The Braille Monitor                                                                                               _July 1997

(next) (contents)

Heather Kirkwood

PHOTO/CAPTION: Heather Kirkwood

K.U. Grad Has News for Doubters

by Heather Kirkwood

Taken from the July-August, 1996, issue of The Freestate News, a publication of the NFB of Kansas.

Editor's note: Heather Kirkwood is a 1992 NFB Scholarship winner and a 1996 graduate of the University of Kansas in Lawrence. Here is her article about her decision to major in journalism and turn it into a lifelong career.

My senior year of high school I had two options for fourth period--driver's education and journalism. My guidance counselor and I laughed at the apparent absurdity of the situation.

Both classes seemed a waste of time for a legally blind student, but we decided on journalism because it wasn't likely to get me killed.

We were right. That was five years ago, and I'm still here, but as I walk down the hill Sunday to receive a bachelor of science in journalism, I won't be laughing.

In high school I lived in Germany and had the chance to witness many big stories firsthand. I had been in East Berlin only weeks before the Berlin Wall fell and in Tallinn, Estonia, weeks before residents declared their independence from the Soviet Union. On every trip I carried a notebook in my purse and took copious notes about everyone I met and everything they said.

But become a journalist? I didn't allow myself to entertain the thought because I didn't want to be disappointed. I decided I would use my interest in politics to make the news, not report it, and set out for college to major in political science. But my attitudes toward politics and blindness changed a lot during my freshman year. Expectations had been set by people who considered themselves progressive because they made allowances for me.

The summer before my freshman year in college I met a blind reporter who worked for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. A year later, as I rethought my career goals, I kept thinking about her. Journalism went from an absurd idea to a perfect solution. What other profession would allow me to be a part of current events, get to know lots of different kinds of people, study them, and learn how issues affected their lives? Best of all, I could ask lots of nosy questions and tell people it was my job.

I discussed my plans with my counselor at Vocational Rehabilitation Services for the Blind. While her initial response was encouraging, her boss was not enthusiastic. He thought I should think about whether my career plans were realistic. My family reacted the same way.

Luckily, I was not convinced. I was a reporter for my college's newspaper and had few problems.

The pressure was on, however, when I transferred to Kansas University and took my first reporting class.

I felt I had a lot to prove, but I kept up with my peers, and my confidence grew. That is, until I went to cover a city commission meeting.

I watched the meeting on television the week before and listened carefully to each member's voice. Then I drew a seating chart and assigned each member a number so I wouldn't have to write their names.

Amazed at how crafty and resourceful I thought I had been, I went to the meeting and discovered that Lawrence City Commission members never introduced themselves or recognized each other by name. I also discovered that the sound system distorted the voices and changed their direction.

That night tears streamed down my face as I attempted to attribute quotes by process of elimination. I would have to admit to my professor that blindness had interfered with my ability to get the story. I trudged up the hill, turned in my story, and confessed what had happened. My professor looked at me, shrugged his shoulders, and said, "You live in Lawrence right? Don't you have a right to know who is saying what at a meeting? Why didn't you just get up and ask them to identify themselves before talking?"

Sometimes the hardest problems have the simplest solutions.

Since then I have had two internships and have been a reporter for the University Daily Kansan. Like sighted reporters, I don't like to waste time traveling from point A to point B, so I make lots of phone calls. Many stories involve covering events or meetings that allow me a few hours to arrange transportation or get directions.

Now, as I begin looking for a job, I bristle at the idea that there is anything unusual about being a journalist and being blind. When editors ask questions such as how I will cover stories, I have to remind myself that five years ago I would have asked the same thing. Graduation may be a small victory for me, but the war is only just beginning.