Braille Monitor                                                   March 2010

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Of Advocacy and Education
My Study-Abroad Experience as a Vision-Impaired College Student

by Alexander Densmore

Alexander Densmore in VeniceFrom the Editor: Alexander Densmore, currently a junior at Oberlin College in Ohio, contacted the National Federation of the Blind for emergency advocacy support last summer, when his prospects for participating in a prestigious study-abroad program in Italy appeared to be jeopardized. After granting Alexander admission to the course, administrators at Duke University and the Intercollegiate Center for Classical Studies in Rome (ICCS-Rome) imposed retroactive contingencies on his admission and enrollment in the course, including the condition that he be accompanied by a sighted human companion--at his expense--at all times when away from the physical campus. For an intense two weeks in the heat of July, Alexander learned firsthand about blatant discrimination and custodial policies based on low vision at the hands of sighted administrators who possessed limited knowledge and low expectations about blindness and blind people. He also learned about the power of collective action to remedy prejudice--whether rooted in overt hostility or simple ignorance.

A review of the correspondence between Alexander and the course administrators (not reproduced in this article) makes it clear that their motivation was solely to avoid a perceived higher risk of legal liability because of Alexander's vision loss; their claim of being interested only in his safety and welfare was transparently disingenuous. Fortunately matters were resolved to Alexander's satisfaction before the semester began, and he was able to participate in a rewarding and enriching classical studies program in the heart of Italy. Alexander acquitted himself with distinction during the fall, and we can only hope that this encounter taught administrators at Duke and the ICCS-Rome something about the law and the importance of humility when one is ignorant. Here's Alexander's account of this initial challenge and his fulfilling experience in Europe:

A view of Rome with St. Peter's Basilica in the distanceI am a junior at Oberlin College in Ohio. I have albinism and low vision. I spent this past semester (fall 2009) studying abroad in Italy at a program called ICCS-Rome, an academically rigorous program focusing on classics. The program’s core is a course called the Ancient City with extensive on-site field trips at least three days a week, where a great deal of the course’s material is taught.

I applied to the program during the admission process in March 2009. I fully disclosed on the application that I had a vision impairment. Approximately two weeks after submitting the application, I was unconditionally accepted.

In May I contacted Duke University (since they administer the program) and spoke with the head of the Student Disability Access Office (SDAO). At this point I requested only academic accommodations. They recommended that I use a cane for uneven terrains and to signal drivers that I am vision impaired. I agreed to these proposals. Duke was to contact the program administration in Rome to arrange these accommodations.

Everything seemed to be going smoothly until I received a letter from Duke on July 8, 2009. Based on the recommendations of an expert ophthalmologist that Duke and ICCS-Rome had consulted, Duke University decided to require that I use a global positioning system (GPS) and a FarView magnifier that they would provide. I was surprised, but I was willing to use these devices if Duke provided them.

What startled and angered me was that Duke and ICCS-Rome required that I find, hire, and pay the expenses for a sighted guide. The only expenses Duke and ICCS-Rome would incur for such a companion were transportation expenses on group excursions. I would have to pay the guide's salary and all other costs. Duke and ICCS-Rome did not just require this guide on field trips but, to quote their letter, also required "assistance of the companion on weekends, holidays, and breaks as well as anytime you go off campus." Since the ICCS-Rome campus consists of only one building, I would need--if reading their terms literally--to have my guide be present anytime I went outside.

The Leaning Tower of PisaMy parents and I had already purchased my plane ticket and paid the program deposit. I wrote a letter attempting to reject the human guide accommodation. I listed many people who knew about my vision impairment and understood my abilities. I reiterated my willingness to use a cane—since in May I had already acquired and been trained in the use of a cane.

