With each new class of 90 International Baccalaureate students at Firestone High School, about one-third typically complete the rigorous academic program.
This year, Joseph “Joe” Chadbourne will be among them, and he had an extra challenge his classmates lacked: He has been blind since birth.
“He is an amazing student,” said Judy Harrison, who heads up the IB program at Firestone, which she says is challenging for sighted students. “It’s just above and beyond what can be expected from a high school student.”
Harrison and other faculty at Firestone have been impressed by Chadbourne, whom they say hasn’t let his disability stop him from doing anything he wanted to do, whether it was tackling the IB program or lettering on the swim team.
“He doesn’t take, ‘You can’t do this,’ for an answer,” said Jill Regenos, a Firestone teacher who had Chadbourne in her history class. “That is Joey in a nutshell. He’s unflappable.”
Chadbourne, an Akron Beacon Journal Top 25 Star Student, has Leber congenital amaurosis, a genetic condition that left him completely blind. He and his parents, however, had a positive outlook on his disability from the beginning of his school career in Akron. The district’s blind liaison was impressed with him when she met him in kindergarten.
“She knew he was going to make it,” said Anne Fritz, a Firestone High counselor. “He was so independent as a 5-year-old.”
Chadbourne says there hasn’t been anything he hasn’t been able to do because of his blindness.
“If somebody tells me I can’t do something, I usually figure out some way to do it, from taking organic chemistry to sports,” he said.
Chadbourne walks with a cane, and often on the arm of a classmate who is happy to help him down the hallway or up and down stairs. His textbooks and exams are in Braille, and he types his assignments and notes on a BrailleNote, a small computer that can be hooked to a printer to print out what he has written. Because of his disability, he was permitted extra time on exams, but Harrison said he didn’t need it, completing his tests within the same time period as other students.
Chadbourne joined the swim team his sophomore year. The team had to get creative with how to help him execute the flip turns required for competitive swimming. His coach used a broom handle with a tennis ball duct-taped to the end to poke him while in the water. This would give him the signal that he needed to flip.
“It takes a month or so to get good timing,” Chadbourne said of the orchestrated flips. “They tap and I immediately go into a turn.”
Chadbourne has done his part to give back. He has taken part in an annual swim team fundraiser to raise money for Akron Children’s Hospital, swimming more than 10 consecutive hours this year, with only 10-minute breaks each hour. He also has tutored a younger blind student on Braille and reading fluency.
“I enjoy it,” he said of the tutoring. “It’s fun.”
Chadbourne has this advice for other students with disabilities: “Just don’t let it stop you. If you put your mind to something, you can do anything. I found that out. I don’t think I’ve failed yet.”
Chadbourne plans to attend the University of Akron, where he wants to major in actuarial science, which he explained “helps companies figure out how much business ventures will cost — the probability that they will succeed.”
Those who know Chadbourne think the chances of him excelling are high.
Fritz said the best part of her job as a counselor at Firestone is working with students who are “going to be something,” like Chadbourne.
“I will say some day, ‘Yeah, I was his counselor,’ ” she predicted.
Stephanie Warsmith can be reached at 330-996-3705 or email@example.com. Follow on Twitter: @swarsmith.