Simon Bonenfant, a senior at Archbishop Carroll High school, is a typical teenager — he does homework, is involved in extracurricular activities, and enjoys spending time with his friends and listening to music. Unlike most teenagers, though, Bonenfant was born blind.
Bonenfant’s blindness is a result of being born at 24 weeks gestation instead of the typical 40 weeks. Bonenfant weight 1 pound 3 ounces at birth. Prematurity led to retinopathy, a condition that causes the abnormal development of retinal blood vessels in premature babies. Bonenfant also developed glaucoma, a condition that damages the optic nerve in the eye.
Bonenfant began his education at Saint Lucy Day School for Children with Visual Impairment in Philadelphia. Since enrolling at Archbishop Carroll, Bonenfant has navigated through high school, putting his life-long desire to learn on display.
“He always brings up something new each day and always puts in his own personal input, which creates a conversation with the whole class,” says Karli Dougherty, a classmate of Bonenfant’s.
Though his blindness poses many challenges when completing schoolwork, his teachers adjust assignments accordingly. For example, Bonenfant primarily learns through Word documents, as opposed to PDFs or graphics.
“I have to provide him with Powerpoints or videos ahead of time and his tests have to in Microsoft Word format,” said Mr. Edmund Scanlan, Bonenfant’s psychology teacher. “I try to call everyone by name so he knows who is speaking. He is a very good student, participates a lot, and brings a unique perspective on psychology and is not afraid to share how things are different from his experience.”
To do his reading and writing, Bonenfant uses a machine called a Braille Note Touch. The black machine resembles a laptop without a screen, and features keys with no letters, numbers, or symbols on them. When Bonenfant reads a book, for example, he makes the machine present a line of Braille that can be read with his fingertips. After that, he pushes a button and another line of Braille appears for him to read. To write, Bonenfant types on the machine’s keys. Bonenfant excels in his classes.
Bonenfant has an aide, Gregory Adigwe, to help him navigate the school between classes. Bonenfant also uses a cane to find objects around him so he doesn’t walk into anything. The cane also lets other people know that he is blind.
To travel, Bonenfant uses public transportation and has found a way to memorize every route he needs to use, taking notice of his surroundings, including sounds, and to indicate where and when to walk.
“Oftentimes people will offer to help me in these situations, assuming I am completely helpless, but I usually might not need it,” said Bonenfant.
Outside of his school life, Bonenfant plays the piano and also aims to educate sighted people about how society can better accommodate the needs of, and interact with, the blind. Bonenfant is a podcaster at Blindabilities.com. The site gets 25,000 hits a month.
“I find blind people and I interview them,” he said.
Among those Bonenfant has interviewed was a blind man in England who had COVID and was hospitalized for a month.
“It’s kind of cool for me,” he said. “I don’t know who is going to be listening.”
Bonenfant also works with the Philly Touch Tour organization, which provides accessibility consulting, sensitivity training, and instructional workshops for cultural and educational institutions and inclusive, sensory tours and experiences for people with vision loss in and around Philadelphia.
He notes his love for God as his most important passion, and that everything else in his life stems from that. Despite the unique challenges he faces each day, Bonenfant’s faith allows him to persevere or, as he puts it, “survive and thrive.”
“It’s really a miracle from God I made it so far,” said Bonenfant. “I was a fighter to live and get what I need; to survive and thrive.”
Sarah Fallouh is a Carroll senior who has known Bonenfant since both were freshmen.
Fallouh said, ¨Knowing Simon for four years now, I realized that people assume he always needs help when he’s fully capable of doing things on his own. He’s definitely one of the smartest people I’ve ever met.¨