On July 10, 2009, I was notified that I would have to contact my supporters and get them to write letters to Duke and ICCS-Rome, supporting my refusal to use a human guide during my semester abroad. At this point I was angry--it felt as if Duke and ICCS-Rome were trying to get me to drop out of the program. Finding and paying for such a companion was unrealistic. Further, I did not want to use a guide during personal time. I was not willing to give up easily--I wanted to prove to Duke and ICCS-Rome that what they were doing was wrong.

On Monday, July 13, 2009, I called and spoke with the head of Duke's SDAO. She reiterated the official position. I was advised that, since it was so close to the semester, I should submit all supporting letters by July 15. My supporters (including professors, my high school Latin teacher, ophthalmologists, the director of Oberlin’s Services for Students with Disabilities, and my mobility trainer) were required to go to the program Website and specifically address how I would participate safely and successfully in every aspect of the course. I had to scramble for two days, frantically communicating with supporters, even while at work.

The Forum of PompeiiI was overwhelmed with all of the support I received. All of my supporters and representatives of the National Federation of the Blind wrote letters. I had never even met a few of my supporters, but they still wrote letters on my behalf. All these letters were gathered in just two days. In the letter from the NFB, my advocate cited a section of the Americans with Disabilities Act stating that a person with a disability may decline or reject any proposed reasonable accommodation without fear of retaliation. Being barred from participation in the program, if I was not able or willing to provide a personal human companion, certainly would constitute retaliation.

On July 23 (over a week later), I finally got a response from the study abroad office. They said that, if I signed an amendment to the general program’s waiver of liability (something I had voluntarily offered to do in the initial letter sent two weeks before), I could participate in the program without the requirement of the personal human companion. [Alexander agreed to this concession in an effort to resolve the controversy quickly. It is clear that he should not have been made to accept any more legal responsibility for his own safety than was expected of any of his nondisabled student colleagues in the course.]

Over the summer the ICCS-Rome professor-in-charge contacted me and offered his full support. A gentleman in the access office at Duke worked diligently to find assistive technology that would support my independence in Rome. Once I went to Rome, the entire ICCS-Rome faculty and administration were supportive (the faculty had never been involved in the admissions situation in the first place).

A beautiful landscape in Baiae, near NaplesAs for assistive technology, I found the cane a useful tool for crossing streets. Drivers are less watchful of pedestrians in Italy–the cane signaled that I might not see them. While I could not plug in specific addresses, the hand-held Trekker Breeze announced all street names, and the GPS allowed me to mark and locate destinations that I had already visited. The GPS technology was helpful in bus travel and in identifying street names as I walked along. The FarView was not particularly helpful for me, but it gave me the idea to use a digital camera with a glare-reductive screen. In this way I could capture and magnify many important images on site that I had to refer to in my academic studies. As I became more comfortable with the use of the camera, I began to enjoy taking pictures of beautiful scenery and architecture in addition to the many pictures I was already taking for my studies. And of course my monocular and hand-held magnifier proved invaluable.

My semester in Italy was immensely enjoyable and educational. Visiting sites of ancient Rome and seeing the archeological remains allowed me to imagine that I was in ancient Rome two thousand years ago. All of this knowledge will be useful as I prepare for a career in teaching Latin and classics.

I also did a lot of independent travel while in Italy. The most significant was a trip I took by myself to Verona and the nearby amusement park, Gardaland. The most enjoyable parts of the semester included a trip with friends to Orvieto, Florence, and Pisa; the weeklong field trips to Sicily and Campania; and a weekend excursion to Venice with a friend.

In conclusion, I do not tell the story about this summer out of anger or frustration. I want to acknowledge that barriers in education still exist for people with disabilities, but I want to emphasize that these barriers can be overcome with perseverance, determination, and the help of professionals. This experience has proven to me just how wonderful and supportive the National Federation of the Blind and the various professionals in one's life are—without their help I do not believe I would ever have favorably resolved this situation, and I would have missed the opportunity of a lifetime. If you would like detailed information about my travels throughout Italy, feel free to visit my blog at <www.alexdinitaly.blogspot.com>.

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