MS. REBECCA SHEIR
As you just heard, we often associate independence with growing up, right? getting older, and learning to navigate the world on our own. Well, if you have a disability, then that navigation can be a bit more challenging. I recently visited a place that's preparing blind and visually impaired young people to go it alone in the so-called real world, while they're still in school.
MS. REBECCA SHEIR
Now is this the boys' house or the girls' house?
MS. MAUREEN BISESI
This is the girls'.
We're in Parkville, Md., at the Maryland School for the Blind, or MSB, the 159 year old institution offers on-campus day and residential programs for roughly 185 blind and visually impaired students.
Now I've not been here since they left from graduation, so I'm not – well, we'll see what the condition is.
The condition it's in. Residential and related service director Maureen Bisesi is taking me inside MSB's new independent living home, which opened on the 95 acre campus in January. It still smells new.
It does still smell new, and when they first moved in here, one of the girls asked if they sell candles and air freshener that are new house smell, because they never want to lose the smell. So if you come across that in your travels, let us know.
I'll let you know. Around 2005, the school built its first independent living home. Since then, male and female students have switched off living there each semester. But with two independent living homes, now guys can reside in one house and girls in the other, all school year long. This past semester, four girls called the new house home.
Each of the students has their own bedroom, two students share a bathroom. They're responsible for the cleaning of it, they're responsible for the maintenance of it.
They're also responsible for buying and cooking food, managing a budget, and of course, cleaning not just the bathroom, but the whole house.
I hear lots of comments about how challenging it is for them to clean this floor, that this is a bigger floor than they've even had to clean.
It's so big, big wood floor. The one story independent living home is pretty roomy, with a ton of natural light. The spacious central area contains a large, flat screen TV and leather couch, a big wooden dining table, and a kitchen, with features like a talking microwave, and a raised coil stovetop that loudly clicks when switched on and off.
Even something as simple as equipping the kitchen is an interesting process when you're talking about setting up a house that is going to promote independence. So one student did go with me to actually take a look at some stoves, and which one would be best, and getting their input is part of the experience.
And MSB president Michael Bina says the independent living home experience is just the beginning. Not only does he plan to build more independent living houses on campus...
MR. MICHAEL BINA
And maybe the highway's called Independence Boulevard or whatever.
...he also hopes to tear down the school's dormitories and add to MSB's existing fleet of cottages, where students receive far less supervision.
A lot of the students go in there kind of, what I call, a little bit of the chin on the chest. They don't really have the confidence, but when you trust them that you're going to be independent, you can do it, it promotes dignity, confidence, it's a bud that just blossoms. So when they go to an apartment complex, and the person may be renting will say, well, but you're blind, well, they can say, but I've lived independently at the Maryland School for the Blind in a house without anybody there to do it for me, and I know I can do it.
Not that attending the Maryland School for the Blind is just about learning independence, it's almost about learning, you know, reading, writing, arithmetic.
Algebra's important, science is important, every activity, but that's just a subset of the big picture of independence. You've got to go on and get a job, be self sufficient, and achieve your full potential. So I mean, it's a dynamic that we're giving them a diploma, and we're giving them the confidence. And I sometimes think the confidence is maybe sometimes more important than a diploma.
MSB student Lois Cooksey is just one year away from getting that diploma. The soon to be senior isn't blind.
MS. LOIS COOKSEY
I wear contacts, so I'm like 20/40 in both eyes.
But without contacts, she says...
It's like looking underwater.
Lois has gone through the rigorous independent living home application and interview process, and hopes to move in this fall. What is it that makes you want to change your living situation?
I want to be more independent. I want to learn things that I don't get the chance to learn in the dorm, or if I do learn them in the dorm, I want to have a chance to do them on my own, without supervision.
Things like cleaning, she says, and cooking, even if the latter isn't quite her cup of tea.
I don't really like cooking, so cooking all my meals is gonna drive me a little bit crazy.
What's your favorite food?
You can just buy that out of the package and just eat it with a spoon. You're in luck. Ok, not really. Though independent living students are mainly on their own, Maureen Bisesi does say the school ensures they're making healthy choices. In any case, Lois says she was pretty sheltered growing up, so she's excited at the prospect of her new home. Well, excited...
I'm kind of terrified.
But I know if I want to be independent after MSB, then I'm gonna have to do it.
Because Lois has big dreams, she wants to go to college, and major in art. And she wants everyone to know that, given the chance, blind and visually impaired people can do most anything.
I think that people need to be more aware of blind and visually impaired people in general, and that we're just like you. We can be independent, we can live on our own.
We sort of use the phrase, living the learning, as our independent living house mantra, because that's what they're doing.
Back at the new independent living home, Maureen Bisesi says this learning isn't always easy, especially during the students' initial probation period.
We actually observe and assess them as they go through their first month. Are they applying safe practices with cooking? Are they applying safe strategies with answering the door? We actually set situation up where we will knock on their door at 11 o'clock at night to see how they're gonna handle it.
And if students pass those tests this fall, she says, they're in for an exhilarating and challenging year, one that carries out something the Maryland School for the Blind declared years ago.
Our war on dependence.
Sure, girding up for that battle can be daunting for some students, Maureen Bisesi says, but in the end, their victories are sweet as sugar. Or cookie dough? You can learn more about the independent living homes at the Maryland School for the Blind and see photos of the new houses' first residents on our website, metroconnection.org.
After the break, how Bikeshare is affecting independent bike shops, and looking back at a time when summer meant total freedom.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE #1
In the middle of the day, when the heat was the worst, the kids would walk up to Mrs. Porter's store. The store was dark and cool, and we always got popsicles.
That and more is just ahead on "Metro Connection" here on WAMU 88.5.
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