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Above, Bella Neumann and Cole Thorpe, Oakwood fourth graders, learn about technology Brandon High School Sophomore Hunter Parker uses as a blind student during Disability Awareness Day. Below, Brayden Werner tries to get a wheelchair through a doorway at the school. Photos by Patrick McAbee. (click for larger version)

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March 28, 2012 - Brandon Twp.- Hunter Parker has been blind since birth, but on Wednesday, he enjoyed helping others see how his disability doesn't hold him back.

"Blind people can do just as much as sighted people if they set their minds to it," said Parker, 18, who attended Disability Awareness Day at Oakwood Elementary March 28.

The Brandon High School sophomore was pleased to be invited to attend the annual event and answer questions from fourth grade students while showing them how he uses various items to read, do schoolwork, play games and more.

Caiden Hughey and Sarah Norman, both 9-year-old students at Oakwood, look on as Parker types words on his BrailleNote, a Braille keyboard. As he types, the words appear on a Dell laptop that is connected to the BrailleNote.

"You can see it!" exclaims Caiden. "I think it's cool! Can you write my name?"

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"I think it would be hard to be blind, said Sarah. "These things really help him."

Besides BrailleNote, other items at Parker's "station" included Monopoly and Scrabble games and books in Braille, as well as a "beeper ball," which turns into a soccer ball, baseball, or football, and which Parker can follow by listening to sounds from it.

Students have asked Parker if he can play video games (yes, by audio), as well as how he sees color, which he explains that he understands through the concept of "warm" and "cold."

"I think they get the general idea," he said. "I want them to understand that a blind person can do just as much as a sighted person and I don't have to go to a blind school, I can go to regular school like them."

Parker's blindness was caused by being born prematurely. His mother, Phyllis Parker, gave birth to him when she was just 25 weeks along in her pregnancy.

Hunter was homeschooled from fifth through eighth grades, due to "some issues" in the public schools, but Phyllis was ill and not able to educate him as needed. He entered Brandon High School as a freshman in 2010. At first, kids seemed leery of him, jumping out of the way when they saw him coming down the halls with his cane. Now, he has made lots of friends and his classmates are accustomed to the equipment he uses in the classroom, as well as the Braille instructor, Ann Fife of Oakland Schools, who accompanies Hunter to his classes.

"The world is not blind and he needs to be in situations where he interacts with kids who aren't blind," said Fife. "The kids are getting comfortable with him, and he with them. It's a good experience for both."

She pauses and nods her head at the fourth graders at various stations around the room, who are learning about challenges including autism, dyslexia, hearing impairment and gross motor delays.

"These kids, aware at a younger age of disabilities, will be more accepting of the technology used to help (people with disabilities)."

Amy Reeves, a fourth grade teacher at Oakwood, said Disability Awareness Day is very beneficial for students.

"They get a better understanding of different disabilities and can ask questions in a safe environment," she said. "They want to know how they can help— not just their classmates with disabilities, but anyone they see in the community. The kids don't like the word disability because 'dis-' means 'not.' These kids are empathetic, kind and understanding. They want to talk about all the things that people with disabilities can do."

Susan covers Brandon Township and Ortonville
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