Braille Monitor                          March 2020

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Living the Life I Want is a Work in Progress

by Carolyn Corrigan

Carolyn CorriganFrom the Editor: Carolyn Corrigan lives in New Hampshire and is a state officer, the secretary of her affiliate. She is not afraid of work. Her state president says she can always be counted on and gives her the highest recommendation I have heard her give anyone.

Carolyn’s story is one of significant challenge and adaptation. Sometimes she changes the way she wants to accomplish something, and at other times she decides that what she wants to accomplish must be different given her life situation and the satisfaction she wants from it. Here is her story:

I am grateful beyond words that I had tremendous parents. I know that watching me struggle with this disability must have been hard for them, but they always gave me so much support as I adapted to my blindness. They provided daily reminders to be true to myself, and they had so much hope for me to get out there and live a productive life like everyone else.

I often traveled to Boston Children’s Medical Center as they tried to determine how affected my vision was. I got sick of the regular evaluations. I knew they were trying to help me, but the sheer number of things they would ask me to do wore me out. After all the tests and evaluations, we finally had more answers about my visual limitations—I am blind.

With glasses, I am nearsighted; without them, I see a fuzzy picture. After half an hour of the fuzzy pictures, I become dizzy and disoriented. I first realized this when kids took my glasses as a joke. It’s definitely not fun being disoriented, especially when people are laughing at you. They did not know the situation they created wasn't humorous at all.

Despite my setbacks with some of the children, I was still excited about heading off to school. I was excited to be with other students and nervous at the same time about fitting in with others my age. Unfortunately, I am what they call a visual learner, kind of complicated when one is blind. I also have to deal with my eyes twitching while trying to focus on an object or reading a book. The twitching activity makes me more exhausted because of the amount of energy it takes. In class, I did take notes but was always trying to catch up.

During both elementary and high school I was using the resource room on a frequent basis. It was great to be around the diversity of students in this space. The students that the resource room assisted also had similar issues to the ones I was experiencing. However, the impression held by other students was that if you were in the resource room, you must be dumb or retarded. I disliked my disability more and more when I heard that, but I fought that perception. I fought because I disliked being unable to participate in certain activities because teachers thought they were too hard for me.

Therefore, I did my work the best I could. When in lectures, I found it difficult to remember all the material covered. I listened, but again, getting information audibly isn't my strength. I took notes, but half of it I would miss.

All I wanted during this time was to have a chance like everyone else. Besides resource room assistance in the classroom, I had my documents enlarged so I could read them, I had tutors in the classroom to assist me with taking notes or to review material for future quizzes or tests, and I had a tape recorder for books on tape. However, because I am a visual learner, just listening to information did not help it stick in my memory. I also had a scope for use in the classroom. I was placed in the front row to be closer to the chalkboard, and I used my scope to read information the teacher wrote there. When I took tests, I was taken out of the classroom and did them separately to minimize distraction.

I was pleased to have had some extracurricular activities in school. I was part of a youth softball team that was coached by a friend of my parents. I really appreciated that I had an opportunity playing softball because of that connection. I know that for reasons of safety I was assigned to play deep right field most of the time because hits often do not land in that area. Out of boredom waiting for the ball to come my way, I obviously cheered for my team, but I was also frequently singing out in right field.

Toward middle school, I tried to get involved with groups such as band. I played flute from middle school into high school. In high school the band teacher I had was amazing. He knew I had limitations, but he treated me like a part of the group and assisted me when I needed extra help. There were times I didn’t hit every note because of slow response, but I made the effort to play regardless.

My other instrument is my voice. Anyone who knew me at the time could tell you my favorite class was chorus. The key thing about both band and chorus is that my ears were my eyes, and I believe my lack of vision heightened my other senses. I also participated in an afterschool acting group called Acting Out, which was open to younger students as well as teenagers. This group made a real difference in my life because of how diverse it was. It also gave me the sense that there is more to me than my visual limitations. The group leader welcomed me with open arms. I had that feeling like I belonged somewhere, which helped tremendously.

There were also other important outreach activities for me on the weekends throughout the year. In these programs I interacted with other young teenagers with disabilities. We learned about working together, independent living, and other things that helped us build the confidence that we could do things for ourselves.

Anxiety over tests began to heighten in my sophomore year of high school due to a negative experience with a professional, causing me to feel degraded in front of peers. I hope the screening process today is more advanced—no student should have to deal with a disrespectful professional degrading him or her, especially in front of other people. That was the worst experience I have been through. It took me a while to speak up, but when I did, the tutor did not last much longer. This is why tests were not my favorite part of school. Even when people would try to help me, the words I had been called such as dumb and stupid would haunt me and make me defensive. There is a time to be pushed, but there is also a time to be rewarded for what you know and how hard you are trying.

I graduated from high school, and I thought the nerve-racking educational experiences in my life had ended, but then there was college. Many questions went through my mind before beginning my fall semester. In high school, the SAT was supposed to help you find your place in college. My score was not very high because of my learning challenges, so I started college slow. I took continuing education courses to get my GPA up before matriculating as a full-time student. At first my goal was to study education and work as a teacher because I love children. Unfortunately, I did not have that option financially.

In high school the tests posed challenges, but at the college level there were more questions, and they were more complicated to answer. The more questions I got and the harder they were, the more I panicked. I discovered that with my learning challenges, I retained a certain amount of information, but when my mind gets overwhelmed, I forget the rest of it. When I started failing my college exams, I felt like a failure. I questioned whether I would ever graduate from college.

