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The Transition to Post-Secondary Education

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: Robin Mandell is a second-year student pursuing a degree in Women's Studies at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. She is a Floor Senior in residence, and is Co-chair of the NFB: AE's Publications Committee.

All students-regardless of their ability-find the transition to post-secondary school challenging. I was quite surprised when one of my sighted residents shared with me similar experiences and fears to the ones I had a year ago. I had thought I, a blind student from a segregated educational background, was unique, but I was not.

There are various aspects connected with the blind student's transition to a post-secondary environment. These are primarily of a social and/or academic nature. Having attended a school for the blind all of my previous school life, I experienced a great culture shock when I came to Queen's. Perhaps the biggest hurdle, was the inaccessibility of even the most basic information. Everything was in print! Posters on walls! Pamphlets on tables! I think you get the picture.

Much emphasis has been placed on access to academic material for blind post-secondary students. Certainly this is an issue. However, lack of access to information about social events is just as grave a barrier.

Why? Socialization is such an important aspect of going to university/college.It makes the difference between isolation and integration. Part of socialization for the first-year student involves going to both on- and off-campus events, mingling on the campus and in the greater community. For the blind student who has not yet made friends on campus, and who cannot read posters advertising social gatherings, the basic rules of socialization for the first year student can be somewhat complicated. I came to Queen's as a very shy young woman, away from home for the first time (three and a half hours drive away, to be exact), under-aged (so there goes the socialization at house parties and bars), and with few contacts (none of my friends were going to Queen's at the same time I was). Well, then, why am I here today? I slowly gathered a warm network of friends around me.

A strategy I advise all first-year students, blind or sighted, to try is to get involved in various clubs/committees on campus. Being very interested in feminism and social issues, I joined various women's committees. It was during the meetings and social events these committees had that I met people with whom I have common interests, and people who I will be in one or more classes with some time during the duration of my stint here. Clubs and committees draw together people who have similar desires, ideas, and interests, and often unite people through a common goal. This is a prime setting for companionship, support, and friendship.

On to academia. One big issue which always comes up when discussing blind students and post-secondary education is that of what kind of course load to take on. This is a purely personal choice. For my first year, I knew it would be important to take a reduced course load, but it was intensely important to me to be classified as a full-time student. Consequently, I took four courses during the year, and one (by correspondence) during the summer after first year to make up my full complement for first year. This year, I am taking five credits, and while the results remain to be seen, I have confidence that I can pull it off just fine. I have friends who have taken a full load all the way, and other friends who shy away from taking a full load. Again, it's a purely personal choice.

I will say two things in favour of considering a reduced load to start with. The first is that if a student is having difficulty obtaining alternative format materials, s/he should definitely reduce the course load. It is better for this student to do well in fewer courses, than to do poorly in all courses because of this lack of access to readable material. Second, in support of my endorsement of participating in extra- curricular activities, a lighter course load frees up some time and allows the student to take a little more time to learn time-management.

Realistically, the blind student does - even in the most ideal circumstances-need to take more time to access mat- erials than the average sighted student.

There are three keys to a successful transition to post-secondary schooling-support, flexibility, and communication. First, get and maintain a support system! While I have said that transition troubles are universal to all students, vision-impaired students have certain experiences unique unto themselves. As I said before, I knew no peers who were coming to Queen's at the same time I was. However, I had many very patient people to consult with, or seek support from at every turn. To this day I do not think these people realize how much I valued, needed, and benefitted from their support, and how much this support contributed to my success. It is important to attempt to seek out people who have traveled a similar road. In other words, it is important to find blind/vision impaired people who are willing and able to share their experiences and offer guidance.

Second, being flexible involves coming up with new solutions when the old methods do not work. Students must be able to maintain flexible attitudes towards all aspects of their schooling. Eg. One form of test taking might work fine for one student, but might be totally inconvenient and unsuitable to another.

Lastly, communication is key. Admittedly, it takes time to learn to communicate effectively with professors, other students, and others whom a vision-impaired/blind student may meet. When I first started university, I had to not only comm- unicate my needs effectively to others, but I had to figure out what my own needs were. This works again into the ap-proach of flex- ibility-of being willing to try.

It is absolutely essential for a student with any type of disability to establish early and consistent communication with their professors. The professors MUST KNOW AHEAD OF TIME what the student's needs are. The reality is that some professors are going to be more co-operative and empathetic than others. I have met with a great deal of success in this area.

My favourite story: Around Thanksgiving last year, I handed in an assignment which was to be critiqued, but not marked, by the professor. About a week later, I got an email from her outlining all of her comments about my assignment. I never asked her to email me marks and/or comments; the only thing I said to her at the beginning of the year was that email is a good form of communication for me. She took the initiative and reinterpreted this, and to be honest, the idea had never even crossed my mind!

So the bottom line, in communicating with professors is to put them at ease, explain one's needs as related to being a student as well as being a blind/vision-impaired student, and to let professors know that the lines of communication are open. Also, it's a good idea to meet your professors in person before the class starts.

Pursuing post-secondary education is an excellent growing, living, and learning opportunity. I often tell people that even if they do not know what they want to study, they should jump in anyway, and not be afraid to try. They may decide after a year of university that university learning does not appeal to them, or does not suit their needs, but they will have learned so many other things in so many other ways. And, yes, the process is made more frustrating for the vision-impaired/blind person, but the rewards, and the opportunities for establishing equality with others are many.


I do not know what to say after reading your story. It is very true. This is not a problem that is present only in Queen’s but for many others. We need to give them our every effort so that they won’t be neglected from any notices.

when or how to change gears and prioritize what’s more important unless specifically asked to stop what they're doing and work on what’s now on the top of the queue.cette page

ZZ - Disregard this link; it is used to trick spammers.