By Dan Burke
Editor's Introduction: This article appeared in the December 2001 issue of The Braille Monitor. Dan Burke is a former vocational rehabilitation counselor and a disability services coordinator at the University of Montana. He knows firsthand the problems inherent in universities that make print access a challenge to blind students. Here, he shares some words of wisdom and provides some sound advice to students.
I am passionate about access to print, about getting what I want from the vast
store of published instructional, cultural, and entertainment material. Today
the tools available to us are more powerful than at any time in history. More
than ever before, blind readers can read what we need or want, independently
and in a timely way. For college and in our later professional lives this affords
exciting opportunities to those ready to take advantage of them. But this is
not a time to be passive.
Rather there has never been a time for being passive. Many of the technological
advances that benefit blind people bear the stamp of the National Federation
of the Blind. Either they were ideas the NFB decided to support in the research
stage, ideas we asked someone to develop, or innovations of friends of the NFB;
and not surprisingly, blind engineers, programmers, and others have done the
When I was about to enter college in the previous millennium, I was neither
aware of the NFB nor interested in being blind. In my final semester of high
school, a teacher who worked with blind kids came out of nowhere and told me
that I couldn't read to myself as fast as most people could read out loud and
that most people could read to themselves quite a bit faster than they could
News flash: If I didn't try something different, I would not be able to keep up with the college reading requirements! In college reading turned out to be a lot more important than it had been in high school-not just because far more is assigned in college, but because the reading is much more demanding. By contrast, in high school I was able to slide by without reading much of anything, drawing on the strength of my earlier years before print became almost unmanageable.
How about you? Can you keep up as a blind student without access to print or
in spite of low vision? Are you as I was at seventeen, able to read but unable
to get far enough fast enough, or just not getting enough out of the text despite
a lot of reading time? Do you find yourself feeling physically exhausted by
the sheer effort of reading-even with a CCTV? Do you employ my most typical
strategy: if I couldn't get the book on tape, I blew off the reading and made
sure I went to class every day, hoping to make it through on the strength of
the lecture notes I took? How will you manage reading tests?
Here are some startling facts that students who talk to me have heard over
and over again: average college students read at 200 to 300 words per minute-and
they understand what they read. The average speaking rate, the speed at which
most people read out loud, is between 100 and 120 words per minute. Compare
your reading speed with this: Can you read at least as fast as the normal speaking
rate? Can you do it with comprehension?
What does this mean? It means that if you can read no faster than the average
speaking rate, reading assignments will take you twice as long as most of your
classmates need. If you can't read even as fast as the normal speaking rate,
you are simply not competitive. If you need to reread the material or test questions
because the sheer effort of reading, even with magnification, makes comprehension
difficult the first time, you are that much further behind your classmates.
Scared? Good, you should be.
When I was a freshman in college, I started using recorded texts from Recording
for the Blind (now Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic). Not all the books
I needed were available; not always were the correct editions completed in time.
Not always were the recorded texts worth the bother because of interminable
and useless descriptions of graphs or illustrations or because the professor
jumped around in the book, and trying to find the beginning of the right chapters
on 4-track cassettes was laborious and time-consuming. (Actually, when I first
started college, not long after the end of the Vietnam War, RFB was still issuing
recordings on 4-track, reel-to-reel tapes. Now they are rapidly converting to
the Daisy CD-ROM format.)
Don't misunderstand me-books on tape made a huge difference in my academic
confidence and my grades. My point here is that RFB and D did not create a seamless,
foolproof solution for me. They can't. In fact, nobody can. In any given year
only about one in ten newly published books finds its way into recorded formats.
So, even if RFB and D recorded several thousand titles each year, you won't
be able to find everything you need or want.
Before I left for college, my vocational rehabilitation counselor for the blind
decided that I didn't need help buying books since I could get free ones on
tape. He told me to ask for volunteers to read any books I couldn't get from
RFB. In other words he instructed me to do the tin-cup routine. I asked for
volunteer readers for some of the material I couldn't get, but I have to be
honest: I felt ashamed doing it, and before long I dropped the effort. So for
most of the courses in which I couldn't get the books, I either dropped the
course or bluffed my way through without the benefit of doing the reading.