I started looking for jobs to make money to help with college expenses. Job searching proved to be frustrating and taxing despite having assistance from vocational rehabilitation. Many people were still very ignorant about the value of diversity in the workplace, and some would not hire me because they judged that it would be too hard for me and that I could not do the job. When blind, it is commonly accepted that you should take any job you can get, but I was not even getting interviews, so I had to change tactics. I focused on volunteering instead to gain experience, working at various childcare programs. Next, I began working a paying job at the college dining commons. I continued on to being a front-end clerk bagging groceries for a supermarket. With each of these jobs, at first I would be a bit slow learning the tasks that needed to be done, but once it became a routine for me, people commented that I did things quickly and efficiently. I always try to get better, but I also know my limitations and to not try to exceed what I can do.

I graduated from college with an associate’s degree in general education. I may not have landed in the education field as a teacher, but it was a valuable accomplishment for me. However, the year after I graduated, I did get to experience being a paraprofessional at the middle school I attended. It was a valuable tutoring opportunity; I felt like I was a voice for some of these students. I could feel how they felt and was able to help them academically. I was pleased when I came up with a game for a student to remember her social studies material, even if the teacher I worked for didn’t appreciate it much. I do not think that the teachers are always as resourceful as they should be. I don’t think they get enough training to see the individual possibilities that exist in those of us who learn differently. At the very least training must make it possible for inclusion to be a possibility rather than just a word.

After a year I decided to move on. I was not bad at being a tutor and paraprofessional, but I realized there was something more for me. I loved children, but professionally working with them just didn’t click for me. Witnessing some of the treatment and attitudes toward the students made me realize that advocacy was in my blood when opportunities arose later.

Continuing with job searching, I came across an opportunity that led to my next challenge. I heard through the Red Cross that they were holding LNA (Licensed Nurse Assistant) classes. I had never thought of this career before, but it interested me because I like to help take care of people. I thought, “Why not go for it? Life is too short to not try different opportunities.” I knew that the materials and the tests would be obstacles for me, but support from the teacher and other participants helped a lot. I also had the benefit of some of our vocational rehabilitation counselors who were willing to help outside of class to go over some of the rather challenging clinical aspects. It was difficult, but with determination, I kept going. My family and friends knew I was getting the material and that I knew my stuff, despite exams not being a high point for me. No test can define what I know.

It was getting close to the time we were preparing to get into a clinical setting, and I was feeling hopeful until one day in class. I could tell the teacher was heartbroken to tell me the bad news. She knew I had worked hard, but she had a job to do and could not pass me. The state board in charge of these programs told her that I could not go any further in the clinical because of my limited vision and slow learning in medical situations. Their reasoning was because of liability and safety. Safety I can understand; you have to be safe in medical settings. Liability I felt was more about their fear of something they don’t know, and we can always see the worst when we think about bad things that may happen. At first, I was crushed; my hopes were dashed. It didn’t help when someone told me they wouldn’t want someone like me taking care of them.

I have struggled with depression after going through numerous experiences like this and having the plug pulled too soon on each of them. Vocational rehabilitation helped me learn massage therapy, but again my test scores were not adequate. The state tests said I was close to passing, but in my mind I passed with flying colors. In the end though I was a winner for facing myself, finding my own confidence, and being here today. I still offer massages to family friends and make frequent visits to the elderly home I work for to provide hand massages to Alzheimer’s residents.

I also decided to revisit the Keene State College’s Aspire Program. It had done a lot for me, and I wanted to show my appreciation. I reconnected with staff members I knew, and I was also introduced to the disabilities coordinator. I started out mentoring students by taking them to a coffee place I had gotten familiar with, and from there I was introduced to a group called the National Federation of the Blind. Until then I had no idea that this organization existed. I had heard of other associations of the blind and like organizations, but this one was different. I officially joined the NFB in 2007. I believe my first trip was the Washington Seminar. This was when having advocacy in my blood really crystalized. What struck me immediately about this group was how much this national organization works together and provides support for others while also defining our rights and what we deserve. I am still involved today, and many things have come from it. Not only is it my second family, but due to my continued interest, I have several roles in the organization that I never in my wildest dreams would have thought I’d be undertaking at this point in my life. Besides advocacy, my Federation family helped me build the confidence to educate people and stand up for myself when I feel that I or other members are being discriminated against.

I have realized that as a woman with visual limitations I am not limited in opportunities. I have discovered I have other talents that I am pursuing further to see where they lead me. Photography has been a huge interest of mine for a long time. Family members have nicknamed me “Flash” Corrigan. Photography is stress relief for me and gives me an opportunity to focus on beauty. I love having the ability to create an image from an instant shot when I take the photo and the ability to use photo editing to create exactly what I have in my mind. I’ve had a lot of positive feedback on my photography from those around me, and this is something I continue to pursue because life is too short to feel like you have nothing that you can do. That kind of attitude will not take us far in life.

My final message to anyone reading this is that we are all different. It’s perfectly okay to be different and unique. You have abilities just like everyone else; how you use them is up to you. If you encounter any kind of discrimination, remember the problem is with the person who discriminates, not with you. There is a purpose for all of us in our lives. We just have to trust the higher power to remind us of that on a daily basis. Never give up on something just because other people say it’s too hard and discourage you. It’s not up to them whether or not you can do it, it’s up to you. I would like to thank you for letting me share my story, and I hope it inspires all of you to find your own dreams. My life is not finished yet; there is more to come in my story. Appreciate and embrace yours, and steer it so that you are moving toward the life you want.

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