by Julie McGinnity
From the Editor: Julie McGinnity is a graduate student in music and performance at the University of Missouri, Columbia. She is by any measure a successful student, having been a national scholarship winner and a tenBroek Fellow. In the following piece she wrestles with the questions that face all of us as we go about living our lives: to what extent is it the job of blind people to educate the educators, educate our employers, educate our public officials, and all before we can take advantage of what others take for granted? When does this need to educate those around us retard our progress and when does it strengthen us and teach assertiveness and out-of-the-box thinking that serves many of us well in this constantly evolving world? The answers are not easy, and Julie makes no pretense that they are. Here is what she says about education, what it offers, what it promises, and how often it falls short of what it can and should be for blind students:
We are amazing. That's what they say. When we walk into their classrooms, they look at our Braille, the talking technology, and the canes and dogs we use to navigate the world, and they are in awe. "How can you do that?" "You are an inspiration." These statements become familiar songs in the soundtracks of our lives.
Some of the instructors and professors we meet ask questions, and many make promises to accommodate. The world of education seems to be a place of endless possibility. We are positive that learning will occur, and it certainly does, but at what cost?
Many of the professors who promise to send documents to us, keep us aware of projects and activities in the classroom, and prepare materials ahead of time soon begin to display their human frailty by forgetting their promises and good intentions and causing us to be left out. We do not blame them, and we shouldn't. Many of them genuinely want to accommodate us, but do they understand what it's like to be unable to participate? Have they ever been there? Have they felt that wave of dread when a new activity is announced, and we are consigned to the sidelines with the hope that we will be consoled by their heartfelt apology? No, they haven't experienced this, and I sincerely hope they never do.
The experience of being overlooked in class preparation by instructors and professors requires that we learn to think on our feet, determine how a new activity can be made accessible, and have the confidence to implement our ideas on the spur of the moment. We have to be clever enough to anticipate, use our memories and listening skills to glean bits of the print documents that the other students have in their hands, and in many cases learn quickly enough to compete with and be a part of the class.
Let's step outside this mindset for a minute. What would life be like if we didn't have to do all these things? What if we had the burden only of learning from what was presented? Perhaps it may seem unrealistic, but what if the teachers were so committed to our learning that they took the necessary steps to see that we could participate in every activity, had the class materials at the same time they were available to other students, and ensured there was a way for us to answer questions and make comments that was as easy for us as for other students?
If we actually found ourselves in this situation, we would probably be confused. We wouldn't know what to do with ourselves. Willingly or not, we have accepted the double standard by which we operate as blind people. It begins with that fateful contradiction disguised as a compliment: "You are amazing." Once that idea has been put into our heads, we are condemned to live up to that belief and to be set apart from others. Many of us either feel as if we need to live up to this standard, or feel as though we need to succeed in spite of it. We reject the idea that we are amazing, but we work hard to be amazing. We embrace the idea that we are normal human beings, while simultaneously working harder than our colleagues to prove to them and ourselves that we are. We detest the unequal treatment that makes life harder, while thriving on the challenge it presents and quietly and secretly complimenting ourselves on being so resourceful.
Our lives are as conflicted and filled with contradictions as those of our fellow travelers on this earth. We try to reconcile the love and protection of God with an understanding of the terrible things that happen in the world He oversees. We all struggle with the contradiction inherent in believing that we all have an opportunity to succeed in our country, while realizing that we are far from equal in where we start and what we have to work with in our lives.
Perhaps we must distinguish between challenges and barriers, realizing that they may be different for each of us. Which of the challenges we face cause us unnecessary stress, which retard our progress, which cause us anxiety and self-doubt, and which prevent us from doing what we might to enjoy our lives to the fullest? These we must seek to eradicate from our lives and use all of our efforts to see that other blind people do not find them stumbling blocks. Should it be okay for blind students to be without Braille or materials in the classroom simply because we often surmount this inconvenience? Why are they allowing us into schools and universities and then condemning us to sitting on the sidelines or playing second chair to our colleagues? I ask you: what is the point? On the flip side, which of the challenges we face every day have served to shape us into more resourceful human beings, caused us to be less rigid in our thinking, pushed us to be more accepting of the weaknesses of others, and forced us to have greater respect for the diversity found in the world?
We need to reevaluate how we treat blindness in education. It is easy to say that classrooms must be accessible and instructors need to treat their disabled students as equals. The reality is more difficult to swallow. Many teachers have different expectations of blind students that stem from their attitudes about blindness and people with disabilities. If this is the problem, it is truly our job to educate our educators as we seek to learn ourselves. Yes we really do get used to teaching the ones who are teaching us, but I wonder if this reality is a benefit to us in our endeavors as students. Can we truly learn at our best if we are constantly living in a world of caution and uncertainty because of the multitude of differing attitudes we find throughout our educational journeys?
I am not here to convince you that the educational world is hopeless. Teachers are out there who understand—whole groups of them in fact. They can be found, and this realization, more than anything else, gives me hope. We need to identify those who see potential rather than inspiration in us so that we can finally be on an equal footing with our peers.
You are not engaged in this struggle alone to find and educate understanding teachers. I am here, standing alongside you in our efforts to gain equality in the classroom, and seeking solutions to our challenges as blind students, and I am grateful to realize that we have an organization that is dedicated to educating these educators with us. It is time that we recognize this support and stop feeling as if we were carrying so much of the weight of these disadvantages alone. The truth is that the real problems of the blind student do not lie in our inability to see; they stem from the attitudes of those who teach us and provide our accommodations. Once we realize this, we are one step closer to using our God-given potential to succeed in whatever field we choose.
Clearly there is no single path in navigating the road to education as a blind person, but at the very least we should network, strategize, and improve the maps as we continue to demand equality. We must make the best of the situations in which we find ourselves, but we must also find the energy and optimism to expect acceptance and equality.