‘Being blind does not mean you stop living’

Sterling Heights girl meets challenge of visual impairment head on

By: Cortney Casey | Sterling Heights Sentry | Published October 24, 2012

 Calli Bowman-Tomlinson stands outside her Sterling Heights home with her black Lab, Q. The Browning Elementary sixth-grader doesn’t let her visual impairment interfere with her athletic, academic and artistic endeavors.

Calli Bowman-Tomlinson stands outside her Sterling Heights home with her black Lab, Q. The Browning Elementary sixth-grader doesn’t let her visual impairment interfere with her athletic, academic and artistic endeavors.

Photo by Deb Jacques

In person and on paper, there is little to suggest that Calli Bowman-Tomlinson is anything other than a typical sixth-grader, albeit of the ultra-conscientious variety.

She’s an A/B honor roll student with a slew of artistic, academic and athletic extracurricular activities: piano, choir, cheerleading and Brazilian jiu-jitsu.

The blue-jeans clad 12-year-old bounds out the front door of her Sterling Heights home with classic youthful exuberance, colorful braces on her teeth and hair cut in a pixie style.

It’s only when she issues stern commands — in French — to the harnessed black Labrador by her side or cheerfully whips out a Perkins Braillewriter to demonstrate her typing skills that her visual impairment becomes apparent.

But “being blind is not a big deal,” she said, laughing. “I mean, yes, you’re blind, you can’t see … but you don’t have to freak out about it!”

‘I’ll prove it to them’
The National Federation of the Blind has declared October Meet the Blind Month, and if there’s anyone who exemplifies the capabilities of the visually impaired, Heather Bowman-Tomlinson believes her daughter is it.

A narrow tunnel of poor left peripheral vision allows Calli only to discern high-contrast shapes, yet she moves with the ease of a sighted person. She spends most of the day in a traditional classroom at Browning Elementary and has a jam-packed after-school schedule.

People often assume that blindness precludes her from everyday activities, like swinging on the monkey bars — “Of course, I’ll prove it to them; yes, I can” — but the pendulum also swings the other way, she said.

“I’ve also had people doing a little too much for me, like open a door,” she said. “I can do that.”

These days, Calli gets around with the assistance of a black Labrador. According to Heather, Calli is among the first 12 in the country to receive a dog through North Carolina-based Mira Foundation USA, which provides guide dogs specifically to 11- to 16-year-olds.

It’s a population the foundation says was previously overlooked. Historically that was because blind children and teens were often institutionalized, making dog ownership impractical, and currently, it’s because beliefs persist that they’re too immature to handle the responsibility.

To apply, Calli sent in a video and a mobility teacher’s verification of her cane skills, which are required to be better-than-average to qualify. She went through dog handling training in Quebec, Canada, this summer, and trainers also came to Sterling Heights to acclimate the canine to her home and route to school.

Out in public, quips her mother, the Lab has a “James Bond name,” Q, in lieu of the formal moniker Calli uses to address him. Paired with the French commands, it prevents him from taking direction from anyone other than Calli. 

When harnessed, Q is working, and interaction with others is discouraged. It’s critical Q consider Calli the “top dog” — especially as the two weigh nearly the same, said Heather.

Heather said Q has given her already independently minded daughter a whole new level of freedom. Calli can now walk the few blocks to Browning — her brisk pace could rival a jogger’s — and to friends’ homes.

Another small victory: Thanks to Q, she can haul her school supplies in a wheeled bag. Her oversized Braille books are too bulky to fit in a regular backpack, but the “crate of doom,” as her mother calls it, was too large for the school bus’s narrow aisles.

At Browning, Q naps beneath Calli’s enlarged, L-shaped desk, which accommodates the adaptive technology that Principal Tricia Hassell said helps Calli receive the same lessons as her classmates in a conventional classroom setting.

Calli’s printed materials are converted into Braille, and she uses a talking calculator for math, a voice recorder to record assignments, a Braille embosser as a sort of Braille “printer,” an electronic note-taker for precise notes and a computer with a screen reader that verbalizes onscreen text for research, said Hassell.

“Her talents amaze us at Browning, and we know that she has a bright future ahead of her,” said Hassell, who called Calli “a hard-working and bright student.”

On her cheerleading team, Heather said, Calli is a “flyer” who stands atop the hands of other kids and will soon progress to aerial stunts. At jiu-jitsu, there’s pint-sized Calli in a pink gi, “and then there are these men,” laughed her mother.

Calli also plays on the State Girls Goalball team, a Paralympic sport in which blindfolded players lob 3-pound balls toward nets on either end of a court. In November, she’ll head to Florida to be considered for the U.S. National Youth Goalball team.

‘Life’s just like that’
Heather is accustomed to the public’s surprise over Calli’s capabilities and believes her daughter’s drive and independence can be an inspiration to others, a reminder that any obstacle can be overcome.

“For sighted people, going blind is often the scariest thing out there,” she said.

Blindness is just a fact of life in her household, which also includes son Acer, 7, who has no vision at all. Acer and Calli were both born in China and lived in orphanages and foster homes there, prior to their adoption five years and three years ago, respectively.

When Heather and her husband, Bill Bowman, began the adoption process, they were open to, but not specifically seeking, special-needs children. They came across Acer’s picture, ultimately asked to see his file, and the rest was history.

Acer wasn’t the first visually impaired person Heather knew. She also has visually impaired twin friends who graduated from Harvard, one with a law degree, the other with a master’s of business administration.

“To me, their blindness has seemed more like an idiosyncrasy more than a disability,” she said. “I can’t do certain things, they can’t do certain other things. Life’s just like that.”

When Heather and Bill decided to adopt again six months later, they came across photos of “an active, energetic and fearless child” — Calli — who was seeking a home and seemed a good match for Acer. 

“Really, there are relatively few differences between a sighted child and a blind child, if everything else is the same,” said Heather. “We use a lot more descriptive words, we’ve learned Braille, we’ve learned to use stickers to adapt appliances for the kids to be able to use. The kids learn to do chores, ride bikes, jump rope, even cook. I tell them the only reason they can’t do something is because I haven’t figured out how to teach them how to do it.

“Being blind is not the end of the world,” she added. “For Acer and Calli both, it’s more of an inconvenience. Being blind does not mean you stop living.”

For more information on Meet the Blind Month, visit www.nfb.org.