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Costa Rica launches new program for visually impaired students

September 30, 2011

For the first time in her life, Jennifer Álvarez, 12, was able to experience the joy of holding a brand new coloring book in her hands. 

“This is beautiful, and the drawings are so big,” she said, quickly and steadily moving her hands across the pages. 

The book’s pages were white with raised dots outlining the border of an elephant. 

Álvarez is blind. Nearly a teenager, last Thursday was the first opportunity she’d had to access a braille coloring book, thanks to a new program at the National Resource Center for Inclusive Education, an agency located in in the northeast San José suburb of Guadalupe and operated by the Ministry of Public Education. 

The program was launched last week at the newly inaugurated Braille Visual and Sound Material Production Center, a place buzzing with activity geared toward creating better opportunities for visually impaired elementary and high school students across the country. 

According to the Education Ministry, nearly 268,000 students with disabilities are registered in public primary and secondary schools in Costa Rica. More than 9,700 are visually impaired. 

Throughout her school years, Álvarez has impressed her teachers and classmates. Currently in sixth grade at the Pilar Jiménez School in Guadalupe, Álvarez has the second-best grades in her class. 

“Jennifer is fully integrated in the classroom. She has a Perkins machine [braille typewriter] that she takes notes with and asks for very little individual help,” said Álvarez’s teacher, Yamileth Mora. “With special equipment, she is very independent and is able to work at the same rhythm as her classmates.” 

The center was the result of a collaboration between several local and international agencies, including Spain’s Ministry of Education, the Organization of Latin American-Iberian States for Education, Science and Culture and the ONCE Foundation, which aids visually impaired Latin Americans. The Costa Rican Education Ministry hired staff to operate the center and provided the facilities, which were built at a cost of ₡21 million ($41,000).

According to Yamileth Calvo, the center’s coordinator, students will have access to a variety of educational materials that fully integrate them into the classroom. Because of the new materials and the center, visually impaired students in Costa Rica will finally have access to braille relief maps, a first for Costa Rican schools. 

Younger children can learn from “Brailín,” a doll that familiarizes kids at an early age with the braille system of reading and writing. The center also has a number of braille chess games that will be loaned to students. 

“This is a great way for them to learn how to deal with space,” said Calvo. 

The center also has special equipment to make braille relief on ink-printed paper, a machine that makes relief maps and other educational materials, and special software that prints in braille. The braille coloring book is one of several options that the new equipment can create. 

“It’s all about finding ways to make academic materials more handy to visually impaired and blind students. For instance, we will be able to record audio books like ‘The Odyssey’ or ‘Don Quixote,’ which are required reading for high school exams,” said Calvo. 

 “It is a small step, but it will significantly help us reach more visually impaired students across the country,” Quirós said. “Our goal is to become an avant-garde center in terms of all the braille material that [we] can produce with the new equipment.” 

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