Meet 8 year old Grace Dabbieri. Grace, like many of her fellow second graders at Village Elementary School, enjoys swimming, riding her bicycle, cheerleading at Pop Warner games, and attending Brownie Troop meetings and campouts. She takes piano lessons, reads the Nancy Drew series, and loves dance parties. Grace plays on the beach and goes on the swings at the Spreckels Park playground. She loves jumping on the backyard trampoline with her younger sister Hope, cooking with her family, and looks forward to F.F.F. (Family Fun Friday). Some of her favorite things include mermaids, movies, technology, and word games involving puns. While she may sound like your average second grader, Grace has never seen how beautiful her own smile is. Grace is blind.
Grace was born on July 15, 2007 in San Diego to Jonathan and Julie Dabbieri. When Grace was 7 weeks old, Julie, a first time parent who was diligently following her newborn’s week by week progress, noticed that Grace wasn’t tracking things with her eyes, something she was supposed to be doing according to the books Julie read. At 8 weeks old, Grace still wasn’t tracking, and Julie brought her to the doctor thinking the doctor would tell her she was just being a worried parent. Instead, the pediatrician, who noticed the same thing that Julie and Jonathan noticed, advised Julie to take Grace to a pediatric ophthalmologist, who diagnosed her with optic nerve hypoplasia, a condition which cannot be corrected.
As soon as I sat down with Grace, she immediately impressed me with her extensive vocabulary, confidence, and infectious enthusiasm. She’s like an adult, only in miniature form, listing spa music and smooth jazz as her favorite music. Her poise in answering each question showed her maturity, and with each answer her spirit and determination continued to shine even brighter. Grace was eager to share her personal motto of “Blind can do anything!”
When asked about her experience at Village Elementary School, Grace smiled as she talked about her teachers, Ms. Cecilia Marston and Ms. Lauren Ingersoll. Grace said the students in Ms. Marston’s second grade class are all helpful and kind, and when asked about working with her Braille teacher Ms. Ingersoll, Grace exclaimed, “It’s the highlight of my day!” Grace explained how she uses a Braille machine and Braille Notetaker at both school and home as well as how she also uses a modified tape player with Braille indicators and audio books. Of Grace’s acceptance at Village Elementary School, Julie said, “Village has done a great job accommodating Grace. We came to Village after a very bad experience at a school in San Diego. We enrolled her there because they have a program for blind and visually impaired students. The attitudes and services were bad, and Grace was treated poorly. It was not a good fit for her at all. It was awful! We approached Village last year about enrolling Grace. They had never had a blind student before and basically had to create a program for her! They have been wonderful, and Grace is thriving!”
Grace finds the same acceptance and help outside of the classroom too. How does someone who’s blind learn how to be a cheerleader? Grace explained that during cheerleading season she had two aides, first Brooke, who had to return to college, and then Colby, who helped Grace by telling her in words what moves her cheerleading coach was demonstrating. Grace explained, “If the teacher said, ‘Okay! Now do this!’” then one of her aides would say, “She said put your hands in an upper V.” Grace has to rely on others’ words to be her guide. Her aides also guide her down the bleacher steps to the stage mats during competitions. When aides aren’t available to help her, Grace said her fellow cheerleaders step right in, and are always supportive.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that Grace can’t do whatever her heart desires just because she needs others’ help from time to time. Other children get just as much of a rewarding experience as Grace when she participates in each activity. At the end of the football season the cheerleading team had a swim party, and everyone took turns jumping off the diving board after passing the swim test. Julie explains, “All the girls were doing it, and Grace said, ‘I want to do it too.’” Julie recalls how when Grace got in line for the diving board that the other cheerleaders were not only surprised but also excited to see that Grace was going to jump too. Other girls actually got out of line because they wanted to watch Grace jump off the diving board, and when she did, they all cheered for her. Grace said to Julie as they left the pool that day, “You know why I think that was so cool, Mom? Because I think that they think that I’m different from them, and I’m not. I can do anything they can do.” Julie told her daughter, “It’s cool that you’re showing them because they don’t know. It’s awesome that they’re getting this experience with you.”
I asked Grace how she handles it when people offer her assistance, but she doesn’t necessarily want any help. While she certainly appreciates the offer, she tells people in a polite yet matter-of-fact way, “No thank you. I’ve got it.” In certain situations, she would prefer that people give her a chance to try doing something by herself first before offering to help. She wants to people to know that “it would be good to treat blind fairly and not unfairly.” Sometimes people tell Grace that they feel sorry for her because she’s blind, which makes her feel “kind of mad.” She wonders, “Why would they say that?” and says it makes her want to shout, “Blind can do anything!”
