Being blind is no barrier for this Philadelphia teacher

Harriet Go in her Bridesburg classroom. She has won a national scholarship. ELISE WRABETZ / Staff
Harriet Go in her Bridesburg classroom. She has won a national scholarship. ELISE WRABETZ / Staff
Posted: June 16, 2012

A group of second graders reads aloud from workbooks as teacher Harriet Go follows along, running her fingers across lines of text. Once class is finished, the children line up at the door. As they walk quietly through the hall to round up her next group of students, Go, who is blind, lightly raps her long white cane on the floor tiles.

Go, 30, has worked for the last seven years in the Philadelphia School District and teaches 21 special-education students in kindergarten through second grade at Richmond Elementary in Bridesburg.

On the first day of school each year, Go plays "icebreaker" games with her students, telling them all about herself, including that she is blind. She also brings in her favorite CD (Adele or Mariah Carey) and movie (any of the Harry Potter series).

"They can see that a person who is blind is a normal person, too, and there's nothing weird or strange about it, they just have to do things differently," said Go, who was diagnosed as blind at birth and describes her vision as "severely limited."

Classes ended for the summer Thursday and Go, recently named one of 30 national recipients of a scholarship from the National Federation of the Blind, will spend a week of her vacation in Dallas at the July NFB annual conference. Go will be honored at a banquet and learn the amount of the scholarship, which ranges between $3,000 and $12,000.

She received the scholarship once before, during her undergraduate studies at Temple University in special and elementary education, a degree earned summa cum laude. Her second scholarship will be applied to her master's concentrating in reading and literacy from an online program at Minnesota's Walden University.

To receive the scholarship twice is remarkable, said Jim Antonacci, president of the National Federation of the Blind of Pennsylvania and member of the national committee that selects the recipients from about 450 applications. Antonacci could not comment on Go's application, but spoke personally of her work in Philadelphia, including leading a summer camp for blind children and demonstrating braille to Boy Scouts.

"She's always been one to give herself as much as she could," he said. "She'll always do what she can to help another blind person."

Antonacci said the School District has perhaps a half-dozen blind teachers, a figure district officials said they could not confirm because they don't track that category.

Although many assume Go teaches blind students, her pupils have learning disabilities, not physical disabilities, and need extra help in reading and math. Some students come to her without knowing the alphabet or how to spell their name. When her students become frustrated with a lesson, shouting out "I can't do it!", she tells them, "If you can't do it, at least try."

The specialized attention helps students succeed, said Joyce Sloan, a second grade teacher at Richmond and a coworker of Go's for the last seven years. When Go comes into Sloan's classroom to take students to their reading or math lesson, Sloan said, students jump with excitement.

The attention to students goes beyond academics, said Sloan. For instance, she said, Go will pull students aside if she learns they are having a tough time making friends at recess.

"They have a lot of respect for her and she has a lot of respect for the children," said Sloan.

Go described her eyesight as being unable to see details. She was diagnosed as blind at two weeks old and has congenital glaucoma, aniridia, and cataracts. Her sight has deteriorated over the years and the glasses she has are no longer helpful, but she still wears them out of habit. She predominantly relies on braille, learned at age 6, to read to her students.

A Philadelphia native, Go attended St. Lucy's Day School in Feltonville, where several teachers inspired her to become a teacher. She said she did encounter some resistance while student-teaching during her last year in college, but prefers not to discuss it.

"Some people believed that because I am blind I would not be able to handle my duties as a teacher," Go said.

Small adaptations to her classroom help guide Go through her lessons. Students call their names when they raise their hands. Tactile aids, like tape, sticky notes and braille, appear in Go's books and on posters. A teaching aide sits in on Go's class to help her monitor student behavior and occasionally grade papers.

Richmond principal Anna Jenkins said Go is easily able to make accommodations both for the needs of special-education students and for her own disability.

"She works at such a high level and it doesn't affect her work at all," Jenkins said.

Members of the National Organization of Blind Educators will attend July's NFB conference, and Go said she hopes to share her experiences and hear from others. Her goal in education is to continue learning and teaching, possibly becoming a curriculum director or an administrator.

"I want people to learn that just because someone has a disability or a difficulty, that shouldn't stop them from doing what they want to do or being what they want to be," she said.

Contact Dara McBride at 215-854-5626 or

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