Utica High produces yearbook for visually impaired

Sarah Rahal, The Detroit News

Utica — Most high schools publish a yearbook, but Utica High produced two versions for 2017 — one in Braille for two visually impaired students at the Macomb County school. 

Calliandra Bowman-Tomlison reading her first yearbook in Braille on May 22.

Yearbook editor Angel Augustitus-Bell, 17, a graduating senior, said staff members were writing a profile of visually impaired sophomore Calliandra Bowman-Tomlinson and her service dog, Q, when they realized she would not be able to read it.

Calliandra’s mother, Heather Bowman-Tomlinson forwarded an article from Louisiana to Principal Tom Lietz with the idea of making a Braille translation.

Calliandra was thrilled to learn about the specially produced yearbook.

“I was surprised when I heard the news, but then my surprise turned into excitement that this will be the first year that I will have an actual, physical yearbook that I can actually read by myself,” she said. “I’ve gotten yearbooks ever since seventh grade and they’re not Braille.”

Perhaps the biggest challenge the staff faced was finding an affordable way to print the Braille editions.

A yearbook costs $100 per copy to produce. Staff members looked into publishing a Braille edition and initially thought it could be done for close to $800 a copy.

Zack Essenmacher, paraprofessional Trisha Figlioli, Angel Augustitus-Bell and Kaci Watt seeing the first printed Braille yearbook.

Yearbook adviser Stacy Smale said she and her students started a GoFundMe campaign to raise most of the money needed to print two Braille copies.

“In one weekend, we had all the money donated” — $1,200, she said.

But Smale said once they requested an estimate to produce one Braille yearbook, the cost jumped to $7,000.

“Angel and I went to go talk to the (high school’s) special services department because we didn’t know what would be the best way,” Smale said.

The expensive price tag was mainly to convert the yearbook into a Microsoft Word document to be translated into Braille.

So Augustitus-Bell and her assistant editor, Grace Hartigan, decided to do it themselves.

The process took about 30 hours and the Macomb Intermediate School District donated the cost of the paper.

UHS’ special services department put up the rest of the costs and the yearbook staff printed the Braille editions of in-house.

The staff refunded the GoFundMe donations to the community.

Braille printing only comes in one size with a single font and takes a lot of space. A multiple choice test of 50 questions, when translated into Braille for Calliandra, takes 35 pages. A Braille version of the yearbook came printed in six volumes.

Calliandra was born with flecked retinal dystrophy, but that has not stopped her from getting straight A’s, playing Goalball, or reading her sophomore yearbook.

The braille yearbook being printed at Utica High School.

She wants to join the USA Paralympic Goalball team and study physical therapy at Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania.

Lietz, principal of UHS for three years, said there’s a difference in talking about being inclusive and acting on it.

“You talk about what’s good in schools and it’s really the kids doing great things for others that really has no value to themselves except the satisfaction of doing the right thing for others,” Lietz said. “As a principal of this school, I really couldn’t be more proud of what they did.”

Besides printing the Braille yearbooks, the staff wanted to do something special for Calliandra, so they took a headshot of Q and included it in the yearbook.

Calliandra’s mother said the school has gone above and beyond and that this is important because “going blind is the number one fear of adults.”

“This tends to translate into how people treat blind or visually impaired people,” Bowman-Tomlinson said. “It’s hard for people to get close to someone who embodies their greatest fear.”

“I was extremely pleased. I am in multiple Facebook parent groups relating to VI/blindness. This was just the second time I have heard of this yearbook happening,” she said. “We were especially surprised that Q was in it — Calli didn’t know that he had his picture taken.”

Angel teared up when the special yearbooks arrived, which included the front cover logo in Braille.

“It was long and very tedious, but when we were copying and pasting we found like 10 mistakes that we had to fix so, it was helpful,” Angel said. “It was worth it in the end.”


(313) 222-1855

Twitter: @sarahal6611