By Jonathan Baca, Copy Editor | Photo by Jonathan Baca, and courtesy of Wikimedia.org
With a lot of determination, a little help from their friends, and new technologies, blind and visually impaired students are succeeding at getting a college education at CNM.
Blind students have a whole different set of challenges along with all the traditional ones that every college student faces, and although some new devices and technologies have made some things easier, there is no replacement for hard work, said Lucy Birbiglia, counselor for the Disability Resource Center.
“Technology is not a substitute for the student’s work. Students with any disability have to work harder than other students,” Birbiglia said.
Early education major Francine Garcia has been legally blind from birth, and can see some shadows, but no faces or details, she said.
For the obvious challenges to class work like reading and writing, Garcia uses several tools that make it much easier than it once was, she said.
For her textbooks, she uses a device called a Victor Reader Stream, an mp3 player specially designed for the blind, where she keeps all of her textbooks saved as audio books.
At the start of each semester, counselors from the Disability Resource Center help visually impaired students find solutions to their textbooks, whether they are audio files, PDFs that can be read aloud using a program called a screen reader that can read any text on a computer screen out loud, or for students with some limited sight, a magnifier may be all that is needed, Birbiglia said.
Garcia also uses a piece of technology called a BrailleNote, a device that looks like a laptop with no screen, that Garcia can use to type notes and assignments using Braille. The device also has a line of refreshable Braille, an area filled with tiny metal pieces that can pop up and form words of Braille.
Garcia said that she can read textbooks and assignments on her BrailleNote, and can even surf the internet with it, because the refreshable Braille line can translate any text from a website into the bumps and lines of Braille, line by line.
“It’s a really cool tool. It can also read text aloud, and can even translate stuff into Spanish and French. It’s pretty amazing,” Garcia said.
Joseph Diekmeyer, Social Work major, said that he did not go blind until 2003, when he was 23 years old.
Diekmeyer, who is an orphan, said that his glaucoma and the high doses of medications he was made to take caused his eyes to start bleeding heavily one day. He said that at the hospital, doctors gave him medication that forced him into a coma, and when he woke up, he was alone in a homeless shelter, completely blind.
Since then, Diekmeyer has had to learn to live again without sight, never losing the determination and zest for living that he always had, he said.
“People look at me and just see the cane, they don’t see the man behind the cane. They let their eyes deceive them, and just assume they know what I can and can’t do,” Diekmeyer said.
Diekmeyer said he is extremely active and self reliant, using a cane and a talking smart phone with an advanced GPS application to get around town, and all over campus, on his own.
He began attending classes at CNM seven years ago, back when the accommodations for blind students were not nearly what they are today, he said.
“It was extremely difficult because CNM was not set up for blind people as well as they had led me to believe that they were. They boasted about all these things, but when I got here it was not happening at all,” Diekmeyer said.
Diekmeyer said that things have improved a lot, but that there is still a lot of work to do, particularly around the subject of sensitivity training for instructors and staff.
Birbiglia said that there is no mandatory training for instructors on how to deal with the special needs of disabled students, although she would like to see some happen.
Each disabled student is given an Accommodations sheet that is created by their counselor, that describes the special needs that the student will have in class, like having chalkboard notes or PowerPoint presentations read out loud for them, Birbiglia said.
But some instructors do not always do these things happily, and sometimes do not feel the need to do them at all, Diekmeyer said.
He said that he has brought up the problem several times to deans and administrators, and that he takes it upon himself to personally try to educate people on how they can best interact with him and other blind students.
“I’ve said that I will personally sit down and take the time to instruct people and show them. The school needs sensitivity training for the faculty and staff, and maybe even some of the students,” Diekmeyer said.
He said that he has fallen into open trenches and holes that were not properly blocked off, and that he has failed many classes because of the challenges created by a system that is not fully prepared to deal with blind students.
“They have made progress, but there needs to be a lot more progress. I do the best that I can, I try to be as self reliant as possible, I take it very seriously. I’d like to see the campus and the institution work a little bit more with me,” Diekmeyer said.
He said the main thing he hopes is that instructors and students will take the time to get to know disabled students, and not just assume that they know what they can and cannot do.