BY REBECCA SLOAN
SPECIAL TO THE MACON TELEGRAPH
Leading a class of rambunctious fourth-graders is a difficult task at the best of times.For Ciara Hall, a Wesleyan College graduate and teacher at Byron Elementary School, the job came with an additional level of challenges. Ciara is blind. She depends on a white cane and a black Labrador guide dog named Norman to help navigate her surroundings.
“It was a challenge to try and figure out how to lead a class of sighted children when I have no vision,” Ciara said. “I wondered how I would be able to interact with the students without being able to see them, and how would I gain their trust and respect as the leader of the class.”
Challenges caused by her sight loss have been a daily part of Ciara’s life. She was born with congenital glaucoma and low vision caused by Axenfeld-Rieger Syndrome, a condition which causes abnormalities in the front part of the eye, such as a thin or poorly developed iris, off center or misshapen pupils, or holes in the iris that look like multiple pupils.
About 50% of affected individuals develop glaucoma in late childhood or adolescence, although it can also develop in infancy. Glaucoma is a serious condition that can cause vision loss or blindness due to increases of pressure inside of the eye. In early childhood, Ciara learned to recognize colors and write the letters of the alphabet. By age six, she was preparing for further vision loss by learning how to read braille. At age 13 she lost her sight entirely after failed surgeries to save her remaining vision.
“I decided at a young age that I didn’t want to be treated any differently than anyone else, even though I was losing my vision,” Ciara said. “When I was 9 years old, a friend said we could no longer play together as her mother thought my blindness was contagious. I asked her if she had lost any of her vision during the year and she admitted that she had not.”
It was this interaction that taught her how important it was for her to talk with people about what it meant to be blind.
BECOMING AN ADVOCATE
She has since become an advocate for people experiencing vision loss, and an ambassador for the Axenfeld-Rieger Foundation, a patient advocacy group committed to finding a cure, or effective treatment, for the glaucoma caused by Axenfeld-Rieger Syndrome.
“People often judge me based on their own perception of what they think I can and can’t do as a blind person,” Ciara said. “There is a lot of misinformation out there and it can be confusing. I’ve learned not to listen to other people’s expectations about my abilities, and to figure out my own way of accomplishing tasks. I refused to let my vision loss hold me back. I had a great childhood, I dated in my teens just like my peers, excelled in school and won the ‘Miss School for the Blind’ award, and was given a full college scholarship.”
After graduating with a teaching qualification, Ciara was faced with the prospect of how to take the skills she learned in class into the real world.
“I originally thought my place was as a teacher at a school for the blind, but that’s not what ended up happening,” she said.
Shortly after graduating she was offered a job at Byron Elementary.
“It was daunting, but on my first day a colleague let me take her arm, and she showed me around the classroom. They gave me the opportunity to get my bearings and encouraged me to experiment with my teaching style to figure out what worked for me.”
Now entering her second year as an elementary school teacher for sighted children, Ciara feels she has developed a system that helps bring out the best in her and her students.
“The children take turns helping out with various classroom responsibilities,” she said. “One student will be in charge of calling out the names of anyone who has their hand raised, one will write notes on the board, another will set up any technology we need to use. They love the responsibility. It gives them a strong sense of purpose. If my students learn anything from my class, I hope they learn that they can achieve anything they set their mind to.”