At the start of the school year, Jordan Richardson stored his white cane and Braille laptop and told the preschoolers whom he would teach to read that he is blind.
The kids didn't care.
Richardson, 23, rejected as a tutor by one local elementary school last summer because of his blindness, on Tuesday completed the year as a Minnesota Reading Corps tutor at the Earle Brown Elementary School in Brooklyn Center.
The 4- and 5-year-olds at Earle Brown apparently saw something that administrators at the other school overlooked.
"Does being blind really have anything to do with reading?" asked Richardson, who grew up in Blaine, graduated from the University of Minnesota a year ago and plans to attend Chicago-Kent College of Law this fall.
"The children and I have talked about it," he said of his disability. "To them, it wasn't a big issue. Being blind has no relevance to reading."
Richardson was told that he had less than 5 percent vision — making him legally blind — when he was a preschooler. He was diagnosed with an eye-movement disorder called nystagmus and learned that he has cone-rod dystrophy, a degeneration of nerve cells within the retina. Both eyes have continued to deteriorate. Richardson says he has 20/400 vision now, but there's no guarantee he'll have sight by the time he completes law school.
"It's impossible for me to describe what I can and can't see because I can't compare my vision to anyone else's," he said. "I can read some print, but prefer Braille. I can see people. I just can't see them well enough to recognize them."
Richardson says he can make out words if they're right in front of him. He can write.
When teaching children to read, he relies on a packet of handmade cards marked both visually and in Braille. He will place the card by his nose, so he can see its image, before showing the children. Each card carries a picture and description — a pig, for instance. He also relies on sounds, using rhymes and alliteration.
In some situations, he pulls children aside individually, showing them a picture and a word, defining the word verbally and then asking the child to repeat that definition.
"It would be no different than if I was doing this in Braille," he said.
Richardson is a gifted communicator. His mother said he worked two summers for Gov. Mark Dayton's campaign staff and, later, citizen-outreach staff. He spent last summer in Baltimore as an intern for the National Federation of the Blind. Back in 2008 and 2009, he worked two-week programs in Philadelphia, where he taught blind kids how to use a cane and read Braille on behalf of the National Federation of the Blind in Pennsylvania. And in 2010, he taught high school students to read Braille in Towson, Md., through Blind Industries and Services of Maryland.
Teaching children who can see to read presented a different challenge — one that a Minneapolis elementary school was reluctant to embrace, said Richardson's mother, Carrie Gilmer. She said that Richardson, a member of the National Honor Society at Blaine High School, had "super" interviews with Minnesota Reading Corps, a division of AmeriCorps that provides literacy tutors for kids from age 3 to the third grade. Gilmer said her son's meeting with the school's program director seemed to go equally well.
Then the school, which both Richardson and his mother declined to name, became concerned that he might injure himself, tripping over a toy, Gilmer said. The school asked how Richardson would be able to check kids' handwriting, or teach children to read vocabulary words that he couldn't see.
Just a big kid
But to the preschoolers at Earle Brown, Richardson was just a big kid who sat with them in miniature chairs, talked enthusiastically about "The Ugly Duckling" and adhered to fashion on pajama day. When kids sat in a circle with their legs crossed, Richardson did so, too. He only drew the line when one of the girls in the class offered her hula hoop.
"That's too small for me, Bella," he told her. He then twirled his hips to an imaginary hoop. "Sometimes, you have to improvise," Richardson told a visitor.
He's done so most of his life.
"On Friday, when I picked him up, he was leaving the school and a little girl sitting outside, 30 feet away, was waving at him," Gilmer recalled. "He couldn't see that — both that it was somebody he knew and that she was waving. It never occurred to her.
"That happens to people his own age."
Gilmer marvels at the way he has adapted and the way the children this year seemed to understand what adults often cannot. They seemed fascinated by the way Richardson often touches things they merely look at.
Abraham, 5, who graduated from preschool this week, didn't seem to notice or care that Richardson never looks him or anyone else in the eye while conversing.
"He makes reading fun," Abraham said.
Last week, Richardson was about to introduce a visitor to a staff member passing in the hall, but first had to ask the teacher who she was.
"Preschoolers don't have any preconception about disabilities and what you can and can't do," said Michelle Trelstad, director of the Early Learning and Community program at Earle Brown Elementary.
"The children have had a year to observe Jordan," Trelstad said. "What a great opportunity for them."
Like the children who held their graduation ceremony Monday, Richardson moves on. He hopes to one day become a judge and is already bracing for all the blind-justice comments that surely will come with his robe.
"I'm nervous about the prospect of law school," he said. "I feel like I'm being dropped into the center of a foreign country and I need to learn the language.
"I'm going from reading Harry Potter to reading Supreme Court opinions."