Of Numbers And Independence
by Suzanne Rowell
From the Editor: What does it take to make a Federationist? Sometimes the chemistry is such that a person knows that he or she belongs in this movement as soon as the philosophy is explained. Sometimes it takes a personal crisis and powerful injustice. This is a story of such an experience. Suzanne Rowell is now an active member of the National Federation of the Blind of Connecticut. The following article appeared in the Spring, 1997, edition of The Federationist in Connecticut, a publication of the NFB of Connecticut. This is the way it happened:
Five years ago I was a typical, carefree, fun-loving, self-involved nineteen-year-old. My life consisted of myself. Then I became aware that I was slowly becoming blind. The next thing I knew, I was spending hour upon hour in doctors' offices, waiting rooms, and operating rooms. Each day a little piece of my world slipped away into the shadows. I was okay, though. I would be the same person I was before my loss of sight. My main determination was just to go on with life.
One might think such a positive attitude would be a very good thing, and in a lot of ways I believe it helped me not to let blindness stop me from living a full life. Unfortunately, society had a very different attitude towards my lack of vision.
I couldn't understand where society had gotten the idea that a blind person was helpless. Throughout my progressive loss I had learned to cope with performing daily living tasks without effective vision, yet it was not until my total blindness that the doctors gave in and turned me in the direction of rehabilitation services. I began learning Braille and started traveling with a white cane, but I did not like it and would usually travel with a sighted guide. This greatly interfered with my independence, as well as with my self-esteem. I got a guide dog and went back to school. I still traveled in the same crowd, but at school no one seemed to know how to instruct a blind person in mathematics courses. Yet it was a required course for my degree of study. I contacted my rehabilitation teacher; she had a master's degree, so I figured she ought to know. She informed me that her math courses had been waived. This didn't make much sense to me when I was required to complete my math courses. I questioned the reliability of state services.
I realized that I could not avoid my math courses. I went into class alone for the first two weeks with no book on tape. My Braille skills were not developed yet. I remember the first day of class my teacher informed me that math was a visual subject and that she didn't know quite how to approach the matter. She asked me if I was truly blind.
It was inevitable that I would be tested. I made arrangements for an oral test to be taken at the disability office. The day of the test I walked in, sat down with a volunteer from that office, and began my test. I got to about question four and realized that the volunteer could not read the test properly. She couldn't remember which was a greater-than sign and which was a less-than sign. I consulted with the disability coordinator and told her it was unreasonable to expect me to function under these circumstances. About a week later a visual aid was provided, and I worked well with her. The teacher who had said math was a visual subject approached me at the end of the semester and told me that she had enjoyed working with me and that her attitude had been greatly altered by having a blind student in her classroom. She wished me success in the future.
My math experience was hardly over, though. I had tackled three math courses and received A's in all, but the school required two higher-level math courses. My scribe was not qualified to work with me. It was the end of the spring semester, and I had registered for my fall courses. The school policy was to request assistance six weeks before the beginning of the semester. I told the disabilities coordinator that I would need assistance and left for summer break. What did she do? Nothing.
I returned for the fall semester, and on the first day of classes, I went into two math courses alone. It was supposed to be the last semester before I received my associate's degree and could go on to another school for my bachelor's. These courses were very technical. I was told by the disabilities office that they were unable to find a qualified individual to assist me. I was enrolled in a logic and probability course and a statistics course. I realized the first day that it was just not going to work. I spent weeks fighting with the disability coordinator, whose coordination skills I found lacking. I was treated as if I was asking for something unreasonable, and I was soon told that the school had gone above and beyond what was required of them. I couldn't believe it.
I called the state agency and informed my rehab counselor that I needed her help. She said it was the college's responsibility to provide services because of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and her hands were tied. She couldn't see me for at least two weeks.
I had attended a few meetings of the National Federation of the Blind of Connecticut since my vision loss, but I had never been enthusiastic about getting involved. I knew they did good work, so I sent my dues in and avoided going to any of the Federation functions. I was nearly done with my degree, and I refused to be defeated. I called the East Hartford Community Outreach Office of the NFBC and was put in touch with Paula Krauss. Paula is blind, a member of the NFBC, and an advocate for blind people in Connecticut who are faced with discrimination. That call changed my life and attitude towards my blindness and the National Federation of the Blind. Paula contacted the college and state services, and radical changes took place. People cleared their schedules for me. I no longer had to wait two weeks for my state rehab worker to get to me. The college wanted to know what services I needed.
I arranged a meeting with the college staff and informed them that I would be represented by my advocate Paula Krauss. The disability coordinator said she needed time to organize. I demanded a meeting now. I was ready, so why weren't they? Paula represented me at that meeting, and services were put in place.
My number systems teacher was glad to see me still in his course. He was of the opinion that I added a new perspective to his classroom, and he valued my input. My statistics teacher unfortunately was not of the same opinion. He asked me to draw graphs on my test. After I had my scribe draw them from my descriptions, my teacher tore them up. He deducted as many points as he could, yet the other students in my class seemed to think he was generous in correcting their exams. I was under great scrutiny. In class he became frustrated when I followed his lecture so closely that I actually understood the material. When he prompted answers from the students in class, I would answer if I thought I knew the answer. Then he said he wasn't talking to me and I couldn't even see the board, so how did I know what he was talking about? He once told the class, after I had answered, "What is this, the blind leading the blind? She can see it but none of you can?"
I finally stopped answering questions. Then I went into class one day, and the teacher told us to get our books out. Since I did all my work outside the classroom with a tutor, I did not have my book. He said if we didn't have our book or we couldn't see the table, we wouldn't be able to understand anything further in today's lecture. It was lunch time, I was hungry, and I'd had it. I packed up my stuff and left. When I called Paula and told her every discriminatory comment I had heard throughout the semester, she called the professor. He admitted his discomfort with me and my blindness and said that he thought I should finish the course out of his classroom. Paula informed the school that this was discrimination. Thanks to her intervention I completed the course material and passed his class.
Because of this experience I became a full-fledged Federationist, and I began to realize the importance of a support system. It is respectable to be blind. It is also my right to have a fully integrated education. I have learned to stand up for what I believe in. I am hopeful for future generations of blind people, and I am grateful for the leaders who are guiding us into a brighter day.