Reprinted from the Fall, 2003 issue of the Buckeye Bulletin, the newsletter of the NFB of Ohio.
Editor’s Note: There is a growing misperception among parents of blind college-bound students that only colleges with well-known and established services and procedures for serving blind students are worth investigating. As Eric Duffy’s story below demonstrates, this is simply not true. In fact, there are many good reasons why students and parents should consider information about college offices for students with disabilities as “nice-to-know-but-not-a-make-or-break-factor.” By the way, Duffy, who has cerebral palsy in addition to blindness, is today a successfully employed family man. Here’s what he has to say about the college search:
It seems hard to believe, but twenty years ago I was preparing to enter college. In January or February of 1983 my dad and I toured Otterbein College. We both worried about how to pay for my education, but we were agreed that I was going to college in the fall. A moment came when my dad was persuaded that our financial worries were over, but even then I knew better.
That spring and without my knowledge my dad was summoned into the principal’s office at the Ohio State School for the Blind to meet with a counselor from the Bureau of Services for the Visually Impaired. This counselor told my dad that if I would attend Ohio State University, they would pay all of my expenses, and I would probably even get some pocket money. Furthermore, she went on to explain, my life would be much easier at Ohio State. They had an office that would make sure I had all of my books on tape, someone to take notes for me, and someone to intervene with my professors if I was having problems. My dad thought all this sounded fine, and he was a bit upset when he learned that I had already talked with the counselor but hadn’t mentioned the services to him. I explained that I wanted to go to a small school and that I didn’t need people to get my books for me or to talk to my professors on my behalf. I explained that I wanted to be in charge of my own education and that I thought that if I were to do what BSVI wanted me to, I would have to give up a lot of control. To my dad’s credit, he understood.
So, my dad and I agreed that, with or without the help of BSVI, I would go to Otterbein. But my BSVI counselor was undaunted. In July, she came to my house and once again explained why it would be best for me to go to Ohio State. Not only did she list all of the help I could get from the Disability Services Office, but she said much more. According to her, Otterbein was a small college that enrolled a lot of guys who couldn’t make the football team at Ohio State. Therefore, she reasoned, I would not make many friends. She finally told my dad that without the help of the Disability Services Office, I would not make it through the first quarter. I was certainly bright enough to succeed, she said, but blind people just needed more help than I was going to get at Otterbein. By the end of that meeting my dad understood better than ever why I was determined to do as much as I could on my own.
Within a day or two of that enlightening visit from the BSVI counselor, I received a call from the director of the marching band. He said he had noticed that I had been in concert band during high school and wondered if I would like to try marching band in college. I thought this would be a challenge and a good way to get to know people, so much for the counselor’s theory.
In August my dad and I attended freshman orientation at Otterbein. I was only the second member of my family to attend college. We received a lot of information at a fast pace. We were told that a certain number of the incoming class would not make it through the first year and that some of those would not finish their education. The recruiting process had ended and the college was giving us a dose of reality. I was the only totally blind student at the college. Most of my classmates were overwhelmed by the orientation process and unsure about how to interact with me. Likewise I was certainly swimming in new waters and was a bit uncertain about the whole experience. By the time the weekend was over, my dad was plagued with worry. He tried not to let me know just how concerned he was.
As soon as I could, I bought my books from the college bookstore with financial help from BSVI. I got home only to discover that some of the books I had picked up were not the ones I needed. I knew that I would also need to order books from what was then simply called Recording for the Blind. I also made several calls to see if I could get any books in Braille. I thought Braille would be particularly helpful in my algebra classes. Needless to say, I did not get a single book in Braille. Many of the books I needed had already been recorded but in an edition earlier than the ones on my syllabi. Still others had to be recorded. By the time classes began, I did not have all of the books I needed. I knew that I was going to have to find people to be live readers and to record books and other materials.
I did not have all of my books recorded by the time school started. I then had to begin having handouts and research materials read. Having attended the Ohio State School for the Blind, I had not had to worry about such things before. My dad asked me how things were going from time to time, and I never let him know quite how hard I was struggling just to keep up with the reading. But I learned as I went along, and things got easier. After our last visit from the BSVI counselor, I told my dad that if I made it through my first quarter, I would make it through the first year. I said that if I made it through my first year, I would make it the rest of the way through school, and he would be coming to my graduation.
Well, I made it through that first quarter and, ultimately, my freshman year. It was a great feeling for me to know that I was successful despite the many obstacles I had faced. I knew that my college experience would be great preparation for the world of work. Not only was I getting prepared academically, but I as also learning to take charge of my own life. I knew that if I was going to be employed successfully, I was going to have to learn to work with my readers and co-workers to get the information I needed.
Two days after the orientation weekend ended, my dad had a major heart attack. My mom told both of us that if he died, I was not going to continue college. I know it meant a lot to my dad by the end of that year to see that I had made it.
It was pretty clear to me that if I needed an accommodation at Otterbein, I simply had to make my needs known. I didn’t have all the answers, but I was able to work to figure them out, and I knew it was my responsibility to do so. Several semesters into my education a substitute professor was brought in to teach sociology, one of my majors. Suddenly I discovered I was failing one of his classes, and I didn’t even know it. I talked to several other students who had mysteriously found themselves in the same situation. I had no disability services office to intervene on my behalf, but the other students in the same situation had no one to intervene for them either. What did we do? Several of us talked to one of the deans. An investigation was conducted, and they discovered that this professor was having serious problems teaching and needed some intervention himself. With that intervention he was permitted to finish the quarter and never invited to teach at Otterbein again.
Eventually I took an astronomy class. In the beginning both my professor and I were a little unsure about how I was going to do the work, but it did work. The same thing happened with my introduction to computers class. Screen readers such as JAWS were not widely used back then. They were only in the early stages of development. We took what was on the market at the time and made it work.
All of this comes to mind as I think about my life as it was twenty years ago. I am also thinking of the blind students entering college for the first time this fall. My advice to all of these young men and women is to make choices about your education based on your interests, desires, goals, and aspirations. Take charge of your education and your life. If the school you are attending has a disability services office, find a way to make it work for you. Use it to your advantage if you can; work around it if you must. But the responsibility for getting your books on time is yours. The responsibility for your success in school and in life is also yours.