Educating Students Who Are Blind: An Invaluable Lesson from My Past
Welcome to my blog, Teaching with Hope. Here you’ll learn about blindness and visual impairment, the power of assistive technology, educating students who are blind, and how you can make sure you or a loved one can succeed academically and then professionally. But before we go any further, you need to understand a few things about me and my journey.
Blast from the past
Let’s rewind to the year 2001. It was the start of the new millennium, and I had just graduated as an honors student from my local high school. I was teeming with excitement as I walked across the stage to receive my diploma in front of my family and friends. It was one of the proudest moments of my life, and I looked forward to pursuing my path in higher education at the University of Maine at Orono (UMO) the following fall semester, where I received a scholarship.
There was one problem. I was functionally illiterate–utterly incapable of writing a coherent sentence, never mind a complete paper.
This is the part of my story where many people scratch their heads and ask how I could have possibly gone through school as someone who is functionally illiterate. Well, the answer is simple. I didn’t know what I didn’t know, so I went through school like everyone else. I did my homework to the best of my ability, and I received excellent grades. I was on the honor roll every year.
I had no idea that my education was lacking until I graduated high school.
Then that day came to take the college placement exam. My parents and I were shocked when I received extremely low scores. Teachers told my parents that I was an excellent student, but given my placement exam scores, “some students simply weren’t meant to go to college.”But here I was an honors student with college aspirations.
How did I end up here?
So how did I wind up doing so poorly on the placement exam? Several factors were at the root of the problem, but all fingers pointed toward the gaps in my education.
First, I had very limited time with my Teacher of the Visually Impaired (TVI) who had to cover a wide geographical area.
Second, while I also had a paraprofessional in addition to my TVI, the paraprofessional did not know braille and had difficulty adapting materials. Without having the adapted materials on time, or even worse, not having the adapted materials at all, my paraprofessional would often pull me out of class into a room in the back of the library to do the work together. I would sometimes be in that room for an entire school day and would miss the ongoing lessons.
Finally, my general education teachers had no idea how to teach me. After all, I was the only blind student in my elementary and high school. While my teachers thought they had good intentions when passing me from grade to grade, this is the worst thing they could have done. If my parents had known what was happening, they could have intervened and assisted me better with my education. I would urge every parent of a blind child to ensure you have open and constant communication with your child’s school.
My SAT score was 200–one of the lowest scores they had ever recorded. My math skills were equally abysmal. I could not do addition and subtraction with any degree of surety, and my multiplication tables were sketchy at best. In fact, those basic skill-sets were the only ones that I had even marginally attained throughout my entire study of mathematics in high school. I never studied Algebra, Geometry, and certainly no Calculus. I knew very little.
As part of the application process for the University of Maine at Orono, they required a written paragraph detailing my goals in college. Here is what I wrote: “I want to go to college so that I won’t be poor and on welfare.” As you might imagine, they refused me admission into the university. My parents were told privately that “some students were not meant to go to college” and that they should start considering having me study independent living skills and trade-school training.
My dad came to the rescue. After coming to the realization that I wouldn’t be able to pursue my dreams of higher education, he volunteered to go to extension classes at the university with me and help me overcome my illiteracy. During my placement testing at the university’s extension program, I tested with severe deficits in all subjects. I took every remedial course they offered: math, English, beginning science, and every course I could take!
My dad sat through all those courses, prepared my materials, and worked with me tirelessly every day and every night. He also worked full-time and attended his own classes at the university throughout this period, but he assured me that if I were willing to work harder than anybody else, I could do this. I studied 16 hours a day. I would wake up in the morning and hit the books if I were not on my way to class.
When my dad and I were driving (the classes were often 60 or 70 miles away), I listened to the lessons he had recorded in the car. I would stay up until midnight to work with dad for two or three hours after he got home from his job. We did this every day (including weekends) for eight years.
Fast forward to 2009. I graduated Summa Cum Laude from the University of Maine at Orono (UMO) with two bachelor’s degrees and a cumulative 3.88 GPA. I had completed 200 course credits in my eight years, not including my remedial classes. Since graduating from UMO, I have acquired certifications in several technological skills, including JAWS for Windows, A-plus, HTML 1 and HTML 2, and two master’s certificates, one of which is in assistive technology. I also recently graduated from Missouri State University with a master’s degree in Special Education/Blindness and Low Vision.
So how did I go from being a functional illiterate in 2001 to being an accomplished academic with a handful of degrees and certifications today? The answer is complicated and multi-faceted, but it is fair to say that while I did every ounce of the heavy lifting demanded of me along the way, it was my dad’s intuitive understanding of the use of technology available back then, that led to the success I have achieved, and to my understanding of the potential impact of current and future technological developments on the students of today.
My educational experience has made me passionate about ensuring all students who are blind or visually impaired receive the best education possible. This can only happen with hard work, open communication, and appropriate specialized instruction. Through my new blog, Teaching with Hope, and the remote accessible technology instruction I provide to TVIs and their students through the Carroll Center, I am starting to see this dream of mine come true!