Braille Monitor                                                         June 2007

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St. Louis to Japan: An Experience with Study Abroad

by Rachel Sommerer

Cory Klatik
From Dan Frye: Rachel Sommerer, assistant director of student support services at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, sent us a narrative detailing the efforts a blind senior, Cory Klatik, made in preparation for study abroad in Japan in 2006. She also relates some of his encounters and observations while studying at Obirin University in Japan. Regular Braille Monitor readers and those generally familiar with blindness already recognize that the absence of vision does not prevent seriously committed students from participating in international studies; after all we know of many blind students who travel the world in pursuit of their academic interests. But despite her occasional amazement rather than simple expectation that solutions to the challenges of international study and language acquisition would be found, Cory’s story does have merit. His experience represents another positive example of a blind person who is reaching for the brass ring in anticipation of living a rich and rewarding life. This account of events is not written in Cory’s own words. Ms. Sommerer wrote the piece originally for a professional publication to urge university support services staff to help disabled students solve the problems inherent in study abroad rather than discouraging them from spreading their wings. The narrative may not entirely reflect Cory’s personal perspective, but here is his story:

As a freshman at the University of Missouri-St. Louis (UMSL), Cory Klatik became interested in studying the Japanese language. It seemed a logical choice since he was majoring in management information systems and international business and was also very interested in doing a year of study abroad. He had the same concerns that other students have about this prospective study, competitive grades and the expenses of travel, but what concerned Cory even more was his vision and the related obstacles that he would face in pursuit of his dream.

Cory has optic nerve hypoplasia, which affects him differently every day, leaving him with vision that ranges from enough sight to navigate without the use of his cane to absolutely no vision. Studying a complex foreign language and living in another country might have seemed impossible to some students, but not to Cory. After speaking with the study abroad coordinator in the Center for International Studies (CIS) at UMSL, Cory started to tackle the first challenge--learning the Japanese language. Unlike English, the Japanese written language is made up of three separate alphabets: Hiragana (strictly Japanese words and phrases, more round in appearance, and practiced mostly by children since it is the first alphabet taught); Katakana (borrowed words or Japanese words that are being given emphasis); and Kanji (iconic representations of Hiragana words or phrases and preferred by most adults). No letters exist in these alphabets; instead they reflect only the sounds and the symbols that represent them. Cory used a CCTV to enlarge everything that was presented in his textbooks. Sometimes this worked very well, and on other days, when his vision was low, he was able to read only a couple sentences to a paragraph.

Cory dedicated one to two hours a day to his studies as well as an additional hour spent with a private tutor who would walk through his homework assignments, verbalizing each printed word. Unlike his classmates Cory did not have the visual prompts and punctuation cues printed in the text. “Forty percent of the learning process came through hearing, vocalizing, and memorizing what the tutors read or said. I would mimic the sounds in order to learn.” And while Cory uses Braille in other reading areas, no Japanese-to-American Braille conversion process exists. Cory would have had to translate the verbal/written Japanese into Japanese Braille, and he learned both the Japanese language and the Japanese Braille code at the same time, so Braille was not an option. When it came to the written aspect of the language, many enlargements were made, sometimes as large as one symbol per sheet of paper. Each day provided its own unique experience in handwriting symbols and determining the size necessary for that given moment. Many times tutors used hand-over-hand demonstration to assist Cory with muscle memory. Working closely with his instructor, Elizabeth Eckelkamp, Cory was not only passing his Japanese class, he was getting an A and was ready to revisit CIS.

On Cory’s behalf CIS contacted Obirin University, and they tentatively welcomed him to pursue the application process. Cory then had to explain all of the necessary accommodations that he used at UMSL. He spoke intensively with the disability access office at UMSL and spent two and a half weeks preparing a document that detailed each aspect of every accommodation he was using. For example, Cory described why he needed written items enlarged and exactly how it was done (font size, step-by-step copying directions, percentage of increase of size, etc.), even converting our standard measurements to metric. The response from Obirin came almost six weeks later with a cautious, “We should be able to do everything that you have requested.”

