Roland Teen Aces Braille, Embraces Life

Posted April 6, 2015 – 5:06am | By Jeff Arnold | Times Record

MUSKOGEE, Okla. — Jennifer Ratliff of Roland recently won the first place in the varsity category at the Oklahoma Regional Braille Challenge, but she has loftier goals set for her future.

Jennifer, 16, is a junior at the Oklahoma School for the Blind in Muskogee, where she’s attended school as a resident student since the third grade.

In addition to a birth defect that prevented the development of her optic nerve, Jennifer said she has a constellation of eye disorders including aniridia — a complete or partial absence of the iris — and nystagmus, which is involuntary eye movement.

Until third grade in Roland, Jennifer used a CCTV video magnifier to read and an OSB instructor began visiting her once a month in second grade and began teaching her braille. She also worked with a teacher’s aide on braille lessons instead of attending her art class.

“Because, of course, I couldn’t see what our art teacher was doing,” Jennifer said with a laugh.

In the summer after second grade, Jennifer went to OSB for a month where her education in braille accelerated and she decided she wanted to participate in the OSB resident program.

Faye Miller, an OSB instructor, said there are currently about 90 students at OSB and half are residential students who attend classes Monday through Thursday, go home for the weekend and return Sunday for the school week.

Joyce Ratliff, Jennifer’s mother, said no to Jennifer’s attending the OSB for a month in the summer, but Jennifer talked her into it. She also initially resisted allowing Jennifer to attend OSB as a residential student.

Then shortly after Jennifer started third grade, she went back to her mother and told her she really wanted to go to OSB, and Joyce relented.

“She just keeps going and doesn’t let anything stop her,” Joyce Ratliff said. She now believes having Jennifer attend OSB “was the best choice.”

When she arrived at OSB, Jennifer said she was reading braille on a kindergarten level, but by the end of third grade she was almost at a third grade reading level. “Once I got here, I flew through it,” Jennifer said.

Miller said there’s more complexity with learning to read and write braille and than learning to read and write regular print, but young children learning braille generally progress fast as children with full sight learning to read and write. The difficulty is for teens or adults who lose sight and start to learn braille when they’re older, Miller said.

In addition to learning braille, Jennifer is also in the Independent Living Skills program, which involves teaching students how to cook, clean, manage money, perform community service, check prices when grocery shopping and even dressing, said Miller. “I always mismatch my socks,” Jennifer said.

She also recounted a story of visiting Roland schools last year, where she ended up wearing mismatched shoes. “I still laugh at it,” Jennifer said. When asked if those situations ever create frustration, Jennifer laughed and said things are going to happen. “And she has such a great attitude” which helps her avoid frustration, Miller said.

Joyce Ratliff said Jennifer has always been upbeat since Joyce and her ex-husband took her in as a foster child and eventually adopted her. “I fell in love with her the minute we got her … and once she woke up, she was always ready to go,” Joyce Ratliff said. As Jennifer grew, her limited vision never kept her from doing what she wanted, whether it was riding horses, climbing a rock wall, swimming or even going on a zip line. “I wouldn’t do half that stuff,” Joyce Ratliff said.

Although Jennifer said she both is and isn’t a competitive person, this is her sixth year participating in the Oklahoma Regional Braille Challenge, which involves proofreading, spelling, speed and accuracy, reading comprehension, and charts and graphs. “If I win, I win; if I don’t, OK. I’m good with it,” Jennifer said. “But knowing I was able to pull out a win was a lot of fun. I just take it as it comes.”

Miller said Jennifer will find out at the end of May if she qualifies for the national finals at the Braille Institute in Los Angeles, scheduled for the end of June. The top 12 scorers in each of five age categories across the United States and Canada are invited to the national finals, with a winner in each age group, according to the Braille Institute website.

Since attending OSB, Jennifer has also participated in cheerleading, spelling bees and academic competitions. She plays saxophone in the OSB jazz band, performs volunteer service, attended Space Camp, had poems published and now in the mornings, she escorts younger residential students to breakfast. Without OSB, Joyce Ratliff said those opportunities wouldn’t have been available to her daughter and she wishes every child had the opportunity to go to a school with such small classes where they get the same type of one-on-one work with teachers.

Once she graduates from OSB, Jennifer plans to go straight to college and study psychology and education. Jennifer said she wants to open a business teaching independent life skills to individuals with disabilities and offering counseling to those who struggle with their disability.