by Jamie Principato
From the Editor: In January of 2015, this magazine ran an article about Jamie Principato and her struggle to fight for accommodations from Florida State University. Jamie has moved on from her legal battles, and she brought to the 2016 national convention one of the finest speeches about the need for access and the transformative part it can play in one’s life that I’ve ever heard. Here is what she said on Tuesday, July 5:
Hello. I’m in the business of sharing ideas, and I have a big idea for you today. But before I get to that, there’s a story that I need to share that I’ve been learning this week is very important. It started not at Florida State University, but when I was in the eighth grade. It was the end of our semester, and my teacher asked me to stay after class. She asked me to stay because I am failing eighth grade algebra. Up to this point I had never used a math book, and I’d never been able to write math my teacher could read. I also could not read or write in Braille, and any work I did in math had to be done verbally.
As many of you I’m sure understand, if you’ve been to school and you are blind, it’s very difficult to simplify an equation if what you’re hearing is: “Two squared plus six over x divided by three squared plus two x squared plus the square root of five, all divided by three.” I’m a mathematician now, and I don’t know where to begin with that.
But my teacher had good news for me. She told me, “I’m not going to give you an ‘F’ and prevent you from going on to ninth grade with your classmates, because I understand what you’re going through.”
“Really,” I said.
She said, “Yes, I do. You see, my daughter has intellectual disabilities, and she can’t solve for ‘x’ either.” [groans] I was crushed. And I realized that I had two options: I could correct my teacher, and I could tell her that I am intelligent, I can learn math, but I can’t learn math if I can’t read a math book or access your notes when you’re giving lecture. Or—I’m fourteen years old, remember—I could walk away and never have to come back to that classroom again. I walked away.
Fast forward now to entering college. Somehow—I don’t really know how this could have happened—when I entered Florida State University, I managed to pass my placement test and be placed into college algebra. Meanwhile, up to this point I still can’t solve for ‘x’, and I can barely multiply numbers greater than seven. But I’m placed into college algebra, and there happens to be another student in the class with me who is blind. We decide to go to class together that morning. And when we walk in we are immediately stopped by the professor at the door. And she tells us, “You guys shouldn’t be here.” What do you mean? She tells us that, “None of the materials in this department can be provided to you in Braille or in large print.” I remember telling her that shouldn’t be a problem; Florida State University has a disability resource center, and if you send them your materials, they can help you prepare them for us. She told us, “Oh, no, no, no, we don’t do that here.”
“What? You don’t do that?” She told us that it was somehow against department policy to release any of their materials to disability resources, and it had always been so. We proceeded to attempt to take the class. They weren’t going to make us leave because other departments were putting pressure on us to complete our college algebra requirement. It was either complete the requirement or be unenrolled in the institution, so we had to find a way to do it.
Meanwhile, at every turn there is something new stopping us: there are tests that we cannot take, homework assignments that we cannot complete, study materials we have no access to, and even when we go to our instructor’s office to ask questions or to seek assistance, she insists on tutoring us using pen and ink, barely describing anything she’s doing verbally. Needless to say it was impossible to pass college algebra, and soon after this first semester my fellow student and I, with the assistance of the National Federation of the Blind, entered litigation against Florida State University on the grounds that their programs were inaccessible to us and that they were engaging in discrimination on the basis of disability [applause].
Something that a lot of students don’t realize when they enter into something like this is that litigation is a messy process. It’s time-consuming; it’s stressful. I ended up spending more time working with Brown, Goldstein & Levy during discovery, helping them get information about my school, trying to understand the law myself so that I knew how to communicate to people at my school when questioned—I spent more time working on these tasks than I spent on my studies. It was like a full-time job, and it lasted for more than three years. And when it ended, I burnt a bridge at my university and could not go back.
I moved to Colorado shortly after, and it was time for me to start over. It took a long time before I was ready to go back to school because at this point I wasn’t really sure if my teacher in eighth grade was right or not. Maybe I am stupid; maybe I can’t do math. Almost every career I could possibly go into is going to require mathematics; math is everywhere. So maybe I’m just not cut out for college. They told me at Florida State that their programs simply were not for everybody, that there were some people they could not serve, and maybe I would be better off trying to find a school that served “my kind.”
