Northern Ireland

Family Insight Project for blind pupils gets £700,000 funding

Sala-Joy Storbeck
Image caption Sala-Joy Storbeck said she wants to be teacher when she grows up

Like many of her P3 classmates in Lisnasharragh Primary School, Sala-Joy Storbeck enjoys spelling, playtime and winning good behaviour points for her table.

But unlike her peers in the east Belfast school, seven-year-old Sala-Joy is blind.

She is not unusual, however, as many blind children in Northern Ireland are educated in mainstream schools.

A project which aims to help children like Sala-Joy - and their parents - get the most from education has been awarded almost £700,000 from the Big Lottery Fund.

The Family Insight project is run by Angel Eyes NI and the Royal National Institute of Blind People NI (RNIBNI).

Sara McCracken founded Angel Eyes NI after her own twins, who are now 11, were born blind.

"My twins are now at mainstream school with a statement of special educational needs," she said.

"But for parents the system can be quite daunting, and, as sight loss is very rare, the chances are that many schools and pupils won't have encountered sight loss before."

Image caption Sara McCracken said the system can be quite daunting for parents of children in mainstream schools

According to RNIBNI, there are more than 2,300 children and young people who have some form of sight loss in Northern Ireland.

The majority are educated alongside pupils in mainstream schools.

According to Sala-Joy's father, Gunther, that brings many challenges.

"Things like mobility, knowing her way around the school and how to get there and interaction with the other kids can all be difficult," he said.

"Sala-Joy needs a bit more assistance in finding friends, knowing what's going on and being able to join in with things."

Sala-Joy has a full-time classroom assistant, and works with the aid of a braille machine in class.

Her fellow pupils have learned to spell their names in braille using her machine, and their efforts are proudly displayed on the classroom wall.

Headteacher Philip Monks said that staff in Lisnasharragh have learned how best to help Sala-Joy in class, in the canteen and in the playground.

"We, as a school, were very keen to welcome her and to meet her needs," he said.

"As a school we have learned from her in many different ways."

Angel Eyes NI is using part of the five-year funding to employ a specialist worker who will focus specifically on providing educational guidance.

"We want to help visually impaired children access the curriculum like their peers," Ms McCracken said.

Image caption Sala-Joy's father Gunther said his daughter needs a bit more assistance in finding friends, knowing what's going on and being able to join in with things

"Parents of blind children want their child to do their best educationally, like any other parent.

"Sometimes they don't fully understand all the support there is out there."

And although Sala-Joy's education journey is only beginning, she knows where she wants it to end.

"I'm longing to be a teacher," she said.

"I'm in a really good school, so I've decided to work in a school too."