Brilliance in the Dark

I’ve been going to Grand Beach, Michigan since I was 4 years old – always around the 4th of July.  The stays ranged in duration – we stayed longer when I was younger – I’m hoping to stay longer as my kids get older.    Some could argue that I did a lot of growing up along its sandy beaches and the interactions with my family there.  Some could argue that I retreat to the 4 year old still locked inside of me who sees it as a safe haven from the craziness of my life.  My place to escape, to disappear because even though I’ve been going there for just about 4 decades, I never made lasting attempts to meet people.  I know a few neighbors, but otherwise – I go there in anonymity.  In fact, up until this summer when the village decided to ramp up its connections, there was no connectivity in Grand Beach.  Most of the village was in a dead spot for cell phones and wifii – forgot that – you’d be lucky if you could connect in town.  I think its why I like going there.  I was Vanna unplugged – with the perfect excuse not to log-in, log-on – I simply could just log-out.

But I also have to recognize that a lot of who I am has been shaped because of my trips to Michigan despite the lack of connectivity.

One of my mother’s best friends, Kiki, owns the home that we stay at.  She “summers” in Grand Beach and has since she was a little girl. We stay with her when we go. The thing about Kiki was that when she was in her twenties, she found out that she would eventually go blind due to retinitis pigmentosa.  She traveled the world to see if any doctor might have a cure and came to understand around age 25 that this was her fate.  Her life, as she imagined it to be as a young woman, was suddenly reshaped as the world around her would disappear into the darkness.  She celebrated her 80th birthday this past June – and for over 20+ years her world has been completely dark.  But to many, as to me, she has brought light.  Why?

Because Kiki is an educator.

Specifically, she is a retired second grade teacher, but still sharing lessons about life.  The summers we stayed with her for a few weeks were spent getting her set for school.  I credit my good penmanship on the hundreds of name cards I wrote for the children’s desks.  I credit my ability to observe the world around me to the times I spent in her classroom getting her acclimated to the environment so that the students wouldn’t know exactly how much she could not see.  I credit my ability to really listen, not just hear, but listen to what’s said or how it s said or what’s not said to the times that I spent observing my mother describe each child to Kiki so that she would come to know them as people and the individuals that they were – not simply faceless voices.  Kiki is amazing – she navigates the world by getting to know who you are.  She navigated her classroom by making sure the children had an identity to her that made them unique and special and all the other descriptors that are warranted for children who are 8 years of age and learning about life and the world and who they are in it.    Many of the parents – at her retirement – didn’t realize that she as blind.  Granted her eye sight faded gradually through the years and it was perhaps only the last 10 that she couldn’t really see at all in her classroom.  But no one seemed to mind.  What they remembered was how their child become a top reader, when prior to entering her classroom, they couldn’t read at all.  Or how their child communicated verbally so well.  Or how descriptive their stories were.  Or how much they were cared for in her classroom.  Her legacy is a testament to what should be remembered about all educators.

So you may be wondering what this has to do with technology or mobile learning.

Well, you see, when I think about Kiki, I see this as one area in which technology has failed.  Or rather has not moved fast enough or strong enough for the need.  We don’t do enough to help people like Kiki who are digital immigrants be able to utilize technologies.  I spent many summer nights ripping out buttons on a remote so that only the ones she needed were accessible.  I spent many days running her hand over buttons on a VCR, or a telephone to help her be self-sufficient.  But, what about our handheld devices – how do I show Kiki to dial a SmartPhone?  Any augmented device comes at an expense the exceeds her motivation to have a cell phone – although it would seem that she would be the ideal candidate to carry around the device in case she needed help – like the time she became disoriented after taking out the trash and inadvertently turned the wrong direction and ended up taking over an hour to figure out how to get to her front door – which was only 10 feet away.  And yet – this device that we all so casually use – are not best designed for all of the populations they could serve.

But we are making progress, right?

QR codes are amazing – think about what it means for someone like Kiki who could scan a jar in her cabinet and know it is cinnamon and not the oregano she really wanted to use.  (It certainly would have saved us from eating some pretty nasty potatoes one night …).  But what about the devices that are needed to utilize these apps.  How do we look at them and help people like Kiki who have to accommodate so much of her life that maybe all she would like would be to have a phone similar to everyone else.  But we aren’t there yet – our voice recognition doesn’t do the justice we need for the “common” population.  Our devices don’t have the touch capabilities for people that need to feel.

