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How Do You Think You Would Cope in a Post-Secondary Educational Institution If You Were Deaf and Blind?

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: Karen Coffey-Crouch is a Disabilities Counselor in the Centre for Students with Disabilities at Algonquin College in Ottawa, Ontario. This article is re- printed from the Algonquin Times, October, 2000.

As students, or former students, we have all faced the challenges presented to us by the courses we have taken - the chapters to be read, the essays to be written, the lectures to attend, the research to be completed. Now . . . imagine doing that without the ability to see the printed word or hear the spoken word.

Penny Leclair is a remarkable woman who is doing just that. Born without sight, and educated in the school for the deaf and blind in British Columbia, Penny now finds herself here at Algonquin, immersed in her chemistry class in the Career and College Preparation for Health Science program. After graduating from high school she completed a Business diploma at the British Columbia Institute of Technology. That was before she lost her sense of hearing. Along the way she married and had a son. When her son, who is now a grown man, was eight years old, she began to lose her ability to hear. Life was difficult then. For a long time she denied that she was losing her hearing. Being totally blind, hearing was vital. It was the way in which she received information. It was vital to her ability to communicate with others. A sense of isolation from the world set in. With the help of a therapist and the acquaintance of other deaf-blind individuals, she accepted her fate and got on with her life. She continued to raise her son and now said, "being a mom was the highlight of my life."

Penny prides herself on being an independent woman with a love of learning. Constantly striving for growth and inspiration, she found it in a most unlikely place. She found it, in the hands of a local massage therapist. After experiencing her first massage, she realized that THIS was something that she too could do.

Her research into the area of Massage Therapy eventually brought her here to Algonquin College and a meeting with me in the Centre for Students with Disabilities. We met several times over the course of a few months to ensure that all the appropriate services were put in place before she began her studies. We began with a meeting with the prospective chemistry professor. This gave Penny an opportunity to clarify questions she had about the course. At the same time, the professor had an opportunity to raise any questions or concerns she may have had. Penny completed all the standard entrance tests. Textbook materials were sent to W. Ross McDonald School, the agency in Brantford, Ontario responsible for alternative print material. Class handouts, notes and lab material were brailled. The interveners were hired and met with Penny in advance to ensure that effective communication between them was possible. In January, all services were in place and Penny began her studies with a tremendous sense of excitement.

Penny communicates through the use of braille, e-mail, her own voice and the use of two interveners. Since Penny began to lose her hearing as an adult, after she had already developed speech and language, she is able to speak for herself.However, she needs the assistance of the interveners to understand what she cannot hear. The interveners communicate with her through a form of sign language known as the British 2 Hand Method. Each area on the palm of her hand, represents a letter of the alphabet. Classroom lectures are spelled out on her palm. Together with the interveners, Penny has come up with a "short hand" way to sign frequently used words and phrases, such as, in her case, scientific terms - chemical compound, scientific notation, and chemistry formulas. When I approached Ann Croll, Penny's professor, a few weeks into the term to see how things were going in the classroom she said, "In class, Penny has been a wonderful surprise and an inspiration to both me and the students. She has shattered all of our misconceptions. The first time she asked a question, the students were astounded, not only to hear her voice, but mostly with the question itself. Penny had jumped way ahead of us, seeing implications in what we were learning. My standard answer to most of Penny's questions is that she needs to wait another week or so. We're going there!" Ann continued by saying that the students had, "quickly adjusted to the "Penny Gang," the two interveners and Kilo, her sweet black lab. The biggest challenge facing most of us is to leave Kilo alone, not pet her, and, in my case, not step on her! Kilo has the habit of snoring loudly through my lectures, much to the amusement of the other students.

When the class shares a laugh, Penny's laughter will follow about 20 seconds later, a lovely little echo reminding us of her sense of humour and the excellent work of the interveners."

Penny is Algonquin College's first student who is deaf and blind. How lucky we are to have such a phenomenal woman to pave the way for others and at the same time, educate the educators, alleviating our fears and misperceptions, and showing us, that working together, we have the ability to accomplish amazing things!

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