encourages children to spread kindness to neighbors and the community and recommends an online guide called “100 Acts of Kindness for Kids.” Activities include listening, following directions, taking turns, ignoring distractions, cooperating, and showing empathy. (Sounds great for adults, too!)
Resources for People with Blindness or Low Vision
Borysewicz talked about her work from the perspective of Connecticut and said services may differ from state to state.
She authors a blog dedicated to professionals, families, and students called I Love Brl (Braille) and she provided webinar viewers this list of resources:
9 More than Core; The Independent Little Bee; Expanded Core Curriculum Ideas for Preschoolers and Early Elementary; Is My Child Getting a Quality V1 Program?; Integrating E.C.C. Activities into Literacy Instruction; Family Connect; and Wonder Baby.