When Stan Sowers, the principal of Eustace High School, learned that a blind exchange student would be spending a year at his school, he was apprehensive. His first thought was, “Oh, my goodness, why would we want to take on something like that, you know?”
His school had fewer than four hundred students and he’d never had a blind student before. To complicate matters further, Somaia Mahmoud, who came from Egypt, was still adjusting to living and learning in an English immersion environment. “Not only did we have a blind student but we had one that definitely had a language barrier,” Sowers says.
But Eustace, Texas, a town of approximately 800 people southeast of Dallas, describes itself as a “small town with a big town heart,” and Mahmoud quickly won over the hearts of her new teachers, peers, and principal.
“We felt like it was just a win-win situation,” Sowers says.
“I think she loved us and we loved her. It was a great experience for all of us. Our students just accepted her with open arms, were eager to volunteer to assist her in any way and our teachers just embraced her.”
Beth Costlow, the Special Education Department Head at Eustace High School, agrees. She, too, was apprehensive at first, but that changed when Mahmoud arrived in Eustace. “We found out very quickly that our concerns just came from not knowing,” Costlow says.
“Every child is different and each one of us has something that makes us different from somebody else,” she says. “If that is what is termed a disability, then okay, maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. Somaia was such a bright, bubbly, happy child. We laughed a lot, we learned a lot, and she would get so tickled over just silly things that we would say, and she was a blessing.”
Mahmoud attended an all-girls school for the blind in Egypt, and she’d never experienced co-educational classes or a mainstream school before she arrived in Texas, but she quickly adjusted to her new surroundings. She took a bus to and from school and her fellow students assisted her between classes until she was familiar with the layout of the building. Mahmoud, who uses a white cane, was then able to travel independently between her classes. She also became actively involved in many activities. She loved pep rallies and learned to play golf.
Mahmoud’s support network at Eustace High School and at home played a large part in her successful experience. “[The teachers] were more than helpful,” Costlow says. “Each and every one of them stepped up and did whatever they could to make it easier for her to learn and enjoy her stay here.”
Her textbooks were converted into Braille and she also used screen-reading software and note-taking accommodations. “We had a pretty good plan in place when she arrived [in Eustace] and then we tweaked it and adapted it as we needed to,” Costlow says. In addition, Mahmoud’s host mother in Eustace was also blind, so she had many opportunities to learn about independent living and accommodations for people who are blind in the United States.
Ultimately, Mahmoud’s experience was a win-win situation for both her and the school, as Sowers says. Her exchange in Eustace had “great benefits for [Mahmoud], which we felt good about, but at the same time, we benefited from the relationship as well, from the experience,” he says.
Both Costlow and Sowers say the school is open to having other exchange students with disabilities in the future. Just as Mahmoud’s year at Eustace was a learning experience for her, it was also showed administrators and teachers that Eustace High School could be fully inclusive of students with disabilities.
“We realize we have the means, this small little school, we have the people, we have the tools,” Sowers says. And they have the big town heart, too.
sgray [at] miusa.org (Contact MIUSA) to learn more about how your family, school, or community can host high school students with and without disabilities studying in the U.S.