In the Secaucus Public Library, a student from St. Joseph’s School for the Blind diligently works behind the counter helping to organize some of the Braille archives.
This is one of a number of jobs across the county where sight-impaired students have found ways to use skills learned at the Jersey City-based school.
Another student works at a restaurant in West New York, where he helps set up the tables with silverware.
Still other students can often be found in Liberty Science Center, where they help with sight-impaired visitors, a twist on the old adage of the blind helping the blind.
These students and others are able to do this thanks to a therapy room the school opened in 2018, which has a number of features, from physical to occupational therapy.
“The idea is to provide our students with skills they can use,” said Principal Dr. Tony Lentine.
The therapy room, however, is only one of the newer features of the school designed to help those with sight impairments find skills to help students later deal with the larger world beyond.
Earlier this year, the school cut the ribbon on its newly installed Multi-Sensory Environment (MSE), called a sensory room.
Executive Director David Feinhals said charitable grants and private donations helped fund the new room. Major funders include The UPS Foundation, New Jersey Lions District 16N Charitable Foundation, The Fund for the New Jersey Blind, and the FSC Foundation.
The sensory room and the therapy room are part of the school’s expanded programs and services for children from birth to 21 years of age who are blind, visually impaired, and multiply disabled.
Through research and input from St. Joseph’s Early Intervention specialists, Teachers of the Blind and Visually Impaired, and professional therapists, a design for the room was created incorporating a Snoezelen MSE, a specially designed stimulating environment.
The new room is a controlled, therapeutic environment offering a multitude of different opportunities to play, explore, and start to learn. It can be used to calm and relax, or stimulate exploration, learning and development, and to help children with sensory, cognitive and learning disabilities better understand the world around them.
According to Feinhals, tools within the environment help children achieve their academic and therapy goals and help stimulate communication and sensory integration.
The tactile, auditory, and olfactory elements of the room will allow students without functional vision to learn and achieve their goals through their preferred sensory channel.
“As the only private school for the blind in New Jersey, it is imperative to invest in the expansion of services to ensure all children develop to their greatest potential,” Feinhals said.
The sensory room is open to students ages 3 to 21 and is part of the school’s intervention program to help stimulate the senses of students who may struggle with sight impairment as well as other issues, said Vince Romano, director of facilities.
The school currently has a student population of about 65, all of whom are sight- impaired, but many with other issues that the room is designed to help them overcome.
The room is designed to stimulate senses, from touch and hearing to smell, and creates a calm soothing environment. Some of the curious features include a ball pit filled with plastic balls about the size of oranges in which a student immerses him or herself.
There is a sound feature that allows them to select sounds and a light curtain with changing colored lights. This has strands of lights that change color.
Another feature provides four different scents such as sea breeze, bouquet, lemon grass, and citrus. There are display screens that feature a number of different scenes including fireworks and the Grand Canyon.
The music feature allows a student to pick a variety of music options such as drums and other instruments.
A target ball is a ball about the size of a soccer ball that changes colors as a student handles it. They can even turn the room into a disco with disco lights overhead.
There is a floor display that has a number of features that include cracked glass. This takes on the appearance of cracking class as a student touches the surface.
All of the features are designed to features stimulate emotions, and provide feel good sensations.
“The room was something developed after much researching,” said Lentine. “We developed this after we opened the therapy room next door.”
Both rooms are expected to be heavily used and to help students adapt to their environment.
“This is a very unique sensory room in the state,” Lentine said.
Finding the best ideas
School officials took trips to various schools with sensory rooms throughout Northern New Jersey and then cherry picked the best features found in those places
“We went to more than 12 schools throughout northern New Jersey where we knew they had special education,” Lentine said. “We got a lot of ideas of what worked and what didn’t and what we wanted to see here. This is a kind of companion to the therapy room that opened last year.”
The therapy room has several aspects that include physical therapy but also former corporate training. This includes sending some students to various businesses and public facilities throughout Hudson County.
“We want to prepare students for doing things outside the school,” Lentine said.
But access job placement relies heavily on ability to find transportation. Since these students are sight-impaired they cannot drive.
Both rooms, however, pose health challenges that school officials realized almost immediately.
Students enrolled in the school typically have weaker immune systems, requiring a high standard of preventative care when it comes to common illness outbreaks found in traditional schools.
Because each of these rooms involve touching things, the school sought out and discovered a unique disinfecting system that would protect students, a Clorox product that uses an electrocharge that allowed disinfectants to cover the surface of everything in each room.
“With the introduction of our sensory room, we wanted to ensure that we were outfitted with the right tools to maintain its effectiveness for years to come,” said Romano. “We just spray it on and leave it, and we now use it throughout the school.”