Julie wants people to know that they don’t have to shy away from using vision words around Grace. As I had the pleasure of interviewing Grace, we were discussing how Grace plays the piano, and I shared with her that the first song I learned how to play was Three Blind Mice. I inwardly kicked myself, thinking, “Seriously? Out of all of the songs to name, you picked the song that has the word ‘blind’ in it?” My gaff didn’t bother Grace or Julie at all, and when I mentioned it to Julie as we talked during Grace’s piano lesson, she reassured me that they don’t want people to feel like they have to tiptoe around Grace. Julie laughed, and said, “It’s cool that that happened because that’s the stuff that people worry about all the time.” Julie, imitating how people ask about Grace, even whispered like they do as they ask, “Should I say blind or should I say visually impaired? Can I say, ‘Oh, look at this!’?” She wants people to rest assured that Grace isn’t offended by references to her being blind, and encourages people to ask questions because Grace likes sharing her story. Julie adds, “People should not be afraid of treating blind people like they’re normal people. That’s what she wants.”
Vision words are used regularly in the Dabbieri household. As I interviewed Grace, we sat on chairs in the front room with a small glass table between the chairs. At one point Grace’s hand touched the table, and she asked me, “I’ve never seen this table. Did you bring this?” Julie explained to Grace that she had recently moved the table into the front room from the guest room, and I noted not only how aware Grace is concerning everything in the house, but also how she makes reference to seeing things just as casually as we all do.
Julie offers nothing but praise for Grace’s Brownie Troop 1 leaders Sandy Goodson and Anne Hemp. Julie recalls meeting Sandy, and how Sandy told her, “Tell me what I need to do. I want this to be awesome for her.” Sandy arranged for Grace to speak to the Brownies about her blindness, and they incorporated an Ability Awareness Patch into the Brownie meeting, which Grace led as she shared some items that help her succeed. Grace even brought bookmarks for all of the girls with their names written in Braille.
During Brownie Troop 1’s first overnight camping trip to a cabin in Balboa Park, the girls had a movie night. Sandy was concerned how Grace would feel about a movie night, but Julie explained that the newer movies and videos have DVS (Descriptive Video Service), and that Grace can enjoy a movie just like anyone else. “It’s a normal movie, but it has a voice in a background that describes what’s happening when there is no dialogue,” Julie explained. Sandy said, “We checked out Frozen, and shortly before we started the movie Grace was worried that the other Brownies would not enjoy the movie because of the voice over. I suggested we ask the girls and take a vote. When I started talking to the girls, Grace said, ‘I will explain.’ After she explained the voice over, I asked the Brownies to vote, and they voted to have the voice over on. It was a great way for the other girls to see another way that Grace can enjoy the same things they do.”
Sandy adds, “In our meetings when we move from one activity to another, one of the girls always takes Grace by the hand and helps her transition. Grace has been a great addition to Brownie Troop 1. I love being a Brownie Leader because of my scouts and what they teach me, and Grace has added an all new dimension to that.”
When asked what the City of Coronado can do to help blind people like Grace, Julie says, “We love the beeping crosswalk lights, but they’re not all over the place. It would be nice if there were more at other crosswalks, not just the big ones.” Additionally, when the Dabbieri family wants to go to the movies, they have to go to the movie theater at Fashion Valley Mall because Village Theatre currently does not offer Descriptive Video Service there. When they go to the theater at Fashion Valley Mall, they can ask for DVS headphones so Grace can enjoy the movie the way she did with her Brownie troop, but it would certainly be more convenient if they could go to the movies together as a family right here in Coronado.
When people, including Julie’s own mother, compliment Julie and Jonathan for doing such a great job with Grace, they are quick to shift the attention away from themselves and back to Grace. “It’s not really me. That’s just who she is. She’s always been that way, and I don’t think I have too much to do with it,” Julie humbly says as she praises her firstborn. When they first discovered that Grace was blind, Jonathan and Julie had obvious concerns, but, “By three years old, I saw this spark in her, and knew I didn’t need to worry about her anymore,” Julie says. Grace’s parents don’t treat her any differently than Hope, who can see. “She’s just our daughter. She’s not a blind child who we have to wrap and protect.” She wants people to remember, “Don’t do anything special for her. She’ll tell you if she needs help.”
Grace wants the people of Coronado to know, especially those who’ve never known anyone who is blind, that it’s okay to ask her questions about being blind. “I love when people ask me those kinds of questions. It’s AWESOME!” It’s appropriate that she has the name she does because she handles life in exactly that matter, with grace.