Future Reflections         Special Issue: The Teen Years

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The Best Decision of My Life

by Michal Nowicki

Michal Nowicki pours orange juice into a glass.From the Editor: Michal Nowicki is a sophomore at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He speaks Polish, Russian, and Spanish and plans to become a translator.

On an ordinary evening in October 2008, I sat on my bed at the Transitional Living Center at the Illinois School for the Visually Impaired (ISVI) in Jacksonville, Illinois. With the help of one of the residential care workers, I had just finished packing my belongings. I had spent nine emotionally devastating weeks at the school, and I had finally convinced my parents that I could not bear the psychological burden any longer. Tomorrow I would leave Jacksonville and return home for good.

Fortunately, as the hours passed, I asked myself the most important question of my life. If I withdrew from ISVI now, would I ever gather the strength to pursue independence training again? Mobility was one of my most serious weaknesses, and I knew that I had a remarkable O&M instructor at ISVI, the only one who had ever emphasized transferable skills over route travel. I realized that giving up on ISVI would almost certainly destroy whatever chance I had to become self-sufficient. After an excruciating inner struggle highlighted by an anxiety attack, I decided to make one final attempt to face the challenge. The decision I made that night transformed every aspect of my life. It allowed me to become independent and to build my self-esteem in dramatic ways.

It is hard to convey the extent of my progress over the past three years. In the areas of daily living skills and orientation and mobility, I was probably at the level of a five-year-old child when I arrived in Jacksonville. As a high school student I felt comfortable with indoor travel, but when my O&M specialist tried to point out the difference between parallel and perpendicular traffic, her explanation sounded to me as if she were speaking a language I didn't know. I knew so little about the kitchen that one could almost conclude I had never heard the word. I did not know how to make a sandwich, cut food, or use a microwave, let alone prepare complex meals. As a high school senior I never imagined that one day I would sort and pick out my own clothes and even wash them--tasks that are routine for me today. In fact, I only mastered the skill of putting a shirt on a hanger after several months of practice.

My dependence on others for my everyday needs stems from the fact that I grew up as an only child with very overprotective parents and grandparents. Their attitude was at least partially influenced by their Polish heritage; they were raised in a culture where the opportunities for blind people were extremely limited. As my high school graduation approached, my teachers of the visually impaired urged me to seek transitional training at ISVI. I feared the separation from my family, but I understood that my situation would never change as long as I lived with my parents. I would never be able to pursue a postsecondary education and/or find a job unless I gained basic life skills.

My first two months of training at ISVI seemed like psychological torture. I felt utterly unable to meet the high expectations of my teachers. For example, while I was still learning to select clothes to wear on the following day, my life management teacher attempted to show me the entire laundry process--how to separate light-colored clothes from dark ones, operate washers and dryers, and fold and organize clothes. I was extremely lonely. At a time when I desperately needed emotional support, the students and staff members were all strangers and my parents were two hundred miles away. Sometimes I felt like an inmate in a Soviet labor camp. I suffered frequent emotional breakdowns, culminating in abrupt panic attacks. In fact, my O&M instructor eventually told me that he planned each of our lessons as if it were the last time he would see me. He was legitimately concerned that I might drop out at any time.

I entered the transitional living program at ISVI to learn to perform some specific tasks, such as how to cross streets safely and how to manage money. When I graduated after one academic year, not only had I learned these skills, but I also had gained strategies for approaching many unfamiliar situations. The ISVI instructors were well aware that it is not possible to prepare a student for every obstacle he or she may someday encounter. Nearly all of these teachers stressed the importance of problem-solving skills that can be applied under diverse circumstances. When teaching me a route or neighborhood, my O&M instructor would not tell me what type of intersection I was approaching. Instead, he encouraged me to apply my knowledge of traffic patterns. This was a technique that I could utilize at any intersection, provided that some vehicles were passing by.

My ISVI instructors also underlined the importance of self-advocacy, another area where I made significant improvement. As my life management teacher noted, all humans require assistance from others. In order to ensure that their needs are properly addressed, they must express them clearly. I understood my needs and limitations, but I used to feel reluctance and discomfort each time I had to seek information or ask for help from a stranger, especially by phone. Thanks to the transitional living program, however, I have lost those fears, and can now express my needs without distress.

Some of my instructors at ISVI worried that spending only one year at the school would not reverse nearly two decades of dependence on others in virtually every aspect of life. They were very right, but the program gave me the momentum I needed to keep moving forward. My education at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) provided an excellent opportunity for me to apply and expand upon the skills I began to develop in Jacksonville. Although I received adequate training in street travel, as well as in transferable skills pertaining to orientation on a college campus, central Illinois does not have a fixed-stop public transit system. When I left ISVI I still was not proficient in using buses, trains, and subways. UIC is located in the heart of a city with one of the most extensive public transportation systems in the United States. I quickly learned to take full advantage of the city's buses and trains, as well as the university's campus shuttle bus. Today I rely on a public bus as I travel daily between the campus and my apartment. The Blue Line of the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) serves as my travel pass to downtown Chicago.

My self-advocacy and problem-solving skills have proved vital to my college success. I no longer have a teacher of the visually impaired or a case manager as I did through high school. The Disability Resource Center plays a major role in providing me with necessary accommodations such as course materials in an accessible format. Nevertheless, it is my responsibility to communicate with my professors and teaching assistants and to make sure that I receive the accommodations I need. Self-advocacy is as vital to success in college as a high grade point average.

Likewise, problem-solving strategies have proved very useful to me in coping with minor and major challenges. I can look for a cue or landmark when I get lost on campus, and I can figure out how to complete an assignment when I don't have it in an accessible format. When the campus bus routes were completely restructured after my freshman year, I was forced to explore alternative ways of getting to my classes.

I know I made the right choice when I decided to postpone higher education for a year to undergo intensive training in blindness skills. Without this training, I could not have survived a single semester in college, despite the fact that I graduated from high school with a 4.0 grade point average. I would not have been able to find any of my classroom buildings independently, since I had almost no experience with outdoor travel before I went to Jacksonville. Without the confidence to express my needs, most likely I would not have been able to ensure that my accommodations were provided. Despite my initial suffering, the transitional living program equipped me with the techniques necessary for success at the university level and empowered me with skills that I can apply in the workforce. On that agonizing night at ISVI I made the most important decision of my life.

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