PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Since she graduated from the University of Maine at Presque Isle in 2004, Leeann Ward didn’t think she’d qualify so soon for an award of distinction. But officials at UMPI thought differently and wanted to recognize a teacher who has been visually impaired since birth and has gone on to help children facing the same obstacles.
Leeann Ward, who has a bachelor’s degree in English, received the Educator of the Year award during UMPI’s Homecoming celebration last weekend. The award is presented to a past graduate who has received ongoing recognition as an outstanding educator.
When she received her degree during commencement exercises 7 years ago, Ward walked to the podium with her service dog, Amigo, by her side. She then went on to earn her master’s degree in teaching children with visual impairments from Western Michigan University.
Since 2007, she has worked for Catholic Charities Maine, providing assessment, instruction and consultation to blind and visually impaired children, their parents and school personnel. Now 31, she also works closely with the Bangor school system teaching visually impaired children how to read Braille and use adaptive equipment and providing low-vision training. As part of this work, she has designed and modified specialized curricula for students. She is a certified teacher of the visually impaired and is a member of the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired. She works with a machine that magnifies text and uses a computer with a speech program that tells her what she types when she uses the keyboard.
“It is great, because the services that I provide are the same services that were provided to me when I was a child,” she said on Tuesday. “I work with students who are low-vision or legally blind. There are three of us in the Bangor office and we cover a wide area. It is a lot of travel, but it is very rewarding.”
Ward added that the majority of the students aren’t necessarily in the Bangor school system. Ward and her colleagues travel to Washington and Aroostook counties and some of Maine’s island communities as well.
Ward has not let obstacles stop her. An operation in 1994 that was intended to improve her vision actually worsened it, and her sight has steadily declined ever since. She can see shapes of people and colors, but details of people’s faces evade her. She used a cane until she was partnered with Amigo in 2004. The service animal will be 10 years old next month and has recently retired, but still lives with Ward and her husband. She said she plans to get a new service animal next summer.
Ward said she currently works with 16-17 students, a number that has fluctuated over the years. When budget cuts threatened her job, she served as a work-group member to address a bill focusing on the needs of people who are visually impaired or blind.
While a student at UMPI, Ward also advocated for improved accommodations. She successfully led a campaign to get Braille on campus vending machines and fought for better lighting on campus.
Today, Ward said her work is both challenging and gratifying.
“You would think that it would be easier for someone who is visually impaired to help children who are visually impaired, but that is not always the case,” said Ward. “Some of the children that I work with are not just visually impaired, they are nonverbal. So I can’t see their body language; I don’t know what their eyes are doing. That is difficult.”
At the same time, she said it is good for parents of visually impaired children to see her working.
“I am a visually impaired person, and I am successful,” she said. “There are challenges, but they can be overcome.”
Ward said she plans to spend the remainder of a career as a teacher.
“This is my job,” she said on Tuesday. “This is what I’m supposed to do.”