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Self-Advocacy in the College Classroom

by Charlotte Czarnecki

Editor's Introduction: Charlotte Czarnecki is a former board member of the Michigan Association of Blind Students, and she also served as the President of the Kalamazoo Chapter of the NFB of Michigan. She recently graduated with a Masters degree in Rehabilitation Teaching and Counseling from Western Michigan University and now works as a rehabilitation counselor for Minnesota Services for the Blind in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In this article, she shares her strategy for coping with a professor in a new classroom, and how one can set the groundwork for a smooth semester.

Itís a Thursday in early January. Iím sitting in yet another new class, anxiously waiting for the professor to begin the class. Like all students, I wonder what the course will bring. Will there be big papers to write? How many tests will we have and how much studying am I going to have to do in order to pass? Most of all I wonder what the professor is like. Iíve never had him before and I donít know anyone who has taken one of his courses, so I havenít been able to get a report about him like I was able to do with my other professors.

Finally, the class begins. He seems nice enough. He is soft spoken, sounds somewhat tall, and judging by his background, he really knows what he is talking about in the area of psychopathology. He hands out print copies of the syllabus. This does not perplex me. I donít get upset when I get printed material like this. After all, I have a scanner and a computer and I can easily put this in to an accessible format. If that doesnít work, I have a reader that can help me sort it out. After the professor explains the class format, I breathe a sigh of relief. This class will be hard but at least I donít have to worry about a huge paper. Iíll be able to focus my time on the large amount of reading and studying we have to do to prepare for the tests. Iíve already tried my books out on my scanner and theyíll work fine. My reader will help me with any charts or tables and any other visual graphics I cannot see for myself. Iíll have no problem keeping up.

Then I get another handout. It looks as though the professor has prepared an outline for the class to follow as he is lecturing. The professor starts the main portion of his lecture by clicking the overhead projector on. I start wishing I had talked to the professor about the format of the lectures before class, but I say to myself, ďhey, how many times have you seen a class go like this. Rely on your good judgment and things will work out.Ē

Talking to a professor beforehand can be important but personally, that doesn't really matter to me. Iíve handled these situations so many times before it doesnít faze me. Thankfully, Iím fast using my slate and stylus and I should have nothing but minor difficulties in keeping up with the other students. I also have this outline to reinforce what I need to study later.

The professor begins reading from the overheads at a fast pace and turns the page before Iíve had an opportunity to finish half of the sentence. But, something the class does calms me. They turn the page of their outlines. I donít need to worry much. He has already given us the notes, and what I write will be up to my discretion. I already have the important stuff down. I prove my point to myself by asking a classmate if the overheads mirror the handout. She says they do. So, I sit back, relax and write little notes to myself that will help me learn the material on the outline later. During break the same classmate told me that she barely took any notes, and I was glad the professor was nice enough to provide the handouts.

Once the classroom clears out for the break, I go and introduce myself to the professor. Now, I could have done that way before the class started. Many people suggest that blind students should meet with their future professors before classes begin to work out the fine details of accommodations, but thatís not my style, and given the subject of the course, I didnít feel such an early introduction was necessary. Also, experience has taught me that even though you may outline your needs to a professor, she/he is probably too busy to remember once the class starts. It is still important for students to advocate for themselves and assert their needs once the course begins. So, the professor and I talk for a few minutes and everything was fine. I asked a few questions about how tests were going to be administered and about the general lecture format. We talk about my needs such as needing to know what he writes on the blackboard and how I will take the tests. In this case, I plan on bringing a reader and having the test administered orally.

Class starts again and things are going along smoothly. "Iím really going to like this course," I think to myself. Suddenly, the overhead projector clicked off and the professor starts writing something on the blackboard. He doesnít say what he is writing. (See, he forgot just a few minutes after I told him about my need.) He starts to talk, and I politely interrupt by saying, ďExcuse me, can you tell me what you have written on the board?Ē He apologizes for his error and does in fact read what he's written. It turned out that he wrote some very important information and I was glad I asserted myself. This information happened to be a special code that one writes when making a particular diagnosis and if I had not said anything, I would have missed it and probably would have failed the class. He makes the same error a couple of more times during the session and I keep asking nicely for the information. Finally, he gets it and starts verbalizing what he is writing. Once class ends, I thank him for making the effort to assist me and leave.

However, before I can make it through the door of the room, the classmate I spoke to about the handout comes up to me and offers to take notes for me. I thank her but say it won't be necessary. I do very well keeping up when the professor describes visual information.Ē She offers to tell me about anything the professor writes on the board in the future and I say thank you and that would be great. Of course, Iíll always be ready to ask the professor for clarification when I need it. I finally leave the class knowing that it will be a good semester.

Perhaps I could have taken the easy way out and allowed my classmate to take notes for me. But, what does an action like that tell this person about blindness? What would happen to me if she had made a mistake or copied that critical piece of information incorrectly? Who would be to blame if my notes are wrong? Only one person--me.

As blind students, we need to have the skills to keep track of information. Our future depends on it. Allowing others to do the dirty work for us only shows them that blind people are not capable of functioning normally in a competitive world. We as blind students need to take all of the possible steps to ensure that information in the classroom is accessible to us. We should insure that professors provide their materials in alternative formats or read what they are writing on the blackboard. Professors are extremely busy people and one extra item on their lists of things to do could accidentally be missed. I assure you that solving the problem will be less complicated because you will be in control of it. Use the tools that are available for you such as technology, readers and your ability to advocate for yourself, and you will have nothing but success.

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