Teacher Leah: Preparing special kids to a future where they can thrive and feel safe in
WHEN THE WORD ‘visionary’ comes to mind, you would not expect someone visually impaired like Leah Roman Reyes to be at the forefront.
She, however, sees and succeeds where many of us fail to recognize and fulfill – the light at the end of a very long journey towards acceptance and being part of what society considers mainstream and normal.
Reyes, along with her sister Grace, founded The Bridges Foundation in 1992, one of the very first schools that catered to children with special needs. This year, for her achievements in advancing special education, she was conferred the Manuel L. Quezon Gawad Parangal as outstanding citizen of Quezon City, just in time when the school has recently turned 25.
Realizing that while her visual impairment prevents her from doing certain things, it was Reyes’ heart that allowed her to finally make sense of her mission in life – to become a beacon of light to individuals with special needs like her.
Up until 1981, when the then national aptitude test called NCEE (National College Entrance Examination) came around, Reyes had pretty much handled the card she was dealt with. Born with a congenital cataract, caused by German measles when her mom was three months pregnant with her, she was only considered legally blind (people who have some sight but need a lot of help), so she still attended regular school.
Every year, her mother would accompany her to St. Mary’s College on the first day of school, to tell her teachers that she should sit in front of the class so that she would be able to see the board. Other than that, no other mediation happened, and so Reyes carried on until she felt she was being treated differently when she reached Grade 5, because she would always be by herself in front of the class.
Fortunately, a new student with a legible handwriting joined the class, and Leah would give her bond papers and carbon copy so that while her new friend would take down notes, she would be able to follow the lecture. At the end of the day, she would then have a copy of the lecture, which she takes home with her to transfer to her own notebook to serve as her notes. She also had a tutor for Math so that she could follow the flow of equations and be in a level playing field with her sighted counterparts.
It was when the NCEE season came around that Reyes faced the reality that would push her to the path that she has threaded on.
“I was so nervous at the time because I did not want to fail [the test]. It’s a long test, and if you did not pass, you will not get into college,” Reyes recalled. “I went to DECS and told them I want a reader for me [to assist in the exam] so that I can, at least be at par with my classmates.”
She shared how she went to the government agency, which is now known as DepEd, and advocated for herself. Unfortunately, without giving any plausible reason and only saying ‘No, it cannot be done,’ Reyes – who could now barely see – had to take the NCEE by herself.
Refusing to be defeated by the situation, she put her plan in motion. For the next two hours, all she did was shade her answers, relying on guesswork. When only two unanswered columns and two hours were left, that was when she tried to read the questions and answer properly. She luckily passed but then she wondered how those who have worse conditions than her could pass the mainstream exam.
“I knew that I wanted to help special kids then because of what had happened to me. At the end of the day, I wanted to become an example through the way I live my life, I wanted to show parents that special kids can do something – and even excel – in their lives,” she shared.
During that time, there was a movie called “Son-Rise: A Miracle of Love”, which was about an autistic boy whose parents had come up with their own therapy program for their son. These combined events inspired her to thread the Special Education path that would eventually result in Bridges Foundation – a school for special children, which she formed with her younger sister Grace, and Barbra Dans-Paguia, who was Grace’s practicum teacher in UP, and was also among the first graduates of the state university who took up Special Education as a field of specialization.
“In a way, it was a two-prong thing for me because I knew that if ever I go to a regular program, a class with regular kids, the first thing kids would see would be my eyes. Add to the fact that I won’t be able to manage a class due to my visual limitations. As for the kids, seeing my eyes, I know that truth comes from the mouth of the young, but it is difficult to have to explain my condition to them. That’s why I feel I would be safer with special kids. Because they wouldn’t ask and won’t judge me. So I took a course that would lead me to SPED,” Reyes shared of her road to her goal.
Now on its 25th year, Bridges adopts an Individualized Educational Programs (IEP) approach like how it is mandated in the US. IEPs cater to different special kids, grouped together according to their skills and their needs.
“There are various ways to develop the skills of each special child. So that’s why we customize our program to each child,” Reyes shared. She also explained that while many mainstream schools have opened their doors into having a special education program, they are still sticking to the traditional way of teaching. Parents would prefer the “usual” grading system.
“They would often ask me, do we give grades here. But how could we grade them? Because at the end of the day, we have to assess if the kids have acquired a skill. Sadly, a lot of parent still don’t understand that there is a certain way of teaching special kids.”
The frustration goes beyond this labeling. Reyes even revealed that some parents don’t even want to avail of the PWD ID, which carries a lot of benefits for persons with disabilities, because they are probably in denial of their kid’s situation.
“It all boils down really to the acceptance of the family. I think the acceptance of the community will come when there’s acceptance from the family,” observed Reyes. She is thankful that her mom never hid the fact that she was a special kid, and instead sought professional help that would aid in her growth.
“I think that’s how parents should do it. For their children to have a place in society, they should be the ones who should be advocating for [their kids],” she further stressed.
Moreover, the government also lacks planning and is not prioritizing the welfare of this special set of population. For example, Reyes said that a lot of pavements are not really wheelchair-friendly, and most public places are unsafe, sometimes even unusable for people who have limited mobility. Add to that, when it comes to employment opportunities, employers are not ready to embrace the inclusion of persons with disabilities. The mere fact that PWD parking is being taken advantaged of by able-bodied drivers speaks volumes of a society that needs to be a little more caring and considerate.
Bridges Foundation is open to research, documentaries, even films. In its aim to educate the public about the plight of the special population, they allow research foundations or even students and faculty from other institutions to come and visit and see how they prepare their kids for a future where they can be independent. In the end, the goal is to make sure that the kids would be able to take care of themselves that even the simple task of preparing their own meals and washing up before bedtime are milestones in a special kid’s life.
Ultimately, it would be ideal to integrate them in a working environment where they will not be regarded as a nuisance but rather as a valuable contributor.
It is with educators like Leah, Grace and Teacher Baba who we hope would not give up on their advocacy of educating, bringing awareness and preparing special kids to a future where they can thrive and feel safe in.