But eventually I worked up the courage to return to school. I started at a community college—Arapahoe Community College in Littleton, Colorado. I decided that I would start slow and that I would only take math courses in the beginning. Math was going to be the hardest thing for me to conquer, so it seemed like a good place to start. I didn’t want my instructors having any assumptions about what I could do as a blind person, so when I entered my college classroom on the first day of school and my professor asked the students to share with the class how they felt about math and what kind of experience they had had in the past, I lied through my teeth, and I told my instructor with a straight face—a smile, in fact—that I was excellent in math and that it had always been my best subject. “I’m only taking this class because I’m twenty-three—I’ve been out of school for a while, I need a little refresher in algebra, but I am confident I can get a perfect A in this class.” I spent the rest of the semester trying my hardest not to get caught in the lie. I have to say that it was not my own ability that made that possible. My school was incredible in terms of accessibility. Anytime I needed help, anytime I found materials that I could not access or information I could not read, there was somebody at my school, either in the math department or in the disability services office, who was willing to help me. They didn’t doubt that with the right access I could be successful in math, and sure enough they were right, and I was right, and I pulled off an A in that class [applause].
I continued in mathematics at Arapahoe Community College (ACC). I wanted to try trigonometry, and when I finished that, I wanted to go into calculus. I ended up being the first blind student at ACC to progress through all of the math courses that that school offered, and I succeeded [applause].
I still wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. When I was at Florida State I majored in psychology, not because I was particularly thrilled with psychology—it’s a great field—but I was doing it because it seemed like the only likely science a blind person could be successful in. But now I was being successful in things I thought I could never do, so I started rethinking my career choices. I remember one night a friend of mine who was a sighted mathematician was sitting with me, going over a problem I found particularly interesting from class that day. I started telling him about my dilemma, about how I wanted to do science; it was all I really ever wanted to do. “I just want to understand how the universe works.”
He looked at me, and he said: “Well then, why don’t you major in physics?”
“I’m blind; physics has a lot of math, a lot of labs, and all kinds of equipment and technology that I’m not used to.”
I started panicking, and he looked at me and said, “I’m not joking; you can do math, so you can do physics.”
So I thought about it, and it occurred to me that there’s really nothing to lose in trying, just like I tried algebra. So I went to school a few months later when the new semester was starting, and I changed my major to physics. From that point on, doors were opening for me. I met with the chair of the physics department, and I told him that I was a little concerned about the laboratory component of his classes. He said to me, “I don’t understand why.”
I said, “Well, sir, I’m blind.”
He said, “Sure, but sighted people can’t see radiation or electricity or momentum. You can do math, so you can do physics.”
He was right. With the tools that my school already provided to their sighted students, the LabQuest system in particular for collecting data in laboratories, I was able to compete with my sighted peers in the laboratory, and pretty soon I had the opportunity to start doing my own research. I joined a team of researchers who were sponsored by NASA through the Colorado Space Grant Consortium. We began building instruments that would fly through the stratosphere and even into space, and my focus became instruments that would allow sighted people to see things they can’t even see, things like radiation, things like cosmic rays and subatomic particles, things like the molecular composition of the atmosphere that you can’t see even with a working eye, and I as a blind student, just an undergrad, was building the tools that scientists could use to visualize these things and that I could use to visualize these things [applause].
Only two weeks ago I was at Wallops, Virginia, at the Wallops Flight Facility at NASA, integrating a device that I built that allows us to see when the sensor collides with subatomic particles from a cosmic ray from the radiation produced when stars and distant galaxies explode. We launched this device on a rocket. From 1,000 feet away my teammates and I recorded the launch, and I’d like to share that with you now. Can we cut to the video?
[The tape commences with a countdown starting at ten, nine, eight, and when the countdown reaches zero and the word mark is spoken, one can hear and see the rocket lifting off. On the recording one can hear the cheers of excited participants, and in the background one can also hear the excited cheers of those of us in the audience.]
