The Scotsman yesterday launched its Christmas appeal to raise funds for the Royal Blind in Scotland. Today CLAIRE SMITH goes behind the scenes at the charity
IN ONE of the classrooms at the Royal Blind School in Edinburgh, seven-year-old Stefan Nelson is carefully picking out shiny marbles from a plastic cup full of mung beans.
It looks like a game – but in fact Stefan is learning to develop the heightened sense of touch that he will need to begin learning Braille.
Class teacher Liz Harlick is delighted that Stefan has been chosen to appear in advertisements as part of the Light Up Lives fundraising campaign being run by Royal Blind of Scotland and The Scotsman.
"He's a very sociable and very hard-working little boy," she says. "I can rely on him every day to come and tell me about the football results."
When Stefan has developed enough dexterity in his fingers, she will start teaching him the alphabet in Braille. He will then move on to stage two Braille, which includes the short forms of words.
"It is very difficult," she says. "And not everyone can learn it. But it is absolutely essential if they are going to be literate.
"I take my hat off to the children who learn Braille. When you think about it, it is the whole of the English language reduced to six dots.
"But every child comes to it at a different stage and every child takes their own time to start to use it."
On the other side of the classroom, eight-year-old Christina Tytler is using a Perkins Brailler to compose words on a sheet of cardboard. "I'll write your name if you like. Tell me how to spell it," Christina says brightly. Braille and reading are her favourite subjects at school, she adds.
Ms Harlick's class has only seven pupils and she is helped by two nurses and a classroom assistant – which allows the children to develop at their own pace. Christina can now find her way around the school unaided and has already started to make supervised trips into the grounds using a cane. She says her ambitions are "to compete in the school swimming gala, and to go to a concert by Girls Aloud."
Ms Harlick says: "Our aim is to make the children as independent as possible. And we have a very happy class. We try to make learning fun."
The Craigmillar Park campus has wide corridors with wooden guide rails low enough for a small child to reach. At the door of each room is a "signifier". The primary class is marked with a teddy bear with a bow at his neck, the school library is marked by a book and the deputy head's office has a string of dangling crystals.
The school also aims to give pupils as many opportunities as possible, which is why – despite having only 57 pupils – the Craigmillar Park campus is always buzzing with activity.
In the domestic science kitchen primary pupils mix cakes, while upstairs a group of teenagers learns to prepare a stir fry.
The art room is bursting with costumes for the annual school show. And in the IT suite two pupils are learning to use the internet. One is using a huge screen, while another is using voice recognition software.
But Craigmillar Park is only half the story of the Royal Blind School. The Canaan Lane campus specialises in taking care of visually-impaired children with multiple disabilities who will always need 24-hour care.
Most of the 48 children at the Canaan Lane campus are in wheelchairs, almost all have no speech and many have difficulties breathing and swallowing. The Royal Blind began admitting children with multiple disabilities in 1970 – but amazingly, until the Education Act of 1974, children like these were not expected to go to school.
When we arrive a group of children, mostly in adapted wheelchairs, are enjoying circle time. A teacher moves around the group slowly, ringing a triangle in front of each child and telling them: "It is Tuesday. Raise your arms for Tuesday."
One little girl grins excitedly when the triangle rings in front of her, one of the boys want to touch it, another girl flinches away.
Iain Prain, the vice-principal, explains that the idea is for the children to develop a sense of routine, and ways of interacting and communicating with the people around them.
He says: "When you have got no sight and so many other disabilities, it is very easy for you to become incredibly passive. What these things do is make them aware that they can affect their world."
The school has pioneered its own form of sign language – Canaan Barry signing – which uses rhythm and air currents to help convey the meaning of words and activities , even to children with no sight and no speech. And it also tries to encourage the pupils to socialise.
"We always bring the children together for lunch,'' said Mr Prain. ''A lot of them have difficulties, but it is also a social thing. A lot of other schools don't do this, but we insist on a communal dining room."
Canaan Lane also has a separate residential block, where about half the pupils live during the week.
"We need a lot of space. It is quite possible for each pupil to have five bulky bits of kit," adds Mr Prain.
Outside there are fenced-in soft areas where children can safely enjoy the sunshine. There is a sensory garden and a storytelling area. At the heart of the school is what Mr Prain calls "our best classroom" – the hydrotherapy pool, where even the most severely disabled children can enjoy the sensation and freedom of playing in warm water.
With 48 severely disabled pupils the Canaan Lane campus has a huge support staff – with more than 300 people employed in caring for the children. Funding comes from local authorities and the Scottish Government – but there is always need for extra help.
The Scotsman's Christmas Campaign hopes to raise funds to help towards the extra 2,300 needed every day to carry on running the school.
Mr Prain says: "What we do is unique in Scotland. We are looking after a relatively small number of pupils, but they have such a huge range of needs."
Despite their difficulties pupils at Canaan Lane, like all of those at the Royal Blind School, are encouraged to develop a sense of achievement. "It might be a physical thing, like learning to walk across a room unaided or to learn to swim across the swimming pool," says Mr Prain. "Or it could be when one gives you a smile – or even lets you know they don't want to do something.
"The idea is to give them a voice. To make sure they know they are being listened to. For me the aim for all our pupils is to make them all realise they have a place in the world. They all have hidden talents and it is our job to bring them out."
What your money can buy:
Soft surfacing for one of the inner courtyards at Canaan Lane:
One smart electronic wheelchair:
One wet floor shower for Braeside House:
One standing frame for Canaan Lane:
One specially adapted posture chair for Braeside House:
One set of talking kitchen scales:
One speaking sign:
One talking clock:
One ultra-light cane:
One adapted plate:
Click here to download a donation form