As I go into my fourth year at Brock University come September, I think it’s important that my sighted peers know and understand what it’s really like to be a university student who happens to be blind. Here are 7 challenges I face on a regular basis, and how they could be solved.
1. People who close doors on my guide dog. Yes, you read that right, and it happens all the time — usually because people aren’t paying attention, or because they are afraid of my highly trained and qualified guide dog who would never harm anyone. My issue isn’t that you’ve decided not to hold open the door for me — that’s fine, but letting the door close on my dog is not. Since Izzy’s job is to prevent me from getting hit by any obstacle (which, yes, includes doors) she generally walks a little bit ahead of me in the harness to lead me around the obstacles. So if a door closes on us, it really closes on her. This can lead to her feeling anxiety or uncertainty when confronted with doors on harness. Either hold the door, or don’t and be mindful of when you close it. Plain and simple.
2. The barriers that arise in social situations. Looking back on my first and second years especially, this one really hurts. For some reason, people seem to think that when they are out and about with a blind person, they are the ones responsible for that person. Well, I’m here to kindly remind you that this is not the case. I am responsible for myself, and I am perfectly capable of being responsible for myself.
During my first year, I was basically told by an individual on my floor that I wasn’t welcome to go to the party with them because I was a burden. The party my entire floor was going to was off-campus, but I was reassured that they’d take me to one that was on-campus instead. Of course they never did.
People would rather assume they know what I can or can not do, regardless of what I tell them and before they get to know me. But facing “difference” with discomfort will not make you a well-educated and well-rounded person.
Now that I have a couple of close friends who could care less if I’m blind and who, it is clear, treat me as an equal and as their friend, this issue isn’t as prominent in my life. But that doesn’t make it any less important. All those people in my first two years of university missed out on getting to know me. I thought at the time that I had missed out too, but it turns out, I haven’t missed out on anything, because now I’ve found friends who are true and lifelong ones. If you’re blind and experiencing this, hang in there, you’ll find the right people eventually, too.
3. You knowing me, but me not knowing you. Nearly everyone at my university “knows me”. Whether it be because of what I do with A.B.L.E., the student club I founded, or because I’m the girl with the dog, people seem to know me and want to say “hi” to me. It’s great that you “know” me, but tell me who you are so that I can learn to associate your voice with your name and say “hi” back because I’ll know who you are too. I understand with a quick friendly hello you’re not going to say your name, but most of the time, please make an effort to say it.
4. Disrespect towards my guide dog and I. Let me clarify, I am not referring to a situation where a person approaches me to ask a question about my guide dog, or my visual impairment. I am referring to those people who