This is what can happen when blind people have access to math and science. Since then I’ve also found a talent for teaching, and I’m a tutor now to many sighted students in college-level math. However, I am most proud of my students in the college prep program at the Colorado Center for the Blind (CCB).
Now I want to come to the idea that I promised I would share. Teaching math to students who want to pursue college, I started noticing some very interesting patterns. With the permission of my students I started collecting data and keeping track of things that we talked about, things that we worked on, and the patterns that I perceived. A very common pattern: virtually 90 percent of my students would come to me and tell me in the beginning of our sessions, “I can’t learn math; I had a teacher in middle school who told me that I was intellectually disabled there, and I just can’t do it.” And my students really believed this, that somehow because they were blind, there was something else wrong with them that made it impossible for them to learn about math.
In the short time I’ve been teaching—the longest duration has been four months, and the shortest has been one month—my students go from believing that they are incapable of learning math—from exactly where I was, feeling that they can’t even multiply numbers together if the numbers are greater than seven—to performing at a perfectly acceptable precollege level, some even testing not just into but beyond college algebra. This is simply because they have been given access to mathematical information at CCB [applause]. Once a student has access to the information, a mentor who can show them how to use it and who believes that they are capable of using it, they can do tremendous things. They not only can reach their grade level but exceed it.
So this is my idea: we are a large organization with a lot of resources. There are people here with many talents ranging from music to science and mathematics. We also have many children in the organization who are blind, who are entering school, or who are already in school and finding that when they reach a certain grade level they no longer have access to the information their peers can use. I propose that as a Federation we start paring talented adults and professionals—college students and professionals—who have succeeded in science and mathematics with the families of children who are struggling, with the families of children whose teachers believe that they are cognitively delayed and cannot possibly learn math because they are blind. I want the students to have access to a network of people who not only know the skills of blindness but also know the skills of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics [applause].
I’m in the process of collecting the data I compiled at the Colorado Center for the Blind, and I’m trying to find ways to make a program like this a reality. I would not be where I am right now if not for the mentorship and encouragement I received from my friends in the field and my friends in the Federation. I want every blind child who needs to learn math for their career to have the same opportunity to find their talent. In addition, I would not be where I am if it were not for somebody who showed me how to build tools that could go into space. The Colorado Space Grant Consortium has a program called RockSat-C. This program allows students to purchase space through their institutions on a suborbital sounding rocket and do exactly what I did: launch an experiment. I was recently given the opportunity to participate in this program again and asked what kind of payload I would want to design. My response was that I want to design a workshop payload. I want to dedicate my half canister of space to blind children between the grades of six and twelve so that I can help teach them the skills that they need to put an instrument at the edge of space and beyond. Soldering, programming, building circuits, reading schematics, interpreting their data, designing an experiment, thinking like a scientist: none of these are things a blind person cannot do, and I know because I’ve done them. I want to make sure that my peers can do them too, because it’s a much more interesting field when I have competition.
We can do amazing things when we have access to information. When we don’t have access to information, we can start thinking some pretty terrible things about ourselves. I thought I was stupid; I thought I would never learn to do math and should avoid it like the plague. I thought there was something wrong with me, that somehow when people told me that “No, you should not be in our classroom; you do not belong here,” it was my fault. I had done something wrong. I’ve learned since then that that is not true. I can do anything I set my mind to, and so can the rest of us. I really hope the Federation can help me in these endeavors so that I can bring access to mathematics to everybody in this room and beyond.
For more than seventy-five years the National Federation of the Blind has worked to transform the dreams of hundreds of thousands of blind people into reality, and with your support we will continue to do so for decades to come. We sincerely hope you will plan to be a part of our enduring movement by adding the National Federation of the Blind as a partial beneficiary in your will. A gift to the National Federation of the Blind in your will is more than just a charitable, tax deductible donation. It is a way to join in the work to help blind people live the lives they want that leaves a lasting imprint on the lives of thousands of blind children and adults.
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