JEFFERSON – For 17 years, an estimated 45 million students, educators, parents and community members celebrated Dr. Seuss’s birthday by volunteering to narrate books in elementary classrooms during Read Across America Week. A Scholar, activist and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, Dr. Seuss, or Theodor Seuss Geisel, continues to inspire and teach young children in 20 languages, as well as Braille, long after his 1991 death.
Not all of the books read for Geisel’s birthday are the work of his alter ego, Dr. Seuss. In the pre-kindergarten classrooms at the Jefferson-Morgan Elementary School, one such selection was from the Biscuit Puppy books by Alyssa Satin Capucilli.
Although these books teach young children light stories about the adventures of Biscuit, there was an even greater story learned from the young woman reading it to the 4 and 5 year olds.
Before Joelle Swyka, 18, could read the book to the kids she first had to translate it into Braille. Swyka, a freshman education major at the Community College of Allegheny County, has a rare genetic disorder known as Bardet-Biedl syndrome that caused her progressive visual impairment. With her 3-year-old English Labrador guide dog at her side, Swyka fielded a wide variety of questions from the youngsters.
“One of them asked me, ‘Do you drive?’ It was a cool question to answer,” Swyka said. It opened the door for her to walk the children through the journey she has been on since she first began to lose her sight in the first grade. It wasn’t until two years ago, as a junior in high school, that she completely lost her sight.
“It is a very difficult thing at a very early age to read Braille. You have to use both hands. The left hand is for trailing (finding and keeping ones place) and the right is to read,” she said. “Trailing was the first exercise I learned. The letters are in six dot cells (or patterns). When you press the dots of a cell it will create a letter.”
Prior to coming to the classroom Swyka made a special gift for each of the students of their name in Braille for them to take home.
The children asked how Swyka reads, writes and if she could do her schoolwork without assistance from someone. She told them there are times when someone serves as a notetaker but primarily it is through wonders of technology.
“I use a computer program called the JAWS program that reads for me,” Swyka said. JAWS works with Microsoft Windows to read the screen either with a text-to-speech output or by a Braille display. As Swyka can’t use a mouse, or traditional touch screens, to manipulate her computer she instead uses her keyboard entering various commands with keystrokes to achieve the same things.
Some of the youngsters asked if Swyka used a cellphone, cooked and how she got from one place to another. She shared examples of how her day-to-day tasks are not different from theirs.
“I love to cook. My dad and I cook all of the time,” she said, noting before she lost complete use of her vision, she did all of these tasks. Now, her microwave has Braille on the buttons and her phone has a color-coding application to assist her in matching outfits to wear.
Swyka said she didn’t hesitate when asked to come read to the students. Debbie Hice, an aid in the classroom Swyka spoke in reached out through Swyka’s boyfriend.
“My boyfriend, William, is visually impaired as well. His mom and Debbie are good friends. She said she wanted me to come read for Read Across America and I called and said I wanted to do it,” she said. “I loved doing this. I want to give back to kids, to children, and be able to teach them,” she said. She stressed how wonderful and accommodating her teachers were at Moon Area High School as her condition progressed.
Swyka has not decided what grade level she will eventually teach, but said her mother is a middle school language arts teacher; she is focusing on the same content area. She said she really enjoys working with younger children and it was evident in her smile when they’d blurt, “out of the mouths of babes” type comments and ask the most random of questions.
Progressively losing her sight has not been an easy adjustment for Swyka. She sometimes has to teach others more than she has had to learn herself. A card in her wallet explains why she has to have her guide dog with her. It is often necessary to educate people on why he is not like other dogs and can’t be called by name or in some other way distracted, lest he fail to keep Swyka safe.
But, Swyka said she doesn’t let perceived obstacles get in her way. Her next plan is to move on to a bachelor’s degree program, maybe at Robert Morris.
“I’m stubborn. I’m independent. I don’t give up. I keep going, keep working. I’m going to live life,” Swyka said.