Keeping up with course work, navigating the vast CU campus and balancing a social life with school and extracurricular activities can be tricky for even the most organized CU students, but these everyday tasks prove to be even more of a challenge for the visually impaired population at CU.
This year there are 27 registered legally blind students on campus, according to Cindy Donahue, director of Disability Services. However, Donahue said she thinks there are a few more that choose not to register with Disability Services. For all students who identify as blind, life and school pose some unique problems.
“It’s definitely a little bit harder, but that’s the way life is, you got to adjust,” said Ethan Johnston, a sophomore pre-journalism major who has been blind most of his life.
Johnston, originally from Ethiopia, plays basketball and said he hopes to be involved in professional sports one day, either as a coach, announcer or team owner. He said it can be frustrating to get around on campus, especially with the wide-spread layout of the buildings on campus and the slew of bikers and skateboarders weaving in and out of pedestrians.
“My freshman year, a biker ran over my cane and broke it. He didn’t even stop; it was pretty scary,” said Johnston, who thinks he is about 19 years old.
For the disabled, skateboarders and bicyclists can present big problems.
“We’ve had some real problems with skateboarders and bicyclists,” said Karen Rosenschein, assistant director of Disability Services on campus. “They’ve been some near misses as far as safety goes. I’d like to see a dismount zone or at least for people to be conscious and follow the separate paths for bicyclists and pedestrians.”
Johnston said guide dogs can be useful because they try to steer clear of bicyclists and other objects, but even they aren’t foolproof for avoiding accidents. He said he knows one blind student who had a guide dog that got hit by a biker on campus and had to go to the vet. Johnston said he won’t be getting a guide dog any time in the near future because it wouldn’t be as low-maintenance as his cane.
“The cane’s definitely easier to take care of. I don’t have to feed it or pick up its dumps,” Johnston said jokingly.
Johnston’s cane is particularly long at 67 inches because he walks fast, he said, and needs to be able to examine the ground far ahead of him. Though he said he can see some shapes and lights due to numerous cornea operations, he still walks into things like branches quite a bit because his cane only tells him what’s on the ground, not what’s up high.
Though blind students certainly have greater difficulty getting around campus than full-vision students, Donahue said CU is working to make the campus as accessible as possible for blind and students with disabilities. She said one of the things CU offers for students with disabilities is mobility orientation training, which works with students and their schedules to find the most direct, accessible path to a student’s classes. They are also working on updating old buildings so that they’re in compliance with state and federal regulations.
“The chancellor’s Program Accessibility Committee tries to make sure that campus is as accessible as possible for these students,” Donahue said. “When something comes to their attention, they see it gets taken to the right people.”
The right people might be those in facilities to install the Braille and raised numbers next to doors on outdated classrooms, or it might be teachers with students who are blind who get trained to teach using descriptive language, as opposed to simply referring to images on the board. Donahue said it can be a challenge getting teachers to adapt their methods to cater to the needs of the visually impaired.
In the fall of 2007 an architecture class did a simulation to see how accessible the campus is for students with disabilities, Rosenschein said. Certain students went around campus on wheelchairs, for example, to test what buildings needed to be updated. They did a complete audit, and then reported their results to PAC. Some of the changes they suggested were made, though others couldn’t get enough funding, Rosenschein said.
“We’ve really been reinvigorating our efforts to make campus welcoming and accessible, especially because we had an increase in the enrollment of blind students this year,” Rosenchein said. “We wanted to make sure their needs were met.”
This reinvigoration includes the implementation of over 200 Braille signs in the last three months, Donahue said.
The university has technology to make high-tech courses accessible for the blind, like screen readers which audibly read the material on computer screens so a student can check his e-mail or read material on E-reserves. They also have computers with special technology that can translate entire text books and diagrams into Braille. But this technology is expensive, Rosenschein said, and there is only one lab on campus where blind students can access it.
“It would be nice if some of the other libraries and computer labs on campus had some computers with at least some basic disability programs,” Rosenschein said.
Johnston uses the computers to print his notes in Braille so he can study and memorize them, but he said the methods employed by blind students to study vary widely depending on the individual. He said he agrees it would be nice if some of the libraries on campus had a few computers with technology to accommodate blind students.
Johnston said Disability Services does a good job of trying to make material accessible and fighting for the rights of the disabled, but resources are limited and it can be difficult.
“[Disability Services] is always trying their best to get you your text books and stuff on time, but this year with the nine new blind students on campus, it definitely takes more time,” he said.
Rosenschein said students with disabilities are held to the same standards as any other students so that their degree means as much as anybody else’s, but they have to work that much harder. She said that she has one student who is blind registered as an electrical engineer.
“One diagram in that textbook might take hours,” she said. “One textbook might have hundreds of diagrams.”
Johnston acknowledged that his course work is difficult, but he said he remembers not to take school too seriously. He said it’s just as important to have fun and friends. Though friendly with a great smile, Johnston admitted that he talks a lot of smack on the basketball court.
Being doubted, he said, is a motivator for him because it fires him up.
“I love being doubted,” he said. “If people didn’t doubt me in high school, I probably wouldn’t have graduated but my mom wanted me to have an education. If I fail, I let my mom down and that can’t happen.”
Contact CU Independent Staff Writer Hanna Johnson at Hanna.email@example.com.