Future Reflections  Fall 2006

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You’re Not in Kansas Anymore, Dorothy

by Christine Brown

Reprinted from the June 2003, issue of the Braille Monitor, the monthly magazine of the National Federation of the Blind.

Christine BrownEditor’s Note: This presentation was initially given to the mid-winter conference conducted by the National Association of Blind Students (NABS) held in Washington, D.C., on February 1, 2003. In other words, a roomful of young blind college students--not parents. However, it is exactly the kind of speech that I think every parent of a blind college-bound student should eavesdrop in on--and the earlier the better. Here is what Ms. Brown has to say about what it takes for a blind student to really succeed in college:

Are you inspired today? I am. I’m inspired by the members of the National Federation of the Blind.

I am a coordinator of services for blind students in the Disabled Student Services office at the University of Michigan. Now, before you boo and hiss and throw tomatoes at the stage, let me tell you that I believe in blind people. I am a graduate of the NFB orientation and mobility master’s program at Louisiana Tech and a proud member of the National Federation of the Blind. The National Federation of the Blind has taught me that my role is to empower blind students, spur them on to reaching their fullest potential, and help equip them with skills to go on to become gainfully employed in their field of choice.

I have been asked to speak to you this morning about the role of a disabled student services office in the life of blind students and what I perceive to be the students’ rights and responsibilities that go along with these services.

Let me start by telling you a true story. I encountered a blind freshman recently who would tell you that she had had the best services available in high school. In her mind she was fully prepared for college. If she needed Braille books, they were ordered by someone for her. If she had an exam, she would show up for the test and a crisp Braille copy would be waiting for her on her desk. If she needed to get to class or an appointment on campus, a staff member was always ready to extend an arm to take her there.

She graduated with a 3.8 grade point average and had a very high level of confidence that she would succeed in college--why wouldn’t she think that? She had succeeded very well to this point and had had great services, right? To respond to this question in the youthful vernacular, let me just say, “Not!” The student’s name could have been Dorothy, and I want to say, “Dorothy, let me just tell you that you’re not in Kansas anymore.”

This student started the enrollment process at the university, and it was time for her first placement exam. She walked up to the front of the room and said, “Hi, I’m here to take my exam in Braille.” Well, no dialogue with the professor had taken place beforehand, and the professor had no idea what the student was talking about. You can imagine that the situation just got more complicated from there.

I would assert that this student did not get great services in high school because no one prepared her for the next step. No one gave her tools in her toolbox to succeed; they just took care of everything for her. My friends, this concept is called custodialism, and it is a dangerous adversary. It can be subtle and disguised by the best of intentions on the part of the staff. It can reside under a sugar coating of desire to protect the student and be decorated with some sprinkles on top that minimize the student’s ability to be a competent and competitive individual.

This student’s high school staff had the responsibility to teach her to stand on her own two feet. They should have taught her to advocate for herself, to travel independently and without assistance, to register for classes on her own, to take notes in class, to communicate the best medium for taking exams with faculty, to use a slate and stylus and adaptive technology equipment, to be held to exactly the same standards as her sighted peers, and to succeed in life on her own.

I tell you this story because I believe that DSS offices have the same responsibility at the college level. Sadly, this is not the only student I’ve encountered who has been in this boat, and it is a cold and rude awakening for these students. An old saying about parenting goes, “If you let them make little decisions when they are little, they’ll be able to make big decisions when they are big.” The same is true for you in leaping out of the nest and learning to fly on your own as a successful college student. You might be thinking to yourself, “I know I’ll be able to do it myself when the time comes, but I’m going to take advantage of all these great services.” I guarantee that you could read every book ever published on how to swim, but until you jump into the cold water, you won’t really know if you can do it.

What does this mean for you? I encourage you to avoid viewing the DSS office in extreme terms. On one side of the coin you should not view it as your enemy to be avoided like the plague, and on the other side of the coin you should not view it as your caregiver or the entity that will take care of everything for you. Let’s talk about your rights and responsibilities as a college student.