Sound familiar to some of you? As a DSS coordinator I often encounter students
who have vision so impaired that they can't get a driver's license but who are
not using any alternative reading strategies. They are always behind. They feel
frustrated with school and with themselves because they aren't as successful
as they would like to be. They think they should or could be doing better. They
feel ashamed of themselves. And the truth is that they probably could be doing
Yet they have been equally embarrassed about employing more effective methods of reading. Often these students are already eligible for RFB and D. Maybe they tried it and were frustrated. Maybe they get the books they can on tape and struggle or fake their way through the rest of the reading. You know who you are. Ask yourself now: Doesn't it make sense to use any legitimate means you can to be as successful in school and later in your career as your natural talents allow?
What about all of you who have found yourselves in the second, third, or fourth
week of classes, still trying to get your textbooks in an accessible format?
Don't you deserve an equal chance to succeed? Here are your choices for accessing print. And, man, choices are everything in life!
Braille is an essential tool. It is the best medium for reading and writing-especially
for taking notes on a Braille Notetaker. How much you can see is irrelevant.
Note taking is an essential part of learning since it requires immediate comprehension
and synthesis of information and is a multi-sensory function-the best kind of
learning mode. Taking one's own notes is critical to success. Even so students
may be tempted to use a tape recorder for lectures or rely on a note-taker in
class because they don't know Braille well enough to keep up. Tape-recording
lectures necessitates transcribing notes later, using a computer for example.
This in turn requires listening to the lecture another time, which on the face
of it seems like an advantage. But, since the temptation is to pause the tape
while typing, taking notes this way can take up to twice as long as the original
class period. This quickly becomes unwieldy in time management, and students
using this practice can seldom take a full course load, stretching their college
career and expenses to an unnecessary length.
Imagine telling your future employer or clients that you will need to type
up your meeting notes before you can respond to a question or take any action.
What are the chances either will want to pay for this inefficient use of their
time? Getting notes from someone else in class presents the difficulty of converting
them to a format you can use or reading them on a CCTV. Even if you can read
someone else's handwriting and understand the shorthand, you have created an
indirect, delayed means of learning. And again, how willing will co-workers
or clients be to take your notes for you? And how will you be able to respond
in a timely fashion if you must wait to render someone else's notes readable?
In short, why use ineffective, inefficient means when you can learn to take
notes for yourself?
Laptops are better but present the difficulty of keeping your battery charged
or locating a nearby outlet. Conservatively a Braille notetaker's battery can
function ten times longer than any laptop's. In addition, any electronic file
can be converted to Braille on a Braille display or read by the voice function
in your notetaker. This can be done in one or a few steps, and text files can
be translated into Braille internally for editing. Learn it and use it. Even
if your Braille-reading speed isn't great at the outset, it will improve with
Readers are the next most important tool for managing print access efficiently.
Books on tape can fill a lot of your access needs, but not all, so learning
to manage print with a reader is a critical tool for many types of material.
(I suggest reading Peggy Elliott's article "On the Care and Feeding of
Readers" in the May, 1993, issue of the Braille Monitor. It is excellent,
so there's no reason to plow that ground again.)
Recorded books from existing libraries for blind users are a big help. Recording
for the Blind and Dyslexic has been around for more than half a century, focusing
exclusively on textbooks, mostly for college course work. It has a huge library
and constantly records new titles or editions of existing titles using its network
of recording studios' volunteer readers. RFB and D is currently converting many
titles to digital formats and recording new titles digitally too. The National
Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) serves a more
general reading audience, much like a public library. But it contains books
on tape or in Braille that find their way into college reading lists as well-particularly
in literature, history, and the arts. It is often helpful to check both sources
Sighted students often highlight important passages in their books, and a few
take notes on the reading. Taking notes from recorded texts is a good idea,
but here is where you will encounter the chief disadvantage of recorded books-you
can't always get the true structure of a sentence or paragraph from a recording
if you need to copy a quote. Not all books are on tape either, and not all subject
matter renders well in a recorded format. Still recorded texts are far too important
a source to ignore.