Cory had to go through a couple of different application procedures. First he had to complete the application to the university. Japanese laws are very similar to U.S. laws, so nowhere was Cory asked about a disability. Cory took the opportunity, however, through essays to discuss the subject and thoroughly explain his ability to complete everything required of him. In addition to the standard application packet, Cory sent letters to individual instructors requesting the assistance that had been communicated earlier with the student assistance department. In February, seven months into his journey, Cory was officially accepted to Obirin University. Now came the completion of the second application process--scholarships.

In order to be approved for study abroad, Cory needed to have in place all necessary funding before leaving--approximately $23,000 in addition to UMSL tuition. Scholarships would be vital to his dream. Cory focused his attention on three sources: Obirin itself, the Japan Student Service Organization (JASSO), and the Freeman-ASIA Awards program. He had about one month to complete the school scholarship application and even less time to submit the other two. Time was of the essence, but quality and care were also necessary.

The JASSO scholarship process is very competitive, awarding only one scholarship per country and requiring attention to every detail. A 200-word-minimum letter needed to be submitted in Japanese using only the vocabulary with which Cory was familiar. For someone with perfect vision and about two years of Japanese instruction, this undertaking was estimated to take about six hours. With assistance from the UMSL foreign language department, limited to looking up words and symbols to ensure proper use, Cory completed this task in twenty-three and a half hours. What took so long? In order to stand out and make his letter memorable, Cory wrote his letter by hand. The following July Cory was the U.S. recipient of the JASSO scholarship. He also received scholarship assistance from the other two resources he had targeted. Cory was ready to go to Japan.

Cory does not have trouble with air travel. Since he is from Cleveland, Ohio, and attends school in St. Louis, Missouri, he is familiar with flying. This time, however, his flight would be eleven to twelve hours long and would take him to another country by way of a layover in Chicago. Cory admits that he was a bit nervous, but he received great assistance from all the airline personnel in both the U.S. and Japan. During his flight, communication took place in both English and Japanese, gradually transitioning to the latter as they neared Japan. Cory often felt lost listening to the fluent Japanese discussions happening around him, but he was very happy when he realized that he could recognize words here and there. Touchdown in Japan occurred at 2:10 p.m. on September 13, and Cory was struck with the realization that there was no turning back. “It was like going on stage. I had to be able to perform all that I had practiced.” Cory once again received wonderful assistance from the staff in Tokyo, and he enjoyed his communication once he discovered that he actually knew some Japanese. He also picked up additional language information from his assistant as they started to converse in Japanese.

Academic life at Obirin was similar to that at UMSL in that classes are set up by semesters and structured on units which are equal to credits. While Cory knew that Japanese laws supported his requests for accommodations, he did not have to remind the sensei [professors] of this. They were eager to assist him, conveying the message that they wanted to help him. They also knew that, if he did not receive their assistance, he would not be able to do the work, and this would reflect very poorly on them. In addition to the accommodations provided by Obirin, which included personal emails each morning with lecture material and handouts, Cory relied on his own CCTV for text-enlargement.

Cory’s knowledge and familiarity with assistive technology was one of the key elements that made study abroad possible. Digital files are widely used in Japan, and rarely were paper copies handed to him. He relied heavily on JAWS with a Japanese synthesizer, which he purchased on his own. He also used ZoomText to read some Japanese Web sites that JAWS was unable to make accessible. In Cory’s opinion, without the abilities of these assistive devices along with his extensive knowledge of their capabilities and uses, study in Japan would have been nearly impossible.

Study abroad is not something that every student dreams about. Cory’s experience demonstrates the courage, determination, and commitment necessary to make his dream come true. He hopes that his experience will encourage other students with a similar dream to step forward and accept the challenge, knowing it can be done, knowing that a dream became reality for Cory Klatik.

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