Max Murray attends a Vista Voyagers event where children who are visually impaired or blind were able to touch a whale skeleton at the Seymour Marine Discovery Center on Jan. 20, 2019. Courtesy Tina Murray.Posted December 17, 2021
What's out there for the blind or visually impaired youth? At Vista Center — a whole lot
The nonprofit's Vista Voyagers program teaches kids with visual impairments how to be independent
by Lloyd Lee / Palo Alto Weekly
In elementary school, when Max Murray played hide-and-seek, his friends quickly disappeared.
Not so much because they excelled at the game of self-concealment, but more due to a combination of Murray's visual impairments, including nystagmus, an involuntary movement of the eyes that makes it difficult to steadily focus on things.
At a young age, Murray learned he couldn't participate in everyday playground games or team sports like basketball or baseball. Inevitably, he wondered: What sort of life lay ahead for him? Now 17 years old, ready to graduate from Los Gatos High School in the spring, Murray can confidently say there's a lot to look forward to — Palo Alto's Vista Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired helped him see that.
For nearly three decades, Vista Center, a nonprofit that offers rehabilitative services to people with a range of sight issues, has operated an all-encompassing youth program for children from 5 years old to their high school graduation. In it, students are sent on field trips with special access or private tours, receive proper tools and educational resources to strengthen daily life skills, and get a chance to connect with other people who have some form of visual impairment.
The mission statement of the program, which was rebranded in 2015 to Vista Voyagers, is to help students learn how to become independent adults and, hopefully, be assured that the world can actually be quite accommodating for them — even without sight.
"I named it Vista Voyagers because this is an adventure they have to go on," said Bethany Small, senior director of programs at the nonprofit. "They have to be brave. They have to get out there and experience the world ... and they have to embrace who they are. That's a big piece with your visual impairment."
Each year, Vista Voyagers serves about a hundred children, Small said.
A critical part of Voyagers is to help administer the Expanded Core Curriculum, a federally mandated program with nine areas of learning aimed to prepare blind and visually impaired children to be independent. On top of the Common Core Curriculum that all K-12 students follow, students like Murray also receive instruction on subjects such as orientation and mobility, independent living skills and career education.
Murray has been involved with Vista Center since he was in late elementary school. Recently, he met with his vision teacher for a lesson on how to safely cook food in the microwave, during which Murray had to keep in mind to stay away from the microwave and to recognize the kinds of containers that can and can't go inside it. Before that, Murray had many lessons on knife safety, just one of many everyday skills often taken for granted.
Around Murray's age, students also receive career prep training, which goes beyond learning how to write a resume. Students sit down with a transition specialist to talk about what sort of goals they have and to learn about the career options available for the visually impaired or blind. They're also taught granular but critical career skills unique to their situation, including how to tell the interviewer that they're blind and what the disability rights laws are, Bethany said.
"There's all sorts of things that we, who have sight, don't really think about, but really need that kind of independence training and practice to get that job," she said.
It's not all work at Vista Voyagers, however. Students are all also taken on field trips in which they experience a museum or zoo in a way tailored to their needs. When Murray went to a marine laboratory, students were given a rare chance to touch the skeleton of a whale.
This past year, using a $15,000 grant awarded by the Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund , the nonprofit maintained a healthy level of events and activities even as the Voyagers program shifted online. Virtual tours of the U.S.S. Hornet, a historical aircraft carrier, were hosted, and activity kits were sent to the students' homes. (Recently, Murray planted lavender seeds that were sent to him out in his backyard.)
One challenge that Murray's mom, Tina, says Vista Center approaches well is the need to provide activities for students with all levels of visual impairments. Murray not only has to work with his nystagmus but also has a rare genetic condition called oculocutaneous albinism. In addition to making his skin ultra sensitive to sunlight, the condition has also rendered his irises transparent, which means light floods the pupils even as the irises constrict.
At best, Murray can read a book that's six to nine inches away from him. But there are students at Vista Voyagers who are much more visually impaired or completely blind.
"Our kids range broadly on their vision," Small said. "But I can accommodate the same experience to encourage them all to learn and grow."
As a kid, Murray may not have been able to participate in every activity with his school peers. But over the years, with Vista Center's program, he's learned that he could adapt and still lead a fulfilling childhood. It may not have been basketball on the courts but instead martial arts in the dojo.
"I feel a lot better ever since I went to (Vista Center)," Murray said.
Right now, Murray's in the process of honing his creative skills. (During a tour of Netflix with Vista Voyagers, Murray learned that there's a whole world of creative fields that are open to people like him.) He's brainstorming an idea for an alternative reality video game and taking a digital photography class.
His creative aptitude is not so surprising to his mom. Tina remembers the first time her son picked up a digital camera and took thoughtful pictures of the seemingly mundane.
"Max has an incredible eye," she said.