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Winter 2004 Table of Contents
Versión Español de este artículo (Spanish Version)

Keeping the Bar of Expectations High

By Brandy Wojcik, Discovery Toys Educational Consultant, Austin, TX

Abstract: Meet a young lady whose life speaks volumes about the value of self-advocacy at an early age. Parents and professionals alike will gain much from her story of a determined path toward a career choice.

Key words: blind, deafblind, personal story, career education, expanded core curriculum

I am a 23-year-old attending the University of Texas, majoring in Early Childhood and Special Education. I currently work two part-time jobs, one at St. Luke Infant Care Center and the other as an independent salesperson for Discovery Toys®. I frequently baby-sit for extra money and to gain valuable experience. In my spare time I enjoy playing my flute, reading, helping others succeed, and singing in my church chOír. When I was approached to write this article, I was asked to respond to several questions: What guided me to make this career choice? What and who helped me arrive at my decisions? There is not a simple answer, as I believe many intricately woven experiences and special people got me where I am today.

Looking back, the first ten years of my life experiences played a large role in my success. When I was first diagnosed with Leber's Congenital Amaurosis, a counselor came to my home to talk to my mom and she said, "If you overprotect her now, you will have to overprotect her for life." It was then that my mom removed the pillows, and raised her bar of expectation for what I could become. For as long as I can remember, my blindness was never an excuse. I was taught that, yes, I was different, but this was no problem. Yes, I may have to do some things differently, but that was the key: differently I would still complete the task or goal. From as far back as I can remember, I was expected to play an active role in my family chores, in school, and in extracurricular activities, such as Girl Scouts. During my preschool years I began to learn braille while attending class daily, to clean up my room, to clear my place at the table and to respect others. As the years passed and I got older, the responsibilities increased, as did the expectations. I continued to do chores, along with homework and helping with my younger sister. I also started to take an active role in making decisions about my educational program.

During junior high and high school, many things remained the same but many things also changed. The thing that changed most dramatically was my school arrangement. Because I attended eleven different schools during the first twelve years of life, I had fallen way behind academically. There was no doubt I had the ability; I just lacked the resources to learn. When I completed fifth grade, I had twelfth grade comprehension skills but my other reading skills and math skills were on the second- to third-grade level. To help me catch up, the decision was made that I needed to attend the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired (TSBVI). I already had a good foundation through doing chores at home, but now that I was older and living away from home, I learned to cook, clean, set goals, travel independently and be a part of the decisions made about me at a whole new level.

It was around this time when I became very active in extracurricular activities. I continued to be active in Girl Scouts, sharing the responsibilities of the troop's success. I began being active in sports, student council, chOír, piano lessons, the Pal Program, and drama class.

Even though I attended every ARD since I was in third grade, I only contributed by giving my opinions on what was already decided for me. In sixth grade, my advisor began meeting with me before the ARD to let me have a say in what was being planned for my education. I think this was important because I started learning how to decipher if I wasn't happy about a decision because I didn't like it or I had a good reason for not agreeing with the ARD committee. It allowed me to be honest about my abilities and to take control of my life. In the eighth grade, I returned to my public school. When I started getting concerned that I wasn't receiving the education I needed to be successful in college, I called my own ARD to advocate that I be on an equal playing field as my sighted peers. I didn't care what type of work I needed to do; I wanted a fair chance to compete with them to attend college. As part of the ARD committee, we made the decision for me to return to TSBVI. Once I asked to be treated equally and to have high expectations, I got it. I think in many ways, because I had to work so hard to receive a good education, it means more to me than one can imagine.

In sixth grade, I also began volunteering so that I could get work experience and to compete in the annual community service award. The first volunteer experience I had was at Magic Years Day Care where I worked in the infant room assisting the teacher in feeding, changing, and entertaining the children. I loved this work and my dreams of becoming a teacher began to blossom. I figured out that I wanted to teach babies, but I didn't know how much I wanted to do this until high school. That was when I learned that to make the difference I was wanting to make, I would need to teach children with special needs. It was the Pal Program that fostered this portion of my goal. The Pal Program is where older students were paired with elementary students to take them places on campus, help with homework, and in general be their mentor.

During high school, I participated in the TSBVI Dual Enrollment program, where students attend a portion of the day at a local high school and a portion of the day at TSBVI. I became active in theater, and later in band, while learning to play the flute. As you may or may not know, in high school, teens are encouraged to begin thinking of life after school. I knew college was a must for my goals, and I set my standards high and arranged my high school classes to give me the educational experience I needed to reach my goals. I took classes such as Home Economics and Child Development. I also participated in a summer work program where I worked at a local child care center sharing the classroom responsibilities of caring for the children. During the summer work experience, I also lived in an apartment with two other teens who were participating in the program. This work experience only strengthened my desire to teach. I graduated valedictorian of my class at TSBVI, and was ranked 57th out of 430 at McCallum High School.

While all the activities and expectations I have shared in the previous paragraphs played a large role in my choices and goals, a few things made a significant difference in who I am today. The first is the attitude people had about my blindness, that is, "no big deal." The second is the level of responsibility I was given and expected to keep. My involvement in Girl Scouts for twelve years was also a key factor; for it was here I learned to set my own goals, keep a calendar, interact appropriately with peers and adults, and to do my part. I have also always been held accountable for my actions — good and bad. I truly believe it is that which molded me to be who I am.

As an adult, I continue to set new goals to achieve. I now know I want to work with infants with special needs, and have found the college path to get me there. I have had two kidney transplants and took care of my own home dialysis while waiting for the second kidney. I am currently caring for my younger sister who lives with me while I independently clean my house, shop and cook my own food, attend work, and school. I am active in my church helping to teach Sunday school, taking Bible classes, taking my turn in cooking for fellowship events, and baby-sitting.

I am often asked how I got into selling Discovery Toys®. I decided to sell them when I needed some toys for the children I cared for at my home. I quickly discovered it was fun and easy, and I could work just one day care job instead of working two. The best part about selling is that I feel like I'm able to help parents with children of all abilities.

The one thing that had the most impact on shaping my decisions and goals today is what that counselor shared with my mother when I was just a baby. If she hadn't told her to let me have normal life experiences, I may not have ever made it this far. I want to be that teacher for others, guiding them to help their children to be all they can be in all aspects of life.

I'd like to thank the people who played valuable roles in my growth and independence:
my mom for insisting from the beginning that I be normal, living out my dreams; Lisa Birr, my first blind adult role model and teacher; Jan Walker, my first braille and O&M instructor when I was three years-old; Debra Sewell, my teacher at TSBVI, for helping me improve my braille skills and catch up academically; Nancy Voots who was my advisor and teacher throughout the seven years I was at TSBVI; Robyn Koenig, residential instructor, for continuing the expectations my mom started; Elise Ragland, my Girl Scout leader, friend, other mom, and sales director in Discovery Toys®; and Helen Weiker, my Boss and director at St. Luke, for insisting I play an equal role in my work, and for being flexible in adapting the work site by doing things such as putting braille labels on the children's storage bins. Thank you all for always being there!

I love helping others, and if any readers wish to talk with me about my story or to get more information about Discovery Toys® you can reach me at 512-453-0975 or <brandy@discoverytoyslink.com>. You can also check out my website at www.discoverytoyslink.com/brandy.

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August 19, 2004