A Blog Post by Jessica Hodges
I woke up early in the morning, then immediately wished I hadn’t. This was my first day of college classes. I was supposed to feel excited, confident, and on top of everything…but I hadn’t registered for classes yet. The system wouldn’t let me, because of problems with my FAFSA, or Free Application For Student Aid. I had the necessary forms to bypass this, but I didn’t know when, or if, they’d come through. I knew exactly what classes I’d wanted to register for, having already been over to the college to build my schedule the day before. It was just a matter of waiting. Thankfully, I didn’t have to wait long. The resulting day would teach me a great deal about advocacy, accessibility, and forethought.
In the past, I’d always known which teachers I was going to have. Knowing this allows me to email them a note saying I’ll be in the class, ask any questions’ I might have, and open it up for their questions in return. This is known as advocacy, talking to people about what you need, why, and finding ways to make everything work so that everyone’s reasonably ok and happy. Sadly,
this was not a luxury I had. When my waiting ended a little before lunch and I finally joined my classes, I had a total of two hours before my first class.
Determined, I walked into the classroom, quietly took a desk, stowed my cane, and opened my laptop. My first course of the day was Logic, a course I had many questions and misgivings about. Nevertheless, I thought it would be more accessible than a math class. I was right, and I was wrong.
Before I go into what happened that day, let me give a contrasting example. In ninth grade, I was going into Algebra. I already had a deep and intense hatred for math, partly because of my own ineptitude, but also partly due to an instructor who, no matter how much anyone asked, refused to get anything to anyone ahead of time, and always pointed at the board without any words to clarify what he was trying to do. Repeatedly, I raised my hand and asked for clarification in class, sent emails, and had others in the school ask, but nothing was changed. I didn’t fail the class, thanks to an amazing aid I had at the time, but the experience stuck with me. Because I switched schools unexpectedly shortly before that year, I couldn’t help wondering if I could have gotten a different instructor, or if this one would have prepared and talked to me a bit more, allowing us both to find a solution, if we’d had more time to mull over what to do when not in the middle of class. So, as soon as I had my math teachers name for the next year, I sent an email. I got lucky. That instructor was a gold mine, and his attempts to help me understand were never ending. Throughout the summer, he, I, and the school were in open dialogue about how this class could work, but it was very clear that I was in the driver’s seat. After all, it was my education. This is probably the most important thing about education and advocacy, you must be the one to do it. Others are here to help, give direction, support, and give tools, but it’s not anyone else’s life. Now, back to present day.
I am sitting in my logic class, twisting and untwisting my hands, nervous beyond belief. The class, over all, was fine, the professor interesting, and verbal. But when I pulled him aside after class, we encountered a problem. All the homework assignments were hand written, and he never did them in advance. This is something I could have discovered, if I’d emailed him earlier. Now, it was too late. Franticly, my mind raced for solutions. The most practical one, scanning in the text, was ruled out on principal, as hand writing doesn’t scan well. I don’t have a reliable pair of eyes in my vicinity to read such things. So, I would have to hire a reader. First, though, I wanted to see if the accessibility resource center could help me.
An accessibility center, office, or whatever they call themselves, is a branch of universities that I’m very grateful for. They are people tasked with finding practical solutions to level the playing field and give students the tools they need for classes. However, they are very different from a school teacher for the blind. First, they know nothing about you, your blindness, and how you work and don’t work. they’re not going to try to find out. They don’t come to you. That isn’t to say they don’t care, won’t find out, or don’t want to help you, but they can’t come to every student and do every step for them, nor should they. If they do, it can lead to sticky situations that don’t help because they have no sense of context, ability, or person. So, they wait for students to come to them and say what they need. Then, they try to plan how to get it done, but the student must put the plan in place. Here’s an example of how a situation can get messy when offices make plans independently of a student.
When I went to community college in high school, I had to take an entrance exam. I’d talked to them in advance about ways to make this smooth, between blank computer documents for essays, and braille materials for multiple choice. They understood, and I thought we were on the same page. I arrived, and they told me I’d be using Kurtzweil 3000 for the test. This is a tool that scans and reads things allowed, but it is designed to be manipulated with the mouse, and meant for those with learning disabilities. Accessibility for the blind is…not adequate for taking an exam like this. I said it wouldn’t work to do this way, and they responded with the fact that it was all they had to work with. Knowing that wasn’t true, I persisted, and was able to get about half the test in braille, including the math portion. I should have pressed further. The half of the test that I took without being in control of my screen put my score down, so I had to write an additional essay. One thing I’d been firm with them about was the need for me to have a way to independently type an essay, if one needed to be written. However, the first thing they said was, “Your scribe can write the essay for you. I know my writing style. Me talking about something is very different from me writing something. There’s something about the tactile feedback of a keyboard under my fingers, the quiet clicking of keys being struck, and the tumble from unorganized thought into slightly coherent word. I know myself well enough to know that this wasn’t going to work. Eventually, they let me open a document in Kurtzweil, which did read what I was typing and read back what I’d typed, but it was lacking some of the commands I usually do to review such things, such as a read all command. The test, all in all, was supposed to take no more than two hours. I was there for almost eight. While I did get the test successfully done, somewhat the way I wanted, it was not the smooth, pleasant experience it could have been. Don’t mistake me, they weren’t trying to extend my test, or give me less than equal access. I liked that accessibility center because they cared, had a tight knit family feeling, and were open to communication. But this experience taught me to not rely on services, offices, or schools to try and tell me what I needed, and what I didn’t.