Graphics printers are increasingly effective for rendering maps, math, and
complicated diagrams and graphs. If you have access to such technology or materials,
your competitive equality is literally at your fingertips.
Screen-reading software for computer use is also critical. Nowhere in your
community will you be able to find a business that doesn't now employ a personal
computer, and you can't get through college without using one if you want to
be competitive. Our university, for example, is considering a computer-proficiency
standard for entry into upper-division course work. That's how important personal
computers and information management have become to intellectual and commercial
communications. Turn it to your advantage.
Screen readers are software components that function within your operating
environment and render much of what appears on the screen into synthesized speech
using your sound card or into Braille on a Braille display. Some Braille notetakers
can do double duty as both stand-alone notetaker and Braille-output device for
a screen reader. Screen readers give you all the capabilities of writing, reading,
and editing documents and e-mail using standard office software bundles. They
make spreadsheets, databases, and Web browsers accessible. As operating environments
have evolved, so have screen readers. Thus they are the most versatile tool
for use with personal computers.
Along with your screen reader, seriously consider a scan-and-read package that
will convert print to readable electronic text, making your access to those
materials a more independent function. This makes it possible to get timely
access to hard-to-obtain materials, such as library books, class handouts, etc.
If you like, you can scan much of your assigned class reading, though this may
be difficult with some texts. Still scan-and-read packages give you tremendous
flexibility and independence.
The Web is not the tool of the future; it is the tool for today. The Web is
a powerful resource for access to information. With your screen reader almost
anything on the Web, including electronic library databases and electronically
stored library files, can be your independent domain. The Web has many powerful
global search engines, and both RFB and D and NLS have excellent search engines
for their catalogs of books on tape and Braille. In addition to the many resources
of text files on the Web, you can also obtain formatted electronic
Braille files, which can be read with a Braille display or in a Braille notetaker.
These files are available from the National Library Service for the Blind and
from some independent sources as well. Also a new service is under development
that will allow members to share files they've scanned into text or in electronic
Braille files. (See the article by Peter Scialli in the November,
2001, issue of the Braille Monitor.)
If the school you attend has document-conversion capabilities, you can have
much of what you need converted into usable files. This includes materials you
need for research projects.
For math and science courses such as chemistry and physics there are an increasing
number of audible graphing calculators. Some are portable, hand-held models,
and there is at least one software-based calculator as well.
The Role of Vocational Rehabilitation: Your VR counselor for the blind can
potentially pay for any or all of these services or equipment. RFB and D, for
example, requires a membership fee. VR can pay for these fees, as well as purchase
the screen readers, Braille notetakers, and more, which are necessary for your
educational and professional use-not to mention covering tuition and books.
The NFB has long advocated reliance on your VR plan to pay for equipment and
readers, while recommending minimal reliance on disability services offices
at colleges and universities. We have a couple of good reasons for this advice.
First, logically your VR counselor for the blind knows a lot more about blindness
than most DSS professionals, who work in the broader area of disability. Disability
services professionals are often unsure what to do with blind students, and
this uncertainty is too often fed by the stereotypes and negative assumptions
about blindness that the NFB works tirelessly to change.
Second, while there are a handful of excellent programs serving blind college
students, too many crave dependence from blind students, and others are absurdly
restrictive about the use of their services. For example, a student told me
recently that his former college provided readers but only at the DSS office
during standard working hours-from eight to five. Another university legend
is of a school that prohibits its readers from rereading any portion of the
students' text-so you better get it all the first time through!
