Future Reflections Winter 1993, Vol. 12 No. 1


by Curtis Chong

Reprinted from the October, 1992, Braille Monitor.

[PICTURE] Curtis Chong

From the Editor: Your high school ninth-grade son's IEP states that he will take the state's required writing competency test with a computer. It does not, however, address these questions: Whose responsibility is it to see that the computer is one that your son knows how to use? That it is set up and ready to use on the day of the test? Who decides if he will take it in the same testing room with the other kids, or in a separate room by himself and a proctor? The parents? The teacher of the visually impaired? The student? The principal?

     This is not, by the way, a hypothetical situation. This example is from our son's IEP for the 1992-93 school year. As my husband and I saw it, these arrangements were our son's responsibility. No, he did not physically place the computer in the room, but he--not I--arranged to be oriented to the computer he would use; he--not I--requested that he be allowed to take the test in the same room with his peers; and he--not I--reminded his teacher to transfer the computer to the testing room the day before the test.

     Taking on this task was neither frightening nor frustrating for our son. Beginning in the elementary grades, my husband and I have insisted that our son take on increasing responsibility for ordering his own reading books from the Library for the Blind; negotiating with his classroom teachers about adaptations he wanted for test-taking, using the overhead projector, working with  maps, etc; working out adaptations or alternatives with his P.E. teacher in gym class; and so forth. Today, I am largely unaware of the numerous adaptations and arrangements he makes in the classroom. For example, if he needs a book on tape or in Braille, he orders it. (Although I do learn when he fails to get an order in on time because that's when Mom, Dad, and even brother or sister are called upon to be readers until his book gets in.) He doesn't always choose the best alternative or use the techniques available to him either effectively or wisely, but with our guidance he is learning and becoming more independent every year.

     By the time he graduates from high school we expect him to be fully in charge of making all the decisions and arrangements regarding his adaptive needs as a blind student. Unfortunately, many blind high school students have not achieved this goal by the time they enter college.

     I get many calls from parents who ask me, "What colleges provide special services to blind students?" As I delve a little deeper into what the parents really mean, I invariably discover that the blind students in question have always had someone order their books for them, make all the decisions and adaptations for test-taking, and never had the experience of selecting and supervising a person to read for them. The parents now assume that they must find a college which will continue to provide all these services to their son or daughter. It has never occurred to the students or to the parents that the students could and should do these things for themselves.

     Curtis Chong, who is the vice president of the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota and president of the National Federation of the Blind in Computer Science, did think about these issues when he was a college student. He was prepared when he went to college to handle his own academic adaptation needs. However, he encountered a system which actively promoted dependency among blind students on campus. His experience with disabled student services offices is unfortunately not uncommon. In the Spring, 1992, issue of The Student Slate, the publication of the National Association of Blind students, he wrote of his experience and warned his readers of the pitfalls that can befall those who rely unquestioningly on the services of disabled students offices. Although his comments were directed to students, they have a message for parents, too. Here is what he has to say:

     Many years ago, when I first began attending the University of Hawaii, I came across a program called Kokua. Kokua is a Hawaiian word meaning "help." The espoused purpose of the Kokua program was to help handicapped students attending the University of Hawaii; and, since I was blind, I was eligible to receive the help offered by the program.

     Kokua maintained a staff of college students who served variously as readers, note takers, and guides. They were paid with rehabilitation funds. Kokua staff, for example, would perform the tedious and frustrating tasks involved in registration. Instead of having to stand in line for hours in a large and crowded gymnasium to register, blind students had merely to provide the helpful Kokua staff with the list of classes they wanted to take, and, presto! they were registered.

     Much of the time of the Kokua student staff was used recording college textbooks. The service was so efficient that blind students never had to find out during the previous semester what texts were going to be used for the current semester; Kokua had enough student readers available to tape books on demand.

     Most blind students at the University of Hawaii loved the Kokua program. It did everything for them. They didn't have to plan ahead to have books taped. They never had to hire their own readers. They didn't have to stand in long registration lines. When tests needed to be taken, everything was handled by Kokua. Blind students didn't even have to learn how to travel independently; there was always a guide available to take them from class to class.

     In short, blind students at the University of Hawaii became complacent, taking the services they received for granted. Perhaps even more tragic, many of them failed to recognize that their complacency was ruining their long-term prospects for a successful and productive future.

     Consider the hiring of readers. The students employed by the Kokua program were paid for with rehabilitation funds. In fact, by the time I began attending the University of Hawaii, blind students were expressly prohibited from using rehabilitation funds to pay for their own personal readers. They were required to use the services of the Kokua staff. Thus, they were deprived of the invaluable experience of seeking out, hiring, supervising, and occasionally firing personal readers.

     Many blind students never learned to be independent travelers, preferring instead to depend upon the helpful guides furnished to them by Kokua. Never venturing into unfamiliar territory on their own, they necessarily limited their prospects for future employment.

     Each and every blind student on the University of Hawaii campus was regarded as a non-entity by most of the professors on campus. When a question came up about how a blind student would take a test, professors would invariably consult with the Kokua office rather than with the blind student. In fact, the Kokua staff members, not blind students, were consulted concerning all problems on campus involving blindness.

     There were a few blind students on the University of Hawaii campus, including me, who recognized the existence of the problem and tried to deal with it. The system was, however, deeply entrenched, and our efforts were hampered by the fact that we were working in opposition to the basic desires of the many blind students who wanted to have things as easy as possible. Nevertheless, we did manage to achieve a small measure of success. We were able to establish a study area for blind students in one of the university's libraries, independent of the Kokua office. This allowed blind students to study on campus after Kokua staff locked up at 5:00 p.m. Additionally, we were able to prevail upon the state rehabilitation agency for the blind to permit rehabilitation funds to be used to pay for readers hired by individual blind students.

     Back when I first started going to college, programs like Kokua were in the minority. Today, just about every major college campus in the country has some form of office specifically designed for students with disabilities. Some are more positive than others.

     It is human nature to take the easy way out and to let such offices do everything: recruit and hire readers, guide students from class to class, determine how tests will be taken, and provide staff to accomplish the tedious activities of course registration. Now as never before, blind students cannot afford to be complacent. For if they rely upon disabled student offices to handle even the most rudimentary aspects of their education, they will be selling themselves short and denying their tremendous potential to achieve true equality with their sighted peers.

     If you are attending a college or university with an office for disabled students, ask yourself whether or not it is providing its services in a manner calculated to promote true independence. Is it encouraging students to gain invaluable expertise in the management of sighted readers? Are students expected to travel about campus independently? Are college professors encouraged to deal directly with the blind students in their classes instead of going to the office for disabled students? Are blind students expected to handle registration activities for themselves? If these questions cannot be answered in the affirmative, blind students must take immediate action to correct the situation.

     Blind students cannot afford to permit complacency and the natural desire to take the easy way out to bolster an environment which encourages dependence, laziness, and irresponsibility. In today's corporate world there are no special services available to blind employees. Although my employer, IDS Financial Services, chose to purchase some assistive technology for me once I proved I could do the job of systems programming, company officials would laugh at the suggestion that a staff of readers and guides be made available to a blind employee. I am expected to travel anywhere to obtain technical training, and I am expected to manage my own sighted readers. IDS is not unique in this regard.

     It is vitally important for college students to develop basic skills in independent travel, management of readers, and execution of their own college affairs; and it is critical that these skills be learned before or during college. Failure to develop these skills at the right time can and often does result in the loss of a paying job.