Bettendorf girl shows how to overcome blindness

May 29, 2015 4:30 am • By Deirdre Baker

You would assume that 7-year-old Emily Groves doesn’t know what she’s missing. You would be oh, so wrong.

The second-grader from Bettendorf was born without any vision. That puts her in contrast with most legally blind people who do have some amount of sight.

Nevertheless, she is a whiz on what is called “Braille Sense,” a handheld computer that caters to her excellent skills in Braille, the communication system for blind people that was invented in the 1820s.

She’s so good with Braille, in fact, that she’s one of the top 60 students from around the U.S. and Canada involved next month in The Braille Challenge to be held in Los Angeles.
Emily is also a people person, a very outgoing youngster who, in the past year, has caught the attention of national magazines and starred in some television commercials, including a national attention-grabbing one for Xfinity that was broadcast during the Academy Awards ceremonies. In it she describes how she visualizes some of the main characters from “The Wizard of Oz.” (You can watch it at the website

Diagnosed at just 10 days of age

Emily is the fourth of six children in Tyler and Katie Groves’ family. She was born in North Carolina and spent her first four years there.

“It’s quite rare for people not to be able to see anything,” Katie Groves said. “It took us awhile to realize she was completely blind.”

Katie noticed something about her baby’s eyes, though, and it caught the attention of medical personnel at Emily’s 10-day checkup.

She was diagnosed with septo-optic dysplasia and placed in the care of a renowned eye specialist from Duke University. The condition is found in 1 in every 10,000 babies in the United States.

Emily was 4 years old when the Groves family moved to the Quad-Cities, where Tyler is an engineer with Deere & Co. in Moline.

“The community has been wonderful, and we are so pleased to be here in the Quad-Cities,” Katie said.

Browns come on the scene

When Emily was in preschool, Chad and Lori Brown entered her life. Chad Brown, who is certified as a teacher of the visually impaired, educated her how to use Braille.

At first, Emily learned pre-Braille concepts and then to how read and write in the tactile system. Now she is embracing modern technology based on Braille.

An example of that is the Braille Sense, which Brown described as a “personal note-taking device.” The cost of it runs from $3,000 to $5,000; one was purchased by the Pleasant Valley School District and provided for Emily’s use.

Next year, Brown said, she will begin keyboarding on a laptop, using a regular one with a screen reader, a computer application designed for those who are visually impaired.

Self-voicing, typing and teaching curricula are included in the plans put together by Emily’s instructional team at school, which includes a trained para-educator in the classroom.

While Emily is the only blind student at Pleasant View Elementary, Brown said there are other students in the Pleasant Valley district with visual impairments.

Second-grade experience

As a student, Emily is at or above her grade level (second) in most subjects, Brown says. She enjoys science as well as art and music.

Recently, Emily found the National Weather Service online via her hand-held computer and accurately described the weather forecast for the next few days.

Her daughter likes to follow the weather, Katie said. A few weeks ago, Emily alerted the entire Groves family to a tornado warning.

She uses the Braille Sense device to do her homework, and it links to classroom computers at the school.

While she has help in class, Emily dislikes using a cane and puts an emphasis on fending for herself. She rarely has to explain her blindness to other students. At times, however, she does say, “I can’t really see that …”

Emily picks out her own clothes, although she and her mother have an agreement: If the clothes don’t match, Katie points it out, and then Emily decides whether to change or not.

She helps with chores around the house, just as her older siblings do. When she’s doing the dusting and cleaning, Emily likes to borrow her mom’s iPhone and use an app called VoiceOver. With that, she can call up radio programs, including “My Little Pony,” a personal favorite.

She recently started violin lessons and enjoys playing the instrument. She likes music and said she hears better than most people she knows.

Asked about the national attention she received this winter after the TV commercial aired, Emily said it was cool at first, but then got a bit overwhelming.

“It was a very positive experience. We had no idea of the response we would receive,” Katie explained.

Emily experiences life fully each day. She has lots of energy and uses her tactile skills to explore.

Recently, her dad lifted her up when he found a nest of birds near the door of their house.

Emily put her hand in the nest to touch the birds, paying little attention to a worried mother bird hovering nearby.

It’s how she can “see.”