Future Reflections                                                                                         Winter/Spring 2005

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Five To Make Ready

Tips for Aspiring College Students

by Patricia Morrow

Editor's note: The following presentation, originally published several years ago in the NFB of Missouri newsletter, The Blind Missourian, has been updated for this printing. Patricia Morrow is one of the blind leaders in the NFB of Missouri affiliate. Here is what she has to say to high school students considering going on to college:

Patricia  Morrow
Patricia Morrow

When I was teaching at the university, there were certain expectations that I had of all students. In fact, I hesitate to call them expectations because expectations I would have considered to be intellectual capabilities: organizational skills, insight, creativity, independent thought, and logical argument. What I'm thinking about are the unspoken assumptions I made about what all students could do. These assumptions come to mind because sometimes they offer problems for blind students.

I believe that most instructors share these assumptions. When I talk about the necessity of students meeting them, it is not to indicate that they should not attend college. It is to help them better prepare to attend college. It is to allow them to master what all students have to master by way of technique so that they can give their full time to learning what they have come to college to learn. And believe me, that will take all their effort. Students don't want to be stuck with figuring out how they are going to get hold of the learning they have to do.

The very first thing you have to do to learn anything in class is to get there--and get there on time. That means you may have to make it from the physics building to the computer lab in the education building--a fifteen-minute walk--in ten minutes. So you learn the short cuts the other students take. It means that you can't depend on waiting for anybody; you must learn to go by yourself. And you must go if there is an exam given at seven o'clock at night, or if there is a snowfall of ten inches. You must get there, and you must get there by yourself. For almost all of us, blind or legally blind, the implication is that you will need a white and the skills to use it.

When you come to class, you'll see that everyone makes notes about the lecture. You know that the definition of a really bad class is one where the notes pass from the instructor's folder to the student's notebook without going through the brain of either. Notes should be your sorting out of the important points in a lecture. I understand that some people employ other humans--note takers--to take notes for them. That means that the lecture is going through somebody else's head, not yours. A very bad idea. Others tape record lectures. For this the professor's permission must be granted because the lecture is his or her intellectual property just as though it were an article or a chapter of a book. But that's not the worst thing about recording. The worst thing is that no one pays close attention to the lectures if he or she thinks he or she will hear it again. This mental slouching through a class can become a really bad habit. Besides that, there's the time factor. I never had twice the time of anyone else to give a lecture; in fact, it always seemed to me I had only half the time of anyone else. Other kinds of work, like reading and referencing research, of necessity takes longer than it does for others. For the legally blind, the question always arises: does it take as long to write notes in large script with a felt tip pen as it would to, say, paint a sign? Often the best, if not the only, answer to the problem of note taking in class is Braille. An electronic note taker with a refreshable Braille display is the common high-tech answer to note taking for today's college students. However, the skillful use of the slate and stylus is still a fast (and cheap) low-tech solution.

In classes, particularly if they are seminars, students are expected to do some of the teaching (which, by the by, is the soundest method of learning). So you may anticipate, sooner or later, giving a report or forming part of a panel. This first requires reading. You may be able to accomplish this with a Closed Circuit TV (CCTV), or a scanner, or your computer speech program for reading Internet material, and/or you may use recorded books. Sometimes a live reader may be employed. But you are the one putting the report together. The organization, and naturally the notes from which that organization springs, is yours. So you take notes from your reading and you organize those notes in order to present them, probably on some kind of note cards. If you write the note cards in print with a pen, remember that the surest way to lose your audience (including your instructor) is to hold a piece of paper up to your nose and try to laboriously make it out. Again, competency with Braille appears the best answer.

Then, fourth on our list, are the papers. Like oral presentations, papers start out with lots of reading and note taking. But with papers, documentation is required. You must state from where the ideas and the direct and indirect quotes come. You do this by providing footnotes. For this, you have to know such things as authors, titles, publication information, and page numbers. Might as well make a habit of automatically putting these down as you read. Sometimes, you may have to get a print copy of a recorded book and ask a reader to look it up for you. (That's one of the things I was talking about when I said that some processes are slow and very difficult to speed up. So don't take extra time to listen twice to the same lecture.) After you have made your notes, the problem of organizing and writing is probably no more difficult for you than for anyone else. Provided, that is, that you are adept at using a computer with the adaptive equipment you need. Any student without computer skills will have trouble--with a capital T--keeping up.

Fifth, examinations: this is the really good news. No longer must you use a live reader to read questions or tape your answers. What is needed is a computer with a scanner and the adaptive equipment that you find most useful to you. To tell you the truth, it's much faster to write and easier to organize and reorganize answers on a computer than by using pen and paper. And with a scanner, of course, you can read your own questions.

So, to meet the assumptions that instructors have about students and to be ready to tackle the real challenge of college, you need cane travel, Braille skills, and computer literacy-the more the better. And if you go off to college with these skills--to paraphrase another Missourian, Mark Twain--you can go off with all the calm and confidence of a Christian--with four Aces up his sleeve.

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