Sunday, July 16, 2000

Scholarship helps blind students excel




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        When Michael Leiterman was 18 months old, his mother thought she might lose him. The now 24-year-old was diagnosed with a rare childhood cancer, retinoblastoma, a genetic mutation that sparks retinal tumors in very young children.

        After the removal of one eye and deep radiation in the other, he was left with vision measuring 20/400 in one eye. Not much eyesight by conventional standards, but enough to enable him, albeit with significant struggle, to read the printed word until age 20.

        In a small town special education classroom — blending children with severe behavioral and developmental disabilities with Mike Leiterman, whose cognitive skills were superior — he recalls having to color in the same circles and triangles in the same reading text for the first four years of his education.

        At age 11, his mother sent him to the residential Ohio State School for the Blind in Columbus where Mr. Leiterman recalls that placement was initially a challenge.

        “They were going to put me in third grade because I'd learned so little,” he said. “Then they wound up putting me in fourth grade, where I spent about two weeks.” Rapidly, he caught up to grade level and excelled in not only academics but swimming, wrestling, and public speaking as well.

        Last week in Atlanta, at the annual convention of the National Federation of the Blind, he was honored by a $6,000 scholarship which will help fund his entry into law school. As a senior in genetic biology at the University of Cincinnati, Mr. Leiterman has earned a 3.5 grade average, is active in his Sigma Nu fraternity, and works as a freshman dorm resident advisor. Four years ago, he lost his remaining vision and has since trained with Seeing Eye dog, Sandor, whom he describes as the most popular guy on campus.

        For those who question the prospects of young people with visual disabilities, the introduction of the 30-member, 2000 Scholarship Class at the NFB was an eye-opener indeed.

        In addition to funding for tuition, books, and assistive technology, winners expressed a gratitude for life skills and self-awareness that could never have been learned in a classroom setting.

        Nathanael Wales, a senior in civil engineering at the University of California, Davis, who was granted a $7,000 scholarship, credits the organization with far more than freedom to pursue his academic path.

        “Because of the skills I've gained through this organization,” he says, “and having blind role models, I have the confidence to travel wherever I want to go. I have the confidence to pursue a non-traditional career path [civil engineering] for a blind person because I know that anything is possible.”

        It takes more than good grades to transform any student into a productive adult. For students with disabilities, an integral part of the success formula seems to lie in embracing disability as part of one's identity, learning to make the necessary adaptations and follow one's path as one would do without the disability's presence.

        Michael Leiterman confirms that the formula works. His life is full, he says, with love, friendship, academic passions of biology and law, and a bright future. Still, the icing on the cake in winning the NFB scholarship was last week's attendance at a national convention of blind people.

        “It was really impressive,” he says, “to see 3,000 people who don't whine about problems, but just take action. The scholarship is wonderful and will help me look at law schools this next year, but the most valuable thing I'll take away is seeing so many role models who happen to be blind.”

        Cincinnati writer Deborah Kendrick is a nationally recognized advocate for people with disabilities. Write her at Cincinnati Enquirer, Tempo, 312 Elm St., Cincinnati 45202. E-mail: dkendrick@enquirer.com.

       



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