Braille newsletter ensures youngster can follow school's extension project

A youngster who was born blind is now able to follow every step of her school’s extension after a newsletter was transcribed into Braille.

Sophie Booth, six, is a pupil at Athelstan Community Primary School in Sherburn-in-Elmet, North Yorkshire, which is currently undergoing a £4.3m extension and refurbishment programme led by Sewell Construction.

When Sewell Site Manager Paul Armitage found out Sophie was blind, it was close to home, as his wife, Jules, also lost her sight two-and-a-half years ago.

The Sewell team creates a regular newsletter to update staff and pupils on the building project’s progress and Paul and Jules knew what a difference it would make to Sophie if she could follow it too.

The realisation resulted in a special Braille edition being created for Sophie by Jules, bringing the extension to life and enabling the little girl to feel included.

Headteacher Karen O’Donnell said: “Sophie is a very big part of our school. She is very important to us and very special to us. But Sewell made her important to their project as well by doing the Braille newsletter and it made her a whole part of our extension.

“We know, looking forward, there will be a lot of things included in the extension that will just be for Sophie. We know about the signage we’re going to put in and we know about the different textures going into the floors, which is all part of what Sewell is doing.

“But the fact she has been involved with it from the word go and she has the Braille is fantastic.

“Sophie is at the very early stages with Braille and it’s a great example for her. It shows her Braille in real life and she can use it to find out about the environment that’s being created for her.”

Braille is a system of raised dots which can be read using fingers by people who are blind or have low vision.

Soon after Sophie was born, she was diagnosed with Optic Nerve Hypoplasia – a medical condition arising from the underdevelopment of the optic nerve, which resulted in her sight loss.

Her pituitary gland does not work properly and this controls her thyroid gland and hormones. Sophie is also diabetic.

But despite experiencing so much so young, Sophie is always smiling and is not one to shy away.

Sophie’s mum, Laura Watson, from Sherburn in Elmet, said: “She’s like a little celebrity. Children like different, so Sophie with her cane is interesting.

“Everyone at the school is so considerate. They have put so much in and made it so much easier for her.

“When I saw the Braille newsletter, I was amazed. It was fantastic and we were over the moon.

“Sophie is always included anyway. But because this was unique for her, it made it all the more special. I had great fun trying to decode it.

“It means Sewell and the school are thinking about her and she is included even more.”

Sophie, who also met Jules’ black Labrador Guide Dog, Tessa, at school, said the newsletter was a good idea.

“I found out more about the building and I think it’s really good,” she said.

“I really liked meeting Jules and Tessa too.”

Jules, from Wakefield, lost her sight following a rare disease which attacked the back of her optic nerve.

Having adjusted to life without her sight, she said she was delighted to offer a helping hand to Sophie, taking time to explain how the dog’s harness works, as well as speaking to the youngster about the newsletter.

“The newsletter took me about 10 minutes and I’m really pleased I’ve been able to help,” said Jules.

“There are a few times when I’ve been handed a leaflet and having it in Braille means you can be independent, which is nice.

“I have adjusted pretty well because I’m a positive person. It was lovely to meet Sophie.”

Working on behalf of North Yorkshire County Council, construction on the school’s extension began in September this year and is expected to be completed by September 2017.

The school will double in size to tackle oversubscription and meet growing population demands.

A brand new playground has already been created for the children, complete with hoarding and small windows for the youngsters to look through as the project develops.

The Sewell team recently held site safety workshops with the pupils, helping them to understand what is involved in the building work and asking for their thoughts on how they would like the team to behave on site.

Paul said creating the Braille newsletter is part of the Sewell values and going the extra mile.

“We decided to get the newsletter transcribed into Braille to make Sophie feel included,” he said.

“She liked it and it’s part of what Sewell do as a company. We try and help out wherever we can and we go over and above.

“It’s great that Jules has been able to help and be involved in this way, and we hope it makes a difference to Sophie.”