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Seneca senior won’t let blindness stand in the way of college dreams

Brandon Wingard of Cranberry Township gets his first drink at Starbucks on the SRU campus Friday. Shane Potter/Butler Eagle

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SLIPPERY ROCK — Seneca Valley senior Brandon Wingard had his first taste of Starbucks on Friday afternoon at the Robert M. Smith Student Union at Slippery Rock University.

“It’s sweet, but it’s weird sweet,” Brandon said of his tall caramel frappachino.

While sipping his frosty treat, Brandon perused a campus bus schedule that was listed in a huge font to accommodate his blindness.

Brandon spent Friday morning and afternoon with two very special teachers from the Midwestern Intermediate Unit, who accompanied Brandon on an orientation session with other students and provided individual help with navigating college life as a legally blind and deaf student.

Brandon’s tour took place just one day before White Cane Day, which is Oct. 15. White Cane Day was created to spread awareness about the visually impaired and their challenges.

Jessica Sloan, teacher of the visually impaired at the MIU, has worked with Brandon since he was in fifth grade.

On Friday, the pair, along with MIU vision teacher Carly Chrostowski, toured the university’s classrooms, traditional and modern dorms, Morrow Field House, fitness center, library and student center.

At each venue, Sloan and Chrostowski gave Brandon tips on which piece of technology he could use in the space or how to most easily accomplish his goals there.

At the student union, Brandon demonstrated the method used by the blind to differentiate between denominations of bills. A one dollar bill is kept flat in its usual form, a five is folded in half, a $10 is folded lengthwise, a $20 is folded lengthwise then in half, and a $50 is folded into a small square.

Brandon also showed how he “sees” which coins he is using.

“First, I feel how big they are,” he said.

Then, he feels the edges of the two big coins to see if it is a quarter with ridges or a nickel with a smooth edge. He repeats the method with pennies and dimes.

Sloan had Brandon order his Starbucks drink at the counter like everyone else, and advised him to stick close to the pickup area so he would be able to hear the barrista call out his name when the icy confection was ready.

Brandon can read printing on paper that is a size 12 font if he holds it directly up to the lens on the right side of his glasses, and he has a device known as a Ruby that magnifies anything on a page.

Brandon Wingard of Cranberry Township uses a device called a Ruby to help him see a map of the SRU campus on Friday afternoon. Shane Potter/Butler Eagle

“I read all the Harry Potter books,” Brandon said. “Twice.”

Chrostowski explained that the range of visual ability among those declared legally blind is huge.

“Only a very small percentage of people who are legally blind see complete darkness,” she said.

Brandon was able to hear his teachers and follow their instructions on Friday through a device they wore around their necks that transmits their words directly to Brandon’s hearing aid.

Brandon has mild hearing loss in his right ear and profound hearing loss in his left ear.

“With profound hearing loss, you might hear a jet engine and you might not,” Chrostowski said.

Brandon also demonstrated the facets of his white cane, including the “marshmallow” tip that allows him to feel the textures it glides over, the golf handle grip that allows him to use the cane in any weather or conditions, its required 6 inches of red paint at the bottom to tell sighted people he is blind, and his ability to quickly fold it up and place it in his backpack or under a chair.

On the SRU campus Friday, Brandon Wingard of Cranberry Township uses his monocular to see when the bus he is waiting for comes up the drive. Shane Potter/Butler Eagle

A monocular allows him to see signs in the distance or a menu on a wall, like the one at Starbucks.

Brandon’s challenges are a result of CHARGE syndrome, which is a birth defect that includes issues with multiple systems in the body.

Brandon’s pupils have a coloboma, or notch in the pupil, and he suffers from nastygmus, which means his eyes involuntarily flutter left to right.

But all this doesn’t stop him from enjoying his life and excelling at his pursuits, which includes playing blind ice hockey for the Pittsburgh Rhinos. Brandon said he has been playing for five years.

Regarding college, Brandon hopes to attend Butler County Community College for two years before transferring to Slippery Rock to major in computer science and minor in graphic design.

Brandon’s perseverance is an inspiration to Sloan.

“He should not function as well as he does, with his level of blindness and hearing loss,” she said. “He compensates so well.”

On Friday afternoon, Brandon Wingard of Cranberry Township shows off how he separates his dollar bills at the Starbucks on the SRU campus. Shane Potter/Butler Eagle

Brandon’s mother, Robin Wingard, said Seneca Valley School District has gone above and beyond to provide the special accommodations that allow him to learn as easily as possible.

“Almost everything I ever asked for, I’ve gotten,” she said. “They have been so accommodating.”

Wingard said she had a realization while making a sandwich for Brandon when he was about 10 years old that she really wasn’t helping him by doing everything for him.

“He has to learn how to manage in this world,” she said. “I told him ‘The world is not going to change for you because you can’t see.’”

Still, she worries about Brandon navigating a large campus like Slippery Rock University on his own.

“Mom is terrified,” Brandon said, “but as it’s getting closer, it’s getting a little easier for me.”

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