Your rights are clearly defined under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). I like what Peggy Pinder Elliott has to say about the ADA. She says, “Whenever a blind person is tempted to say the words ‘Americans with Disabilities Act,’ that blind person should pause, take a deep breath, do a little mind-emptying exercise, and then focus on the real question, which is ‘How am I myself--this very person and no one else--going to get this job done?’ Any temptation to duck, wangle, or permit others to do our coping for us should be firmly resisted.”

You have the right to receive materials in an alternative format and the right to reasonable accommodations in your classes. Materials in alternative format could include Braille, scanned materials, or books on tape; and reasonable accommodations could include using a laptop to enter exam answers or extended time on exams if you are using a live reader for an essay exam.

Your responsibilities are to go talk to your professors, on your own, before the term begins; to establish a rapport; and to answer any questions they may have. You have an opportunity to educate your professors about what it will be like to have a successful and independent blind student in his or her class.

You should ensure that you have the tools you need to succeed, such as technology, books, note-taking capability, and the ability to use the Internet as a powerful tool and conduct research using online resources. You will notice the operative word here is “you.”

I have another saying (I have a lot of sayings): “Be a forest ranger, not a firefighter.” What does this mean? It means be alert, know what is ahead instead of putting out a huge blaze. I highly recommend that you make it a practice to forecast what you will need to succeed and make sure that everything is in place.

If you are not sure what you need because you are new, then learn to network. Partner with other students in the division who are successful and find out what they did. Networking means maximizing resources and knowing how and where to get information. I have another saying, “If you’re not networking, you’re not working!” You are welcome to partner with your DSS coordinator, but remember two things: 1) this person is earning a salary on your behalf, and it is you who decide what course of action to take; and 2) you have no better resource than a successful blind student. I’m going to repeat this one: “You have no better resource than a successful blind student.” Partnering with your DSS coordinator becomes sticky territory because only a handful of people in positions like mine hold the belief that it is respectable to be blind and know the truth about blindness. Then there is the majority--those sugar-coated, well-intentioned people who want to make all your worries go away.

If you have one of these sugar-coated people in your DSS office, I encourage you to use the services judiciously and set some expectations--for example, that it will be you who arrange your test-taking, you who will talk to your professors, and you who will get a job when all is said and done. It is tempting to take the easy path, but I guarantee you it isn’t smart. In fact, I was joking with a friend at national convention in Kentucky who took my arm to go through the convention hall instead of using her cane. She joked, “This is easy; I could get used to this.” Both she and I knew that she had excellent cane travel skills and could have navigated her way through the room without a problem, but pragmatically it made sense at that moment for her to use an alternate tool.

This is the key to your success: have a multitude of tools available and know your options. The greatest definition of freedom is choice. If you don’t have choices and options, you’ve just lost your freedom.

Also set your expectations high. I encourage you to take a hard look at yourself and work on areas that need improvement. When I came to Michigan, I had a few students who were always late to appointments with me. They didn’t say anything or give me a reason when they were late; they just showed up late. Apparently this had been an acceptable standard before I came, and no one challenged the issue. I had to sit down with them and establish a new expectation. Some people may say, “Oh, the poor blind student, he just can’t make it on time--I’m going to let it slide.” I say, just say no to this kind of thinking. I expect exactly the same of you as I would from your sighted peers because I view you as equal to them. You will be judged equally if you behave at their standard or above.

I would like you to think for a moment about your future. When you get a job and your new boss says, “Please find out all you can about global warming, write a report, and take it to Bob Smith at 905 Washington Street by 10 a.m.,” will you be up to the task?
I encourage you to think in terms of long-range planning. Can you be sure that you will be able to take the next step?

I close by again quoting Peggy Pinder Elliott, who has written some great articles on dealing with DSS offices. If you haven’t read her articles online, you should. She says:

When a DSS office does it for us, it translates into failure to learn coping skills. So say it nicely, say it with kindness, say it with firmness, but say it! “I’ll do it myself.” And make it stick. Make it stick with the DSS office, and make it stick with yourself. When you do, we’re all winners. We win when we discover self-reliance, when we build our own dignity, when we learn to handle tasks for ourselves without even thinking much about it. In other words, we win when we find out who we are and reject the trappings of custodialism, however they are dressed up and disguised. In a very real, very practical sense that is exactly what Dr. Jernigan meant when he said: “We know who we are, and we will never go back.”

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