SAMOHI In most ways Kyra Sweeney is a normal 14-year-old teenager just like any other. She counts text messaging, instant messaging, and talking on the phone among her primary interests.
However, unlike most teenagers there are a couple of traits that make her different from the average high school student including the fact that she’s blind.
Sweeney, who currently attends Santa Monica High School, was recently awarded the Robert Stack Achievement Award. The Blind Children’s Center of Los Angeles presents the award each year to a graduate.
Recipients must demonstrate independence as well as scholastic achievements and accomplishments in the community to win the award. This year they chose Kyra Sweeney.
“I felt really honored and also a little nostalgic because I remembered all of the fun things I used to do at the center,” Sweeney said upon receiving the news.
The Blind Children’s Center prepares children from birth to school age by helping them acquire skills to lead independent lives. Sweeney attended the school from 1995 to 1999 where she learned such skills as where to put belongings, how to form a line at recess in elementary school, how to talk to other children about being blind, and how to ask for help from others.
Sweeney admits that sometimes she is treated differently from her sighted peers.
“Sometimes I’m treated like I’m younger than I am,” Sweeney said. “There are times when people don’t realize I can do as much as I can. It’s not their fault because they’ve never met a blind person.”
In those cases Sweeney, who rock climbs and skis, says she proves her independence to them. Angela Woo, Sweeney’s music teacher at John Adams Middles School, remembers when she first observed the girl who holds a special place in her heart.
Woo said Sweeney came into school a day before everyone else in sixth grade and practiced the steps she would need to take so she would be able to independently navigate from the front school door to her music locker. Kyra played flute in both the wind ensemble and the orchestra at the middle school.
“She was such a great role model through her work and her performance,” Woo said. “She was always up for a challenge. Nothing was too hard for her.”
Kyra who describes music as her passion has been playing the piano since the age of 3 and began to play the flute in the fourth grade. Recently she was one of 30 musicians chosen to perform at the Hollywood Bowl with noted flutist James Galway.
Shirley Compton-Sugars, now assistant principal at John Adams, also remembers her as a phenomenal student who really proved that a person’s only disability is their attitude. Compton-Sugars, who said she adores her, credits Sweeney with stretching her as a teacher and educator. She taught world history to her in the seventh grade.
“She was one of my most vocal students. She was always willing and eager to take risks. She was a superstar,” Compton-Sugars said.
The former teacher was in her 10th year of educating when Sweeney entered her classroom. Before Sweeney, she relied on a lot of visual humor to connect with students including facial expressions, gestures, and not so skillful drawings she did on the board. With Sweeney’s arrival Compton-Sugar’s usual method of teaching was challenged and she was forced to change her routine to think beyond visuals.
“It was the best thing that could have happened to me,” Compton-Sugars said in reference to teaching Sweeney.
Compton-Sugars said Sweeney did not see her lack of sight as a disability when she was in her classroom and neither did her parents.
Sweeney’s mother, Barbara Mathews, did not know that she would give birth to a blind baby. When Sweeney arrived her mother said she initially felt devastated. It turned out that unbeknownst to them, both parents carried a recessive gene for Leber’s congenital amaurosis, a disease that causes severe blindness.
“I just didn’t know anything about blindness, “Mathews said. “The doctor immediately put me in touch with the blind children’s institute.”
Through the institute, Mathews met Laurie Rubin and her mother. Rubin, who was a teenager then, is now a world renowned opera singer. Mathews was surprised by Laurie’s capacity to navigate around her world independently. Through this person Mathews was able to understand that blind people can lead really normal and even exceptional lives with some extra effort.
“I was really fortunate that early on I was able to see a role model,” Mathews said.
She now serves as a role model for other parents. Mathews is president of the parent group called California Parents of Blind Children, a chapter of the National Federation of Blind of California.
While her mom mentors others, Sweeney is currently enjoying high school. She said it’s a nice change from middle school noting classes are more interesting and she has a lot more friends. Latin and English are her favorite subjects at school.
As for the future Sweeney plans to attend college and possibly study music. She is considering journalism, law, and music for future careers.
“She’s such a special person. Our music program has been strengthened by her participation. I know that whatever she chooses to do with her life she’ll be a terrific success,” Woo said.