The result of these practices is to leave the blind student with hand outstretched
in order to get what he or she needs from the DSS office-in effect a supplicant
or victim. That's not what the NFB advocates, nor is it what the authors of
the Americans with Disabilities Act had in mind. Neither is it a good preparation
for the real world of successful professional advancement. On the contrary it's
a ticket to well-educated unemployment, and it should then not be any surprise
that the ADA has had almost no impact on unemployment rates among people with
disabilities in general. It's not a bad law, but it is too often bent to fit
some model of disability not grounded in the principles of equality, competence,
and independence. The ADA and the civil rights it promises strongly imply the
necessity of taking an active role in achieving equal access. For blind people
there is simply no other effective or respectable way.
The NFB, on the other hand, boasts hundreds of highly successful professionals-lawyers,
doctors, scientists, and more. Their success derives from taking their educations
and careers into their own hands-not by holding them out in supplication.
Working successfully with your VR counselor will be easier if you know where
you want to go and what it will take to get you there. VR law requires that
counselors use "comparable benefits" wherever possible. This means
that your counselor will want to consider services from your college's DSS office
as things someone else can pay for, and therefore something he or she won't
want to pay for. But VR law also contains provisions for "client choice,"
and you should feel free to insist on the means that give you the most control,
independence, and flexibility.
Don't hesitate to remind your counselor that these are the skills and characteristics that will serve you best when it comes time to go to work-which is the whole point of VR. Remember also that you have the right to disagree with your counselor and appeal any decision not in your best interest. Call the National Center for the Blind or your state affiliate President if you need ideas or information. Your state's Client Assistance Program will also assist you if you ask it. Keep in mind, though, that you may need to teach the truth about blindness to the CAP representative assigned to advocate for you. In any case, if you want to understand more about CAP and your rights, ask your counselor for the Client Assistance phone number. (Sometimes asking that question alone brings a certain amount of enlightenment.)
Here are the three cardinal rules for success in college:
* Maximize your independent learning.
Always remember that you are preparing for a career, in which you will be expected to work independently in order to be a success. This doesn't mean that you shouldn't employ readers, for example; it simply means that you have to be in charge.
* Plan ahead.
You have to be organized well in advance. Don't expect others to organize everything for you at the last minute in the heat of the rush. This isn't a magic show, you know. Your goal should be either to have all your textbooks in an alternate format or to have your readers hired and scheduled by the first day of class.
* Be eclectic
You will undoubtedly need to employ a collection of effective strategies because no single one or two will work in every situation, for every textbook, or in every class. In other words, don't put all your eggs in one unstable basket. Be flexible.
Here is some advice I give students at my institution. With some adjustments for your own preferences and situation, it might prove helpful:
After pre-registration, go to the bookstore and write down the titles, authors,
editions, and ISBN numbers of all your books that have been ordered thus far.
Faculty don't always order early, but enough do to get a head start.
For those texts, which haven't been ordered, try contacting the professor or
department to see if they have already selected the books, and gather the same
information on those texts as well. This information is what you will use to
search for the texts in a recorded format. You can do this on the Web (remember,
it's a good idea to check both RFB and D's database and the NLS databases),
or call RFB and D's toll-free number. If you find the titles, you can order
them using the appropriate shelf numbers by calling or e-mailing RFB and D.
Do this right away. Titles in the NLS collection are ordered through the regional
network library in your state. You can order the books, which are already available,
and you'll have them in time for the first day of class.
Now the easy part is done. For the books that aren't available, you now have
to make some decisions. RFB and D can record them for you if you buy two copies
and send them to Princeton, New Jersey. They will reimburse you for one and
return the second when recording is complete, but you won't have the book until
they're done. So ask how long recording will take-you want to make sure it will
be ready in time for the semester. It will be sent out in installments as each
cassette is completed, so you need to know the projected completion date to
determine if you have the time to wait for your copy of the print book to be
returned. I wouldn't go this route myself unless I had at least a year's lead
time, and the book couldn't be scanned easily. In other words, it's rarely a
workable solution in the time crunches in which we usually find ourselves.
