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Millcreek Journal

Two students’ dreams come true thanks to help from Helen Keller National Center team

Nov 07, 2023 01:10PM ● By Lizzie Walje

Thanks to the Helen Keller National Center, Randy Neumann was able to participate in cooking classes designed specifically for individuals who are deaf or have partial hearing loss and/or have low vision or are blind. (Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind)

Since its inception over a century ago, Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind (USDB) has worked to connect students who are deaf or hard of hearing and/or blind or have low vision with quality education, resources and opportunities. Moreover, it has always been a goal of USDB to show its students that they can achieve their dreams, find major success, and thrive in whatever pursuits they put their minds to. This same philosophy has also guided the work behind The Helen Keller National Center. Given their similarities and shared missions, this past summer when USDB and The Helen Keller National Center combined forces, the result was lightning in a bottle. 

For context, The Helen Keller National Center has various campuses and locations throughout the country. Since 1893, they have provided services to individuals who are blind, deafblind, have low vision or have combined hearing and vision loss. This past June, a team from the Helen Keller National Center visited Utah, marking an important occasion as this was the first time these deafblindness experts had worked in another state to launch a new program and engage in exploratory work. 

Despite the center’s national reach, its headquarters are located in New York. In the past, individuals who were deaf and blind, from ages 16-22, could go to New York and participate in a deafblind immersion program. The immersion program helps connect these individuals with work-related experience while simultaneously developing their skills. This year, Utah’s deafblind education experts worked to bring the immersion experience here to the Beehive State, more specifically, in the student’s own neighborhoods. 

During their time in Utah, the Helen Keller National Center team worked exclusively with two students, Simon Dodart and Randy Neumann, who both have multiple disabilities. During their work together, the center’s team helped Dodart and Neumann as they sought to transition from education to employment. The team also hosted a training for deafblind post-high coaches, teachers, caseworkers and special education personnel. 

Neumann and Dodart are both blind and experience significant hearing loss. Nevertheless, like all children and young adults, they also have dreams, aspirations and interests. For Neumann, that interest is a love of cooking, and for Dodart, that dream is to become a DJ. Dodart, 18, was able to get a taste of his dream when he worked as a DJ for the first time in a public café with help from the Helen Keller National Center. Dodart’s desire to be a DJ is rooted in his passion for and love of music, however, the nature of his disabilities has presented difficulties along the way. 

To help Dodart navigate the process more effectively, adjustments were made to the DJing equipment. “The way he did that (DJed) was we set up an adaptive switch, so it had two components. So, his left hand, he would start and stop the music, and with his right hand, he would progress the tracks. And he had an audience there and got to decide what music to play” said Erin Farrer, program director for deafblind services with Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind. “He was so excited the whole time.”

The Helen Keller National Center has historically used its immersion program to help individuals at a “transition age” make the leap from education to employment. The “transition age” marks a new chapter for students, as they prepare to enter the workforce. During this transition, the team helps these individuals as they prepare to navigate the challenges of adult life, just like their peers of a similar age. The only difference is these individuals have disabilities, which pose extra challenges when it comes to adapting to adult life. 

Over the course of their trip, the Helen Keller National Center team worked for three days with Dodart. They were able to find him a place to DJ at Ogden’s Kaffe Mercantile, thanks in part to the efforts made by Dodart’s mother, Valerie Dodart, who played an integral role in the planning process. The payoff was immense, as she was able to watch her son independently control the music and actualize a longtime dream.

“He was just very pleased with himself, so that was really nice to see him just so happy and the confidence, you know, giving him more confidence that he was in control of that music completely, and he really liked that,” Valerie Dodart said. 

Not only did the team help Simon Dodart with his DJing pursuits, but they also explored a variety of life skills and activities with him, including planting, vacuuming, car cleaning and shredding paper. As for the other student, Neumann, the team was able to help him explore his love of cooking. With assistance from the Helen Keller National Center team and the Utah Division of Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired, Neumann was able to cook several meals in an effort to hone his skills and develop his craft. 

Neumann made some of his favorite dishes including meatball pizza and nachos. He also learned how to work with Braille measuring cups and use hand-guard equipment designed to protect his fingers when undergoing tasks like chopping and cutting fruits and vegetables. Learning how to cook not only helped Neumann to engage in a longtime interest of his, but it also helped boost his confidence and instill in him a sense of pride. In addition to cooking, Neumann was also able to gain some hands-on work experience as he practiced stocking shelves at Smith’s, where he learned how to put items away based on their textures and placements.

Ultimately, the Helen Keller National Center’s team trip was an abject success. The trip provided the team with opportunities to help students work toward employment goals, collaborate with local communities, and partner with sister agencies in the area. 

“We’re just trying to learn from our sister agencies and just see how we can provide the best support for local students,” Farrer said. “We’re really hoping that this can be a continuous thing where annually we get to focus on students and collaborate.”  λ