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Moving The Brick Walls

Editor's Note: The following article is reprinted from "The Minnesota Bulletin," the official publication of the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota. Joyce Scanlan has been a leader in the federation for many years. Her experiences as a blind university student learning what blindness really means are repeated every day throughout Canada and the United States. Although there are many more services for blind students today, the underlying philosophical questions about taking responsibility and participating fully in academic life must still be answered by every blind and visually impaired student.

When I graduated from the North Dakota School for the Blind and made plans to begin as a freshman at the university, I had every expectation that I would conquer any obstacle placed in my path. In other words, although I may have appeared a bit shy on the surface, there was within me a firm conviction that I could stand up to any barrier thrown my way. Yes, I was presumptuous, a bit brash, naive, hopeful--all of these and then some. I also may have appeared somewhat smug and self-satisfied. Yet, as a young blind person coming out of a very protected environment preparing to move into the big wide world, I was probably better off with all this superficial conviction.

In college there were obstacles aplenty on a daily basis. There were no other blind students on campus; I was alone. There was no OSD, Office for Students with Disabilities. It was up to me. If my six professors that first semester were going to understand my needs as a student who was blind, I would be the one to teach them. It was very difficult at first, and if anyone had presented me with an alternative to college that first week, I would gladly have accepted it and abandoned college forever. Since no one made such an offer, I hung in.

My courses were freshman English, American history, French, chemistry, fundamentals of speech, and physical education. I knew I could master all of these except two, physical education and chemistry. I turned out to be wrong on phys. ed. But I met a major barrier when I showed up for my first chemistry lab.

Thirty-six freshmen entered the chemistry lab. The lab instructor wore a white lab coat and seemed to me to be very officious. Her name was Mrs. Kazeck. She issued orders to all of us to take the checklists she handed out and go to our assigned lab stations and inventory all the equipment there to be sure we had everything on the list. My drawer was full of stuff. I recognised only one item--the crucible. Everything else was just stuff. It seemed to me that my fellow students in the class were in control of the situation. They knew everything. When I approached Mrs. Kazeck with my problem, she went ballistic. "What do you mean you don't know what these things are? Are you blind or something?" In that instance, my blindness wasn't the relevant issue; I had simply never before encountered these items. We had never had a science lab in our high school. Mrs. Kazeck was in orbit. "You can't be in this chemistry lab. That is just too much responsibility for me or anyone else. We don't want any accidents in here. You'll have to leave." There it was. This was a case I wasn't prepared to argue.

I was, of course, very upset. My response was to leave as directed. Then I went off and wept privately. There were alternatives to taking chemistry, and within half a day, I was transferred into a geography class where we learned about the weather and drew maps, etc. in the lab.

Everything went well with phys. ed. the first year. In fact, although I wasn't the most athletic student, I learned many new activities--figure skating, playing golf and field hockey, modern dance, and body mechanics. Certainly I wasn't the first chosen for the field hockey team, and several of my fellow students and I spent an inordinate amount of time searching for our "lost" golf balls. Nevertheless, I survived the first year with better-than-I-ever-expected grades.

The sophomore year of phys. ed., which was required in my program, was a different story. All women students took swimming. I was not interested in swimming at all. I believed I could do just about anything I wanted to do. "Wanted to do" was the key point. Swimming didn't interest me. I also understood attitudes toward blindness. I approached the dean of my college, who had always been friendly and helpful, and without saying anything about blindness, I said that I would like to petition out of swimming, because I really had other academic interests. The dean immediately agreed and suggested that I bring my petition to his office, rather than to the phys. ed. department. He said that the department would try to offer some "adaptive" phys. ed., and I would find myself out of swimming but in a different class of phys. ed. What a great dean. Without mentioning the word, I had used my blindness to escape doing something I did not want to do. I had removed swimming from my curriculum that sophomore year. Too bad the matter didn't end there, but it didn't. Today I still cannot swim. Putting aside all other very obvious excuses, I had used blindness to avoid learning to swim, and now, many years later, I must face the issue whenever the subject of swimming comes up. And it comes up more often than I would like.

After many years of participation in the National Federation of the Blind, I can be honest with myself and others about these two situations, the chemistry class and petitioning out of swimming. At the time these events occurred, I was alone; there was no one to question my motives or reasoning; there was no one against whom I could measure myself, except the other students, and of course I was different. There was also no one who would openly question or judge what I did.

I am embarrassed to tell of these college experiences; however, they can be helpful to serve as lessons to others. Life may be somewhat different for college students these days, but the barriers are still there.

I recently received a telephone call from a teacher who asked for help in coming up with arguments to support her belief that high school students who were blind should not be required to take geometry. A student had been exempt from taking geometry in high school and now was being asked by the college to meet this requirement before acceptance into that college was granted. The teacher wanted to help. The college was standing firm. Should I help the teacher formulate excuses for the student not taking geometry? It wouldn't be too difficult. Many blind students are excused from many math courses along the way. Transcribing geometry and other math texts into Braille is not always easy. Quite frankly, I wasn't even tempted to go along with using blindness as an excuse. We have many services available to provide math textbooks in Braille, and I knew that student had strong skills in reading and writing Braille. There are community college geometry courses available to assist high school graduates in making up for lost high school credits. Also, I knew of many blind students who had taken the geometry class and passed with flying colours. No, I knew of no reason to excuse a blind student from meeting the geometry requirement for college admission. The teacher admitted that perhaps it had not been necessary to excuse the student from geometry in high school.

The telephone conversation brought back old memories of my swimming exemption in college. Our attitudes toward blindness and our expectations for what we as blind people can do have changed greatly over the years. We also can expect them to continue to change in the years to come as we grow and expand our efforts at new endeavours. Many young students today have difficulty understanding just how all this came about. They recognize the change and understand that there may be a difference. But they fail to identify the major contributing factor in bringing about changes in our attitudes and in our expectations. The National Federation of the Blind has been in action throughout the country fighting stereotype attitudes and challenging misconceptions; court cases have been fought and won; literature on blindness has been circulated far and wide. PSA's with positive philosophies of blindness prepared by the NFB have blanketed the nation. More recently our Kernel Books have reached millions of Americans with the message that blind people are living normal lives. All of these efforts by the National Federation of the Blind have had a significant impact on the outlook of our people toward blindness.

When I say that it is the National Federation of the Blind which has brought about the positive changes in our lives as blind citizens, students often make snide comments about my motives and suggest that I am accusing them of being self-centred. I was once in their place and have not forgotten my views as a college freshman.

Now, at this stage of my life, I am a patient soul. I remember my attitudes and behaviours of long ago. I honestly expect that many changes will take place in the attitudes of students today as they experience life and meet new challenges. Although there was no NFB available to me during my college years, there is a strong organization in the forefront of change today for everyone who is blind. There should be no more excuses for not taking swimming, chemistry or geometry. And there should be no excuses for employers not hiring blind people for jobs for which we are well qualified. Every American, sighted or blind, can benefit from the work of the National Federation of the Blind. It is up to all of us who are blind to make the organization strong and vibrant to help the next generations of blind and sighted people. There may be new barriers to deal with, but together we will be able to move the brick walls that stand in our way.

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