Next, there is the option of e-textyou can look for some things such
as literature and history on the Web. Many Web-based repositories contain only
titles for which all copyright claims have expired, so you may not find many
recent titles or editions. Your professor may or may not recommend their use,
so it's a good idea to double-check to ensure that you have found a suitable
edition or translation. Some of the many Web resources of electronic text include
the Online Books Page, the Gutenberg Project, and the International Electronic
Braille Library. A new Web-based exchange, bookshare.org, may prove useful as
well. Bookshare.org permits members to share books they have scanned for their
own use, allowing us to share the benefit of the work we put into making print
accessible for ourselves.
Some colleges, like the one where I work, convert documents into e-text, so
that is what I tell students their next choice should be. They must buy the
book and bring it to us at DSS. If they can get a syllabus this early, we will
produce the e-text by following the assignments in the order that they will
be read for the class. But if we get the book early enough to have time to prepare
it, the syllabus may not be available. But that's OKwith enough of a head
start we may be able to do the entire book before classes begin.
E-text, as you may have guessed, must be read with a computer equipped with
a screen reader, scan-and-read software, a Braille Notetaker, or a nifty little
device known as the Road Runner.
Planning in the case of a system like ours is even more critical. If you bring
your books in at the start of the term, you will be in the production queue
with all the other Last-Minute Charlies, getting your e-text files every week
or two, just in time to get them read for your classes. And since there is always
a delay in getting production rolling, you will begin by being behind by a week
or two. Of course, if you have your own scan-and-read package, you can take
care of the scanning yourself as the term progresses. Again, if you're scanning
your own books, the syllabus is helpful to ensure that you put your time into
the work you will be required to read so that you can have it done at the right
time. This may give you more flexibility-not to mention independence.
In our production-oriented environment at Montana, it just isn't practical
to convert some books into e-text because they have too many formulas, equations,
illustrations, or other problems, such as color shading on pages. These things
do not permit clean scans, or they make editing of converted documents too time-consuming.
In these cases it may be necessary to use readers, ideally sitting with you
while they read. (Again see Peggy Elliott's excellent article in the May, 1993,
issue of the Braille Monitor.) Taping is also an option for your reader,
but you can't ever go back and ask a tape to repeat a mispronounced word or
to spell it for you. Sometimes, though, having someone tape a book may be necessary
for a variety of reasons.
Math, on the contrary, is almost useless on tape. Sitting with a reader allows
the student to ask for clarification, rereading portions as necessary. Of course,
using Braille or Nemeth code for math rather than a reader is a better approach.
This is a good place to look at talking calculators and tactile graphs-all of
which make learning more immediate than simply having a reader try to describe
what's on the page.
Since we don't live in a perfect world, you will find that some professors
order their books quite late. In fact, they don't even pick the books till close
to the start of the semester. And some books, though ordered in plenty of time,
aren't in the bookstore until just before the semester starts, and you can't
begin scanning in advance. In this caseand it will happensimilar
steps should be followed, in an accelerated fashion. As soon as you can get
the titles, check to see if RFB and D has them, and order what you can. It probably
won't be useful to have RFB and D record them now-you'll never get the tapes
in time. So students at the University of Montana bring unavailable books to
DSS to see about e-text. In such cases the syllabus is critically important
since we are obviously busiest at the start of each semester.
If using a reader is the best way to go, get one lined up as quickly as possible-maybe work something out in advance with your readers from the previous semester. This is an area in which having your VR counselor pay for readers is helpful because it gives you the flexibility to make all the necessary arrangements before the start of classes-something no DSS office can promise in every case or for every term.
All this seems like a lot of work, and frankly it is. But you have every right
to give yourself the best opportunity to be successful. That takes some planning,
some skill, and some determination, but it saves you the sweat of playing catch-up
all the time. That's what the NFB advocates, and in essence that's what civil
rights mean. In the final analysis, taking access-to-print seriously is an essential
part of being a successful student and professional. It means being passionate!
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