College Life Through the Eyes of a Blind Student

March 28, 2008

samhasselbuschHow do you learn to get around campus? How do you receive and read the books for classes? How do you take notes and complete class assignments?

These are just a few of the questions that I have been asked as I make my way through college. Many people seem to find the mechanisms and technologies that enhance a blind individual's life and, in this case, college experience, very fascinating. So, having said all of that, I write this for any inquiring minds out there!

One of the biggest challenges of going to any new place is learning where everything is located. Before attending Mount Union, I attended Cuyahoga Community College, and the campus was condensed into one building. This made for easy travel. It was a huge transition when I transferred to Mount Union this past fall. However, it was a relief for me to know that the campus is not too large, and since I do not have a reason to be in every building, the campus seemed smaller to me and much more manageable.

I was blessed to be able to get assistance from an Orientation Mobility, (O and M), specialist to help me learn my way around. The job of an O and M specialist is to help the blind individual learn a given setting by the use of landmarks and sound cues.

For example, when traveling outdoors on campus, I use my cane to follow the grassline to find sidewalks that I need to turn down when heading from my dorm to the campus center and use sound cues, such as the large heating/cooling unit for the library, to let me know where I am in relation to my dorm as I make my way back from my class in Cope Music Hall.

When traveling indoors, I use hallways, stairwells, and even crazy things like trash cans, as my landmarks to find classrooms. I have found that the way I get around often confuses sighted people because I have to rely so heavily on objects and if I don't find them, I assume that I have made a wrong turn or missed a cue.

Traveling in the snow is especially difficult because sidewalks and other outdoor objects may be so snow-covered that I cannot distinguish the sidewalk from the grassline. Thankfully, the sidewalks are usually pretty clear, and everyone is so willing to help me when I get lost.

I also use another technique called sighted guide. This is just a more technical way of saying that I get help from others to get places when I get lost or am going to the same place as that person. I just hold on to the person's arm and they guide me.

I am able to get my books in two accessible formats. The first way is through a lifetime membership I have to an agency called Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic, (RFBD). This organization specializes in providing individuals with visual, and other print impairments, with text and recreational books in formats such as compact disc. I use this format. These books are operated and navigated with an adaptive CD player that allows the reader/listener to move by chapter, section heading, or page number.

However, I find certain disadvantages to this format. While the CD player is portable, if I ever need the book in class, I would have to carry the CDs, player, and headphones. Also, by the time I find my place in the book, it is likely that the class would be way ahead of me. It is a lot of stuff to handle as well.

My preferred format is electronic textbooks, (E-texts). I obtain these through the publisher of the book or sometimes the book is available on Bookshare.org, a website that is home to several electronic books and also serves the print impaired. I can download these books and put them directly into my Braille laptop which is much more portable and easier to manage. The CDs are the easiest to obtain. It only takes a few days to receive them through the mail. Trying to get books through the publisher takes several weeks and that is only if the requester is approved.

I am able to complete class assignments in two ways. I mentioned my Braille laptop computer. This is called the Braille Note M Power. It is produced by a company that specializes in manufacturing adaptive technology, called Humanware. This approximately $6,000 piece of equipment has a Braille style keyboard, Braille display that is basically the monitor, and has the same capabilities as a regular desktop or laptop PC. It runs its own independent wordprocessor and other programs, but has USB and compact Flash ports so that I can store files on memory cards or sticks that will enable me to take these files to a regular computer and print them to turn into my instructors. I can also print directly from the machine itself, but I do not have the capabilities to do it that way right now.

I also use the regular computer with the assistance of a screenreading software called JAWS for Windows, which stands for job access with speech and is manufactured by another company called Freedom Scientific. As its name suggests, JAWS only works with computers that use Windows operating systems. I own a Dell laptop that runs Windows Vista and JAWS works fairly well with this most recent Windows edition. JAWS allows me to do most things like write papers, use email and Facebook, and even play games. Some files in Portable Document Format, (PDF), or highly graphical Internet sites will not be able to be recognized by JAWS, which is the only real disadvantage of this software. However, it does usually work remarkably well.

It may seem amazing and look effortless when you see me maneuver around campus and walk right up to a building or turn in a completed paper, but now you understand what goes into it all.

The truth is that God has been so gracious in providing me with people earlier in life who gave me the information about the organizations and helped me purchase the equipment I needed to succeed in college. Along with that, Disability Support Services here at Mount Union has been so helpful in getting other things in nonaccessible formats into formats I can read. I still have my challenges, but I feel very blessed to have just about all that I need to succeed.
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