But think about the possibilities ….

Students in my 590ML: Mobile Learning for Education course just completed case studies on an app of their choice.  I was amazed at the breadth and depth of what was explored.  Although many didn’t consider individuals with special needs, many did think about what the future might hold for these apps and many did speculate on ideas that would extend to populations that had unique needs.  This weekend as I watched my kids using the Xbox 360 Kinect, I thought about how someday they may be manipulating a chemical reaction in science class with this technology and then I thought about how maybe some day the interaction would also be felt – so if you couldn’t see well, you are able to navigate the virtual space as you do your physical space.  We are on the horizon for many ideas, devices, and resources that will transform our lives – more than likely without us even realizing it.  It may be too late for people like Kiki who learned to make her life brilliant despite the darkness, but I always wonder what else she might have done, if the technologies were there to inspire her?  Like all our students, when given the right tools, what they build, what they create, what they design, what they believe …. is limitless.
It is how we are illumined, despite the darkness we face ….


About evangeline13

mom.wife.educator - passionate and fearful about the future of our educational system.
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4 Responses to Brilliance in the Dark

  1. I agree with your statement regarding the lack of technological progress that has been made to assist people with unique needs. As I assisted my mother-in-law in her search for a retirement community, I thought about both things that have improved since the time my mother relocated to a retirement community in 1993. It’s the small things. For instance, the way my mother had to buzz in her guests. That form of technology has improved. The retirement village we explored seemed to have thought of everything (heck, in 15 years, I am looking to reside However, I thought if there was a way to remotely move the residents to such areas as the restaurant-style cafteria or to their rooms from the elevator (for those who may require such assistance). As I am learning about the QR codes, I wonder what life would be like in 2 or 3 years.
    OAN, I think we pass by Grand Beach on our way to St. Joseph. We have been vacationing there for a few years now during the summer. 🙂

  2. Brishundra says:

    What a touching and inspiring testament! Thanks for sharing. I would love to meet your mother and Kiki. I hope they get to experience QR Codes! Your story makes me think about our trip to Hiawassee, GA. We were in the mountains in a secluded area so I wonder how things are there now since that was several years ago.

  3. Rhonda says:

    This was wonderful to read. You got me thinking about how quickly technology is advancing and if inclusive design is a part of this transformative revolution. One part of me worries that the tech industry may be like the pharmaceutical industry where relatively little research is done on rare and therefore, less profitable diseases while massive amounts are spent on conditions less significant, but deemed more profitable. Then I began thinking that perhaps there is research and development going on right now, but we are not hearing about it. Like most things in western society, unless we go digging, we only hear about the products of highly publicized and marketed corporations. I have found one institution that has a dedicated program for inclusive design: The Inclusive Design Research Centre at The Ontario College of Art and Design at
    “The IDRC is a research and development centre at OCAD University where an international community of open source developers, designers, researchers, advocates, and volunteers work together to ensure that emerging information technology and practices are designed inclusively. The group promotes inclusion in a full complement of activities:

    growing design and development practices
    creating tools that others can use and contribute to
    teaching the principles and techniques of inclusive design
    advocating for inclusion in international standards
    providing services that match solutions with individuals”

    I like this sentence that I found on their website: “Designing inclusively makes better experiences for everyone.”
    So I believe the thinking and the work is out there. Unfortunately, we are not hearing about it enough. The message needs to become mainstream, so that more people become involved and aware of this important issue.

  4. Pam says:

    I really enjoyed reading about Kiki and your relationship with her. What a wonderful story!

    I am definitely going to have to learn more about QR Codes. I hadn’t thought about how helpful they would be for someone with visual deficits.

    The first thing on your post that caught my eye was that you stay at Grand Beach, I am staying at Union Pier this week. I have been coming up here every summer for the last 15 years with my brother and his family. They live in South Bend, and we only see them a couple times a year. We have had the best summers up here too! I love Harbour County area of Lake Michigan! 🙂

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