For 10 years, Orcutt has taught strategies for learning and independence to students around the city.
Tell me about your students.
I have six students right now, in Brooklyn and Manhattan, and all are high-needs. Two are braille users, another is deaf and blind. All of my students are in Integrated Co-Teaching classes or general classes. My youngest student is in kindergarten and the oldest is a high school junior. Generally students have to have 20-70 vision or worse to participate in the program.
What do you do?
I provide one-to-one services to students. I help them access large-print materials or use assistive technology to write and read, such as computer magnification and screen-reading software. Many of the students can now use electronic braille note-takers — a computer with a braille keyboard and no screen. It has a row of braille cells on the bottom that can be electronically refreshed as the student moves through a written document. The student can input text in braille and generate a printed page that anyone can read. For the older students, it’s about teaching them how to self-advocate; for example, letting the teacher know if the type on a computer screen needs to be magnified, or asking for a PowerPoint lesson in advance so they can be sure to access it on their own electronic devices. It’s important for them to know when to ask for help and when to be able to say they don’t need help. In addition to teaching the blind and visually impaired, I’m a nationally certified orientation and mobility specialist.
What does that mean?
I teach independent travel skills for students using a long cane. I teach compensatory skills to all of my students. I try to get them to do as many tasks as they can on their own. I tell them my job is to put myself out of a job. They get a kick out of that.
How does your day begin?
Every day begins differently because as an itinerant teacher I go from school to school. Everyone has a different level of services. I pull students out for individual services or I help teachers address the students’ needs in general education classes. I model how teachers can work with them, and I provide advice on how to make the lesson accessible.
What is your greatest challenge?
I have a limited amount of time in each school. I get pulled in multiple directions. It’s also a challenge to communicate to school staff about the specific needs of visually impaired students. There’s a learning curve at the beginning. At many schools, the student is the first blind person that the administrator or teacher has ever met, and they are reluctant to allow the student to be independent — including allowing the student to walk by himself — because they are concerned about liability issues. I work with the staff to give the child space to be independent. They have to plan differently.
What drew you to this line of work in the first place?
I graduated from college 10 years ago and wanted to teach but I wasn’t sure what I wanted to teach. I found a job as a paraprofessional for a blind student in Westchester, and that was it. Working with her, and getting to know the teachers of the visually impaired, I was just fascinated. It was the most amazing thing I had ever encountered.
How do you mean?
Teachers of the visually impaired have to rethink the visual context of a lesson for someone who can’t access anything visually. I watched a teacher come up with materials to teach drafting to one of the students. It’s a whole other way of looking at the world. It was a chance to be creative and make a difference in someone’s life. I’m still in contact with that former student in Westchester.
What are the biggest misconceptions you encounter about teaching children who are blind or visually impaired?
One misconception is that we do academic tutoring. We don’t. We teach the student how to access visual things through other methods.
What are the special satisfactions of working with these children?
Watching students independently and quickly do things that used to cause them a lot of frustration — that’s the main satisfaction. And watching how their mastery of a skill influences the way people think about people who are blind — helping other people realize that people who are blind can be independent — that, too, is amazing.
— As told to reporter Linda Ocasio