Fairfield kindergartner navigates the world without sight

Union photo by Andy Hallman

Washington Elementary School special education instructor Jenny Christensen gives kindergartner Khanh Tran a big hug.
Union photo by Andy Hallman Washington Elementary School special education instructor Jenny Christensen gives kindergartner Khanh Tran a big hug.

FAIRFIELD — For Washington Elementary School student Khanh Tran, his hands are his eyes. Khanh experiences the world through touch, taste, sound and smell, but not sight. Khanh is blind, the result of glaucoma that left him blind in one eye at the age of 2. By the following year, he was blind in both.

Khanh doesn’t let that fact get him down. The 5-year-old goes to school in Fairfield, where he’s able to follow along with the rest of his kindergarten classmates who are learning to count and learning to read.

Khanh is an extraordinary student because he is learning three languages at once. He and his parents, father Bao and mother Chau, are from Vietnam. The family moved to Fairfield last school year so that Bao could attend Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield. Khanh speaks to his parents in his native Vietnamese, and at school he has learned to communicate with his teachers and classmates in English.

This past summer, Khanh also began learning Braille, a writing system in which raised dots represent letters of the alphabet, allowing blind people to read.

The Union visited Khanh at his school on Tuesday, Nov. 11. Nothing gave him greater joy than showing off his Braille typewriter, which works just like a normal typewriter accept that instead of printing ink on a page, the machine presses ridges into a piece of paper to create Braille letters.

Khanh’s mother has been learning Braille, too. She’s even taken a few books that the teachers use in class, typed the words into the Braille typewriter and taped the Braille translation into the book, allowing her son to get the same experience the other kids get.

Khanh is an inquisitive little boy who loves learning about the people he meets. He always asks a new person how old they are, so he can get a better sense of what they look like. He’s also very fond of cars, and likes asking what kind of car a person drives. For Halloween, he dressed up as his favorite thing in the world: a vintage car. Khanh developed a love of cars when he could still see, which has stayed with him even now. He likes asking people the color of the car they drive.

He loves playing with an electronic toy that plays music. It has about a dozen mini-musical instruments, and when one of the musical instruments is plugged into the machine, it plays a song featuring that instrument. It allows Khanh to associate the shape of an instrument in his hand with the sound he hears. His favorite instrument is the piano.

His kindergarten teacher Taryn Ryan said she has been teaching for 20 years, and has never taught a blind student. She remarked that Khanh began class, he wanted to touch a student’s face to get a mental picture of what they looked like. Ryan and the teaching associates have been working with Khanh to make sure he asks permission to touch people, which he’s doing less of anyway since he’s gotten to know his classmates by the sound of their voice.

Ryan said having a blind student in the class has forced her to “think outside the box,” by relying less on visual instruction while incorporating touch. In some cases, she and the other students just need to make a special effort to describe a picture to Khanh so that he can participate in the discussion.

Khanh has two teaching associates, one who stays with him in the morning and another who is with him in the afternoon. Nikole Arendt, his afternoon associate, said this is her third year working in the district, and the first time she has worked with a blind student. She is learning Braille just like Khanh.

Khanh’s mother is at the school all day, though not normally with Khanh. She is available to help interpret for Khanh if he can’t think of a word in English, but Arendt said his English is very good. In fact, Khanh’s language skills are so advanced that he’s doing first and second grade homework because the kindergarten exercises were too easy for him.

Maria Jimenez is the associate who has Khanh in the morning, and just like Arendt, it is the first time she has worked with a blind student.

“I was really excited when [special education instructor Jenny Christensen] asked if I wanted to work with him because I like the challenge,” Jimenez said. “When I heard that we were going to have a blind student from Vietnam who was also learning the language, I said, ‘I want him.’ I can relate to being an [English as a second language] student because I was one, too. I thought we’d make a great connection, and we have.”

Washington Elementary School principal Anne Clark used to work at Liberty Elementary School in Ottumwa, where she had a student who was blind and in a wheelchair. That student was in third grade, and had worked with Braille for a few years. For Khanh, this is his first year with Braille.

“We’ve all had to learn starting from zero,” she said. “Khanh was in a wheelchair at the beginning of this year because he had broken his foot. Now he’s learning to walk with a cane, and it’s been amazing to watch.”

His mother Chau said Khanh broke his foot while riding a tricycle over the summer. She said Khanh started using a cane to aid in navigation in April 2019. He still prefers to explore the world with his hands, but each day he becomes a little more comfortable with the cane.

His teachers said his memory is impeccable. He has memorized where all the rooms are. He just has to count the number of doors he passes as he walks along the hallway to find whichever classroom he’s looking for.

Clark said the district did not have to make any special accommodations to the building. The only change it made was the installation of a ramp to get into the cafeteria, but that was to accommodate Khanh after he broke his foot and had to be in a wheelchair.

Jimenez said that Khanh seems to have heightened his other senses after losing one of them. For instance, he can tell when she has entered the room by the perfume she uses, and he remarks when she switches from one perfume to another.