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Local teen progresses at school for blind

BY LAUREL BLACKlblack@paducahsun.com

With her headphones on and her eyes closed, 14-year-old Hannah Figley looked like any other soon-to-be high schooler.

But as Hannah rocked to the beat of a Jessica Simpson CD during her graduation party Saturday in Noble Park, her relatives had reason to marvel at the progress she'd made since starting at the Kentucky School for the Blind. 

"There hasn't been anything she's tried that she hasn't learned how to do," Figley's aunt Lori Rutledge said through tears. "As far as progress, it's just been huge over the course of her life."

Figley, a Carlisle County native, was born with cortical vision impairment, but that hasn't been her biggest challenge, mother Gina Figley said. Hannah also has autism and Tourette syndrome. As a child, she had violent outbursts and isolated herself from people. Time and therapy have helped her learn to understand others' emotions. She's stopped speaking in the third person and has started asking to spend time with friends from school.

"It's been stressful," Gina Figley admitted, "(but) she's come far."

Hannah will continue at the school this fall, and her mother and father, Wade, hope to relocate this summer to be closer to her.

The Kentucky School for the Blind offers both short-term programs - Hannah used to attend 12-week sessions there - and year-long sessions. Hannah has been living on campus in Louisville for four years, returning home every weekend to spend time with her family. The school has helped with Hannah's mobility and speech, and she is learning to read braille, her mother said.

The school has about 71 students in grades K-12, but serves a total of around 1,000 through outreach programs, administrative specialist Denise Applegate said.

Since starting full time at the school, Hannah has taken up running, and she recently came in second in a full marathon the school held. She loves to cook, swim and play the piano. She has a memory "like an elephant," her aunt said, and listens almost constantly to a wide variety of music.

"The thing we have most in common is music," cousin Jonathan Rutledge said. He's the same age as Hannah, and has bonded with her over everything from contemporary rap to classic rock. "She loves it all."

Hannah's school may have helped her mature, but the closely-knit family's support also has been crucial. Lori Rutledge knows all too well what her sister has been through. Her other son, Jacob, 19, is also autistic and suffers cerebral palsy. Every day is different, and there's never a quiet moment in the household, but the family has adapted.

"It's been an interesting road," Rutledge said. "This family has really enlightened others to special needs and how to be around (people with) them, how to become comfortable. We're just normal."

Contact Laurel Black, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8641 or follow @LaurelFBlack on Twitter.

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