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Blind Albany student learns braille through online cyber academy

One of the first things a visitor notices when entering the house William Hanks, a blind 13-year-old boy, shares with his mother and grandparents is the music.

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Terry Lewis
ALBANY, GA — One of the first things a visitor notices when entering the house William Hanks, a blind 13-year-old boy, shares with his mother and grandparents is the music.

"Listen," he asks. "Do you hear the music?"

Listen intently and the soft strains of the song can be heard coming from the rear of the abode. It's Frank Sinatra singing "My Way."

The song seemed fitting, but in many respects it could easily be called "Our Way."

Four years ago, William's grandmother, Shirley Wingfield, and his family pulled William out of the Dougherty County School System. She quit her job at Procter & Gamble to devote her energy to giving her grandson a chance at a normal life. William has been legally blind since birth because his his optic nerves never developed.

"He lost his braille teacher at West Town Elementary and we couldn't see him going anywhere in the Dougherty County School System because they couldn't keep a braille teacher," Wingfield said. "So we pulled him out of school and got him into GCA, the Georgia Cyber Academy. It was a decision we are pleased with."

As most traditional schools do not have braille teachers on staff, blind students can have trouble keeping up with their sighted classmates. An Albany native and rising 6th grader at the Georgia Cyber Academy, William is one of the students who found an alternative with GCA three years ago.

After his traditional school told him that they did not know what to do for him since they were unfamiliar with braille, William made the switch to GCA - a K12 Inc. online public charter school (not a homeschool program). Since making the switch, Hanks has been excelling in his classes.

And he has a permanent braille teacher at GCA. Every day, William and his teacher meet via Skype.

He also meets with his teacher, who makes the 90-minute trip to visit him, weekly for lessons on life skills and how to effectively get around with his cane.

The result is not only is William excelling in his academics, but he can read and write grade-two level in braille.

"I'm trying to advance myself in math and science, but sometimes it's hard for me to concentrate," Hanks said. "In the third grade, I refused to work and sometime later I got pulled out of the school. Nana (Wingfield) asked me why I wasn't doing my work and I told her I didn't feel like it."

Once the GCA furnished Hanks with a permanent braille teacher, things began to change.

"The first word I ever read in Braille was 'today,'" he said.

"He also has an online braille teacher on the TV teaching him what the symbols mean. He has a brailler (braille keyboard) and he has to type in words and read them back to his teacher," Wingfield said. "This is his third year with her and it's working out very good. He also has a vision teacher who comes here. He's in shadow now."

William's disorder allows him some level of sight or light perception.

"I love school now," William said.

His typical school day starts at 8 a.m. All his lessons are planned out for the month. At 9:30 a.m., he goes to a real teacher online. There are sighted students in the classes. At 3:30 p.m., he attends braille school online.

While his life has improved, he still gets frustrated.

"I can read now - I read every day," he said, "but I don't know how to paint."

Where William is today compared to three years ago can be attributed to his grandmother. It hasn't been easy for her either.

"It took me some getting used to," she admits. "The lessons are not that hard because he has a lesson plan and a lot of teachers, so I have everything I need that way.

"But getting him to understand that this is not a play thing was difficult. in the beginning. He didn't want to sit and learn; he wanted to play. But I learned braille along with him. The hardest part for me is to manipulate his lessons so he can understand what's on the screen."

William's favorite subject is science, with a bent toward meteorology. He would like to one day be a weather forecaster, noting he enjoys listening to local weather reports.

"I think I would like to do that some day," he said.

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