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Campus Voices: Abigail
by Karen A. Myers
St. Louis, Missouri
Welcome to "Campus Voices." In each issue you will hear the voice of a college student and learn about college life from the student's perspective. Each article will feature a composite of real life experiences taken from students with real voices. What is it like to be a college student with a visual disability? How do you use the library? How do you work in a lab? Do your professors provide the accommodations you need? Do you socialize? Let's listen in ...
Hi. My name is Abigail, "Abby" for short. I have retinitis pigmentosa and am considered legally blind (20/200 visual acuity). I am a second semester freshman at a large research university on the west coast. My major is undecided, though I know I will need to select a major soon.
Arriving on Campus
Well, I really must tell you what I did before arriving on campus. After talking to some other students on my campus--both with and without disabilities--I realized what a terrific high school counselor I had. She prepared me for college by telling me what steps to take before I even got there. She told me to connect with the Disability Services (DS) office as soon as I was accepted to the university, so I checked out the DS Web site on my campus. I discovered that on most college Web sites, you can type in the word "disability" in the search box, and the DS office will appear. I reviewed the DS homepage to get a general idea of the office; then I clicked on "Registering with the DS" to locate the DS registration process, policies and procedures. It was there I discovered the specific type of documentation they need to verify my disability, register me with their office, and provide me with reasonable accommodations.
Armed with their Web site information, I called the DS office to verify what I had read regarding documentation requirements and I arranged an appointment. Although I was still a senior in high school, I wanted to be ahead of the game and I didn't want to encounter any surprises during my first days on campus.
A few weeks later, with my disability documentation in hand, I met with Lisa, the DS service provider on campus. Lisa took me through the DS process step by step. We discussed the types of accommodations I used in high school and what I thought I would need in college. She explained the DS procedures for extended test time, large print, text conversion, books on tape, and use of adaptive equipment and software such as the JAWS screen reader, Kurzweil reader, and the Smartview CCTV. She told me where the adaptive computer stations were located on campus (i.e., in libraries and computer labs). She strongly encouraged me to attend the DS new student orientation during fall opening week where I would meet the DS staff and other students and receive more information about DS policies and procedures. Before I left the DS office that day, my documentation was verified and I was registered with them. On my way out, Lisa introduced me to Rick, the technology coordinator, who would be handling my text conversion. I felt right at home and although I was still in high school, the DS staff helped me feel connected to my new institution.
During my first week on campus, I did attend the university's new student orientation as well as the DS orientation. Lisa and Rick recognized me and welcomed me to the meeting. The DS office has a peer mentor program, so I met Sally, my peer mentor, a junior sociology major who also happens to be legally blind. We hit it off right away and have become good friends. It's great to have someone who's "been around the block" to show you the ropes when you're a freshman--or a transfer student. Each college is different and having help navigating the system is priceless.
Teachers and Classes
I'm pretty up-front about my disability. I wear sunglasses, use magnifiers, and sometimes carry a white cane, so it's pretty difficult to hide even if I wanted to do so. When I get my syllabus for each class, I check the teacher's office hours. Some teachers put their syllabi online before classes begin, which is great for me since I can read the syllabus and meet with the teacher ahead of time. DS gave me the option of having accommodation letters sent to my teachers. The letter states that I have a disability and am eligible for the listed accommodations. I prefer to have letters sent to faculty members. It's proactive and gives them a heads-up. When I meet with my teachers, I give them a copy of my DS letter and a sheet that provides a brief explanation of retinitis pigmentosa and appropriate accommodations*. In my case, I require preferential seating in the front of the class, high-contrast handouts and overheads, handouts on disk or sent to me via e-mail so that I can convert them to audio, exams sent to DS via e-mail for conversion, and extended time on exams. I guess I feel it is my responsibility to put my teachers at ease and help them understand how they can assist in "leveling the playing field" for me in their classes. I realize that not all students like to do this, but for me it's important to self-advocate by communicating openly with my professors.
Life on Campus Out-of-Class
During orientation week, my DS peer mentor gave me a tour of the computer labs and libraries I would be using. She introduced me to the reference librarian, and I learned how to request library assistance online. My advice to any new student is to take advantage of all orientation sessions, ask lots of questions, find out what resources are available and use them! Our university has an entire department dedicated to the "undecided/undeclared" major, which is fantastic. That department also had an orientation session (my school certainly believes in orientation)! I was assigned an academic advisor who assists me in exploring potential major options. There is no pressure to declare a major your first semester; in fact, they encourage you to not jump into a major just because you think you have to do so. I will decide on one soon.
Social Life on Campus
When I moved into my residence hall, Tina, my resident assistant (RA) introduced herself to my family and me. She gave me a quick tour of the building, including the dining hall, workout room, laundry and safety exits. I finally met my roommate, Kara, in person! Ever since we received our room assignments in late July, Kara and I had been getting to know each other via e-mail -- sending photos of ourselves, our families, our pets, our friends, etc. It was wonderful to meet face to face and have an in-person conversation. At our first floor meeting that night, I met my other floormates and found out who was taking which class when, who I could walk to class with, eat with, etc. By living in the residence hall on campus, I can always find someone to hang out with or ask for assistance. The real challenge is finding "alone" time with 250 students in the building!
Through my RA, new student orientation, and my DS peer mentor, I discovered the many clubs and organizations available at my university. I want to work with Habitat for Humanity and Best Buddies; I want to learn Salsa dancing; I want to be involved in the DS organization; I would like to run for a student government position and I may want to join a sorority. Oh yea, and then there are my classes. Hmmm ... I guess I have to fit them in somewhere, that is if there's time ... Just kidding!
* For an example of disability fact sheets, see THE DISABILITY FACT SHEET HANDBOOK at www.disability.uci.edu. Although this handbook does not have a specific fact sheet for RP, the sheets on Visual Disabilities can be modified or used as a starting point for conversation. The handbook, developed by University of California, Irvine student, Gregoria Barazandeh, has received national and international recognition.
Karen Myers is a disability consultant and trainer and associate professor of higher education at St. Louis University.
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