Armed with this memory, I walked into my current accessibility resource center, not sure of what to expect. They were very lovely, demonstrating an in-depth knowledge of technology and services for the blind. Moreover, they seemed to know how to apply them in practical ways. Their first suggestion alleviated the problem completely, by switching instructors. From there, the instructor and I have mostly handled things on our own. The resource center has helped immensely by typing up some inaccessible documents, but, ultimately, they’re not the ones taking, or teaching, the class. They are only a tool, and only what you make of them. I’m now using them to become just as confused by logic as all my other classmates.
So, what does all this talk of advocacy, professors, and accessibility centers really mean? It means you’ve got a whole lot of people to help you, but they can’t help without you. You’re the student. You know what’s best for you, and you’ve got to defend that. If you don’t say what you need, and stick to it, you’ll either not get the help you need, or get too much help from every direction. Here are a few tips:
Talk to your instructors in advance. The best way to figure out how something’s going to work is to ask. Don’t be afraid to approach an instructor. If you send emails a few months in advance, you’ve got plenty of time to work out any kinks before classes start.
Be open, honest, and as clear as you can be. There is a plethora of services, tools, devices, software components, and ideas on how to do everything under the sun. Don’t get swept away, remember what you need to get done, and start small and simple.
Stick to your guns. Your head is on the line here. It’s your brain they’re trying to instruct, not your moms, not the brain of the blind child across the state, not the instructor’s, but yours. Remember what you need, why, and don’t let them give you less.
Be careful to be polite. Irritated people are less likely to give you what you want. Usually, there are ways of keeping feathers from being ruffled, and making concessions without compromising access. This can be hard to learn, and will mostly come with experience. None of it is easy, partly because the system itself can be confusing, and partly because sometimes, you just don’t know what you need. That’s ok. No one knows everything. But when you leave college with a big fancy piece of paper, and a whole bunch of classes under your belt, you should have a lot of experience too. If you don’t, you’re at an immediate disadvantage. Because the rest of the world isn’t like school. You have no department to go to if something isn’t working. You have no teachers who already know what to do. Most people in the working world have never talked to a blind person. So, when you say things like screen reader, braille, and O and m, chances are no one’s going to know what you’re talking about. To get, keep, and perform in a job, you must be able to get what you need. And who knows what you need better than you?
To close, I’ll give one more example. It was Valentine’s day. My sister said she was celebrating. I said I didn’t want to celebrate because I thought it was silly, and she simply said she was celebrating. All through the day, she swept me up in her celebrations, so we both ended up celebrating, and pieces of it were a lot of fun. Later, when I wanted to go to a training center, my sister came up to me before the meeting in which it was to be discussed, and said, “Be as firm as I was when I said you and I were celebrating Valentine’s day. Remember that conversation and pull from it.” What she was essentially telling me was that I knew what I wanted. I knew how I could get there. I knew I had the rights to get there. But none of that would matter if I didn’t say it, and keep saying it. I wouldn’t get what I needed unless I was firm, kind, and diplomatic, all traits I don’t really have. But she was also telling me to be myself. When she was telling me how she was going to celebrate Valentine’s day, she wasn’t trying to get me to like it, or even to agree. Neither was she trying to influence me or bamboozle me into doing what she wanted. She was simply herself, spending the day the way she wanted, with whom she wanted. This was what I had to do to be successful. Eventually, I did, and now find myself happily ensconced in Minneapolis having graduated from Blind, incorporated. It was difficult. All the heart shaped balloons flew away, I lost my valentine’s candy, and I forgot to make any cards. I didn’t know how I was going to convince my state to let me come, didn’t know how to present myself so that I didn’t look demanding or childish, and didn’t know if I had the courage to do what needed doing. But I went out with a big, red heart on my shirt, a bright smile, and a statement. I was going to celebrate Valentine’s Day! OK, you caught me, the heart wasn’t real, but the rest was. And now, I’m here. So, to you I say, celebrate Valentine’s day. Even if you don’t know how, you can only game by trying. The candy doesn’t hurt either.