Independence blooms from a simple piece of fabric

Alicia, a student at the Arthur Blaxall School for children who are blind or deafblind, displays her handsewn fabric flowers.

Sewing has become more than a hobby for Alicia — it's a profitable business and a tremendous source of pride.

March 11, 2014

When customers at a small boutique in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, purchase colorful fabric flowers or creatively designed cards, they probably have no idea that those items were made by a 17-year-old girl who is deafblind and in a wheelchair.

That girl is Alicia, a student at the Arthur Blaxall School for children who are blind or deafblind. About 200 students, ages 5 to 19, attend.

Like many of her fellow students, Alicia took a class where she learned how to sew, using only her very limited vision and her sense of touch. That skill, along with encouragement from two special teachers, transformed Alicia’s life.

However, sewing might have remained just a hobby for Alicia if not for Winsome Bukus, a longtime teacher at the school.

Bukus is a graduate of Perkins' Educational Leadership Program, which teaches educators from around the world how to more effectively work with children who are blind with additional disabilities. Bukus recognized Alicia's intelligence and urged her to study hard and believe in herself.

Two years ago, Bukus established a fundraiser called "Dinner in the Dark," where he invited members of the Pietermaritzburg community to eat a three-course dinner without the benefit of sight or hearing. The event raised awareness about the challenges faced by people who are deafblind.

Tragically, Bukus died in 2012, so that year’s dinner was dedicated to her memory. Each of the 300-plus guests received a blindfold and earplugs in a special gift bag, made from delicate chiffon fabric, sewn by students from the Arthur Blaxall School – including Alicia.

Sitting in her sewing class, Alicia carefully guided the sheer, silky fabric through a sewing machine to create gift bags for the memorial dinner. Her teacher Fiona Parker observed Alicia’s gentle touch and accuracy. Parker is also a graduate of Perkins’ Educational Leadership Program, and, like Bukus, recognized Alicia's potential.

Parker returned the next day with a fabric flower constructed from cloth and a button. She carefully took the flower apart and guided Alicia's hands through the process of making it.

After learning that Alicia's mother owned a sewing machine, Parker began acquiring scraps of fabric and old buttons from a friend's clothing company. At the end of each school day, Alicia took the materials home and went to work sewing flowers.

Over the course of four months, Alicia made more than 300 flowers and with help from her parents, persuaded a local boutique to sell them. She broadened her inventory to include cards she designs and draws herself. She also started taking orders for gift bags for local birthday parties.

Inspired by Alicia’s success, the Arthur Blaxall School is now expanding its efforts to teach other students vocational skills that will allow them to become more self-sufficient.

One teacher, Corinne Pillay, is developing a functional curriculum that will give students more opportunities to develop skills in a natural environment. For example, a trip to a local market will allow students to practice mobility, communication and counting skills.

Pillay, who attended the Perkins Summer Institute, is also working to expand vocational training for students. The school’s staff hopes that their new focus on real-world and vocational skills will open more doors to jobs and independence for students.

For Alicia's family, the sight of their daughter hard at work with her mother’s sewing machine is clear evidence of the benefits of a good education and vocational training for students who are blind or deafblind.

"My daughter now has a skill to make a living," Alicia's father said proudly. "I want to thank the people at Perkins. Thank you for helping these teachers give my daughter more skills and a future."