Giving a Child With Special Needs a Christian Worldview Education
By Becky Keep
If I had been told early on in my foray into motherhood that I’d be one of those “homeschool” moms I would have laughed and said, “Never!” And as a nurse, my favorite line in reference to homeschooling was often, “Bring a child to me when they’re bleeding, but please don’t ask me to teach them to read!”
I could not have known then that God would lead my husband, Tim, and me to serve Him in the country of the Philippines, and my part in that service to Him would include homeschooling our menagerie of five children. Some of them were eager to learn and easy to teach, another was simply allergic to all things scholastic, and one—totally blind!
It was at the end of our first year as missionaries that we were blessed with our third child, a son. We named him Jesse. We were shocked and horrified when at the age of five weeks he was diagnosed with aggressive cancer of the eyes. This necessitated our return home to begin treatment in an endeavor to save not only his sight but his life. At the end of an intense four-year fight, Jesse emerged cancer free but totally blind.
We began preparing to return to the Philippines to continue the work that had been so abruptly interrupted. Although we felt clearly this was the path for us to take, I had grave concerns about taking a blind child—one who was ready to begin school—to the third world where educational resources for a special needs child were limited or simply nonexistent.
This began a journey for me, an odyssey of discovery that has enriched, challenged, and broadened my life, my perspective, my courage, and my faith in the awesome God I serve. I realize now more than ever, the wonderful privilege that was mine to spend 13 years learning alongside our son, both in a homeschool and a private Christian school setting. And in retrospect, I can see clearly several key truths that lend success a hand when it comes to overseeing the Christian/private education of a special needs child.
Working Towards Success First, it was liberating for me to understand that despite my fears and limitations, and on some days more questions than answers, there was not one person on the planet who desired my son’s success more than I. This incited me to keep learning, to take a class and master reading and writing braille, and to think of creative ways to help Jesse understand math concepts. Most importantly, I asked God to send the people and resources into our lives that would assist us along the journey.
Smarter Than You Think Second, I would say to every parent who has believed they could never assist their special needs child in a private or homeschool setting that you’re smarter than you think! I smile now as I remember teaching Valerie, our firstborn daughter, to read. I sat with her day after day in our hot tropical house ten thousand miles from home. I kept my eyes glued to the teacher’s manual, not daring to change a word for fear that I would mess this up and she’d end up being an illiterate missionary kid. I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly she learned. It gave me a little more confidence but didn’t quite prepare me for teaching our blind son a few years later.
I decided I wanted to enter the world of “braille” with Jesse. With fear and trepidation, I enrolled in a braille correspondence class. Jesse and I learned the braille alphabet together. It was fun and challenging, and I surprisingly found quite doable, even for me. Desire and effort go a long way in enabling us to help our kids. Although math has never been my favorite subject, I tackled long division, multiplication, and fractions using an abacus. Surprisingly, it was a very cool way to do math. Sometimes Jesse and I would compete to see who could finish a problem first.
A very integral part of this “you’re smarter than you think” concept is knowing when you’ve exhausted your capacity with your child. Living in the third world during the first six years of Jesse’s education was daunting. I knew that I needed help. We prayed much about this need, and God put us in contact with a missions organization who trained Filipinos to teach the blind. They were located in Manila, several hours from our home. We discovered they had a teacher stationed only 15 minutes from us! She worked on a Bible school campus where she adapted curriculum into braille for several blind college students. Although she had only worked with blind adults, she agreed to work with Jesse three afternoons each week. This amazing woman laid the foundation for Jesse in braille and in so many other skills he needed to ensure his academic success. I learned with him, slowly and painstakingly, tapping out my own braille lessons on Jesse’s Perkins Brailler.
We enrolled him in our little mission school where he entered kindergarten. His teacher and I developed a system. She would give me his worksheets ahead of time, and I would braille them for him, writing in print above the braille letters and numbers so that his teacher could check his work. He loved every minute of his school day. I recently watched a home video of his first day of school. I could hardly believe we actually had the courage to send him to a school where he was the only blind student and the only kid fluent in English! Thankfully, our mission school was using English textbooks, and Jesse’s teacher taught both in English and Tagalog (the basis of a standardized national language of the Philippines) making it possible for him to follow along with the lessons.
