Needs Student is Resolute
by Kathleen Baydala, Chattanooga Times Free Press,
November 23, 2003
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In a dimly
lighted room, 14-year-old Chelsea Gilliland read aloud as she
skimmed her hands along rows of raised dots, letting her fingers
see the words.
The LaFayette High School freshman is legally blind, hearing
impaired and has trouble walking. Despite her physical
handicaps, Chelsea has succeeded in school, making all A's and
"She is very bright and very determined," said Johnnalie
Coleman, a special education instructor and Chelsea's assistant.
Mrs. Coleman has accompanied Chelsea to her classes, taken notes
for her and tutored her nearly every school day for five years.
Doctors diagnosed Chelsea with Alstrm syndrome when she was very
young. She began losing her hearing at age 4, and her sight also
began to worsen, Mrs. Coleman said.
Alstrm syndrome is a rare and life-threatening genetic disease
that attacks the body's organs and can lead to blindness,
deafness, diabetes, and kidney and heart failure.
A team of special education instructors work with Chelsea
throughout the day. Besides core classes like math and English,
Chelsea studies sign language and Braille. She takes physical
therapy and mobility lessons at least one time a week.
Chelsea said she enjoys school, especially social studies, which
she hopes to take next semester.
"I like how you can go back in time, like 200 years," she said.
Chelsea said she also likes horses, country music singer Shania
Twain and playing basketball. She wishes the school had a
basketball team for students who are blind and deaf.
Sometimes, school can be overwhelming, Chelsea said. She has to
navigate crowded hallways with a walking stick and wear dark
glasses under the bright fluorescent lights.
"I used to pretend I could read, and I would try to read. I used
every kind of magnifying glass possible. I gave up, but I'm
learning Braille," Chelsea said.
"But it's like basketball. When I fall down, I have to get right
up," she said.
Becky Cole, who instructs Chelsea in reading and sign language,
said her own disability has strengthened her connection with
"I started to lose my hearing when I was young, but I didn't
want to tell anyone," Mrs. Cole said. "I know what she is going
Teachers thought Chelsea was mentally impaired until she was in
the fifth grade, when she was retested for learning
disabilities. School officials then realized Chelsea's hearing
loss and shyness were the reasons she did not respond in class,
Mrs. Coleman said.
"She had so much going on in her head for so long, but nobody
knew it," Mrs. Coleman said. "And now, she is hungry. If my
voice wouldn't give out, she'd have me read to her 24 hours a
Under federal law, public schools must provide students who have
mental and physical handicaps with special education resources,
LaFayette High School principal Ron Peck said.
"Schools are bound by law to take in all children within their
boundaries, and we see it as our duty to provide services to
those students," he said.
Officials with the Walker County School District have been very
supportive of Chelsea, her teachers and her family, Mrs. Cole
"Nobody has discouraged her. I think there was only one teacher
who ever said Chelsea didn't belong in regular classes," Mrs.
Mr. Peck said Chelsea's classmates see her as an inspiration.
When Chelsea returned recently from a two-week trip to Chicago
to visit with doctors, the student body welcomed her back with
banners and cheers, he said.
"Her disposition is phenomenal. She is a trooper and wants to be
involved in school," Mr. Peck said. "In turn, our students are
very accommodating for her and respect her."
Chelsea has overcome much of her shyness, Mrs. Coleman said.
This year, she joined the Key Club, tried out for cheerleading
and sang a song that she composed in the talent show.
"She knows she is different, but she does not think she is
inferior to anyone," Mrs. Coleman said. "She has the best
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