The Maryland School for the Blind is preparing blind and visually impaired young people to go it alone in the so-called real world, while they're still in school.
The 159-year-old institution in Parkville, Md., offers on-campus day and residential programs for roughly 185 blind and visually impaired students, and this past semester, MSB opened the doors of its second Independent Living Home.
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, guys can now reside in one house, and girls in the other, throughout the entire school year. This past semester, four girls called the new house home.
Residents are responsible for buying food and preparing meals, managing a budget and cleaning the entire house.
Residential and Related Services Director Maureen Bisesi says she "[hears] lots of comments about how challenging it is for them to clean this floor. That this is a bigger floor than they've ever had to clean."
Indeed, 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," Bisesi says. "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."
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, but 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.
Bina says when students first move in, they don't really have a lot of confidence. But with a little trust and support, their confidence grows and they realize they're able to live a little more independently.
"So then when they go to an apartment complex, and the person maybe renting will say, 'Well, but you're blind!," then they 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 also about learning reading, writing and 'rithmetic.
"Algebra is important, science is important, every activity," Bina says. "But that's just the subset of the bigger picture of independence. You have to go on, get a job, be self-sufficient and achieve your full potential. So 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 the diploma!"
MSB student Lois Cooksey is just one year away from getting that diploma. The soon-to-be senior isn't blind; with contacts she has 20/40 vision in both eyes. But without contacts, she says, "it's like looking underwater."
Cooksey has gone through the rigorous Independent Living Home application and interview process, and hopes to move in this fall.
"I want to be more independent," she says. "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," she says. "So cooking all my meals is going to drive me a little bit crazy!"
Cooksey says she was pretty sheltered growing up, so she's excited at the prospect of her new home, but also kind of terrified. But she says. "I know if I want to be independent after MSB then I'm going to have to do it."
Because Cooksey 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," she says. "And that we're just like you. We can be independent, we can live on our own."
Bisesi says MSB uses the phrase "Living the Learning" as the unofficial mantra of the Independent Living Home. But that 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," she explains. "Are they applying safe practices with cooking? Are they applying safe strategies with answering the door? We actually set situations up where we will knock on their door at 11:00 at night to see how they're going to handle it."
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: an all-out war on dependence.
[Music: "Miss Indepedent [Instrumental]" by Countdown Singers from Karaoke Party: Today's Hot Hits  - Disc One]
Photos: Maryland School for the Blind