Years later, it didn’t take any genius on my part to realize that high school algebra could very possibly destroy my relationship with Jesse, now age fourteen. Algebra just wasn’t my forte. This was one of many times when I simply asked God to help me figure out another way. A short time later, a good friend of mine who happens to be an educator, came to me and offered to be Jesse’s math tutor for high school. This was an enormous answer to prayer! It worked beautifully, and Jesse excelled under her teaching. I could write a book on the many times God came through for us as we chose to step outside the norm in the education of our special needs student.
Trial and Error Third, I would encourage parents not to fear the trial and error approach when helping your special needs child to succeed in school.
We returned to America in time to enroll Jesse into the sixth grade. We chose to send him to a small Christian school instead of the local public school. We felt that the benefit of a biblical worldview instruction outweighed the challenges we’d face getting him the services he needed.
Jesse was the first blind child to attend this school. Obviously, funds were not available to acquire all the special services that may have been offered to us in a public school. Also, the Christian-based curriculum Jesse’s school used was not readily available in braille or audio. For the next seven years, we worked together with the principal and teachers in this wonderful school to give Jesse the best educational experience possible. I won’t pretend it was always easy or perfect. If something didn’t work, we simply scrapped that idea and began implementing another.
I put all my braille skills to use and brailled important study guides and tests for him. He utilized a small, handheld recorder for the classroom and reading assignments. This worked wonderfully. Reading textbooks onto this recorder for Jesse to listen to at his leisure became a family affair. My husband and I, Jesse’s grandmother, one of his cousins, and even his younger sisters made this happen. On most school nights, you would find us relaxing in the living room while reading Jesse’s literature, science, or history aloud. I laughed one night when I heard my ten-year-old daughter reading The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allen Poe. We feared she’d have nightmares, but she survived with no ill effects. We used these opportunities to teach our younger children to serve their brother by lending him their eyes, although they weren’t always thrilled about it.
We were blessed by a family foundation who generously gave the money for Jesse to buy a braille note, a small computer of sorts weighing less than two pounds. He did all of his writing assignments using this. He typed in braille and with the touch of a button, transferred it to a flash drive which when inserted into a regular PC, allowed his teacher to read it in print. This was a great tool, and Jesse used it every single day.
Actively Engaged Finally, I would implore all parents to be actively engaged with your child’s teachers. Although in the beginning, some were a bit dubious about having a blind child in their classroom, his teachers were more than willing to adapt their own teaching styles to accommodate Jesse. They were great about giving me lesson plans in advance so that I’d be able to braille or record the needed material. We truly partnered together and shared a mutual trust and respect when it came to accomplishing the goal of educating my son.
On a beautiful evening in May of 2016, Jesse tapped his way down the aisle to the solemn “Pomp and Circumstance” to receive his high school diploma—with honors! We were so proud, and our hearts brimmed with gratitude—gratitude which stemmed from knowing he had been able to truly achieve academic success in subjects such as anatomy, physiology, algebra, geometry, biology, literature, Bible, music, and much more. Surpassing this was the joy we experienced knowing he had absorbed each of these important subjects through the lens of a worldview that began and ended with our Creator God.
We will never regret giving our son the opportunity to learn under teachers who loved, prayed for, and invested in his life by pointing him to Jesus Christ every single day. Today, when I hear Jesse using his musical gift to glorify God, hear him speak articulately about things that matter to him, and prepare to release him as he moves away for college, I realize that every labor-intensive hour I invested as a mom was well spent, and I am incredibly rewarded.
Becky Keep is a freelance author and speaker. She and her husband, Tim, have five children and two granddaughters. Becky and her family spent thirteen fruitful years as missionaries to the Philippine Islands, where she practiced her nurse training to organize medical missions, treating thousands of patients in towns and villages throughout northern Luzon. Becky is the author of two inspirational books: Eyes to See: Glimpses of God in the Dark and It’s All About Obedience. Becky and her family now reside in Cincinnati, Ohio where Tim is Director of Bible Methodist Missions and President of Shepherds Global Classroom.
This article originally appeared in The Renewanation Review® magazine. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted here by permission of Renewanation. For more information regarding Renewanation, visit renewanation.org.
Volume 9 Issue 2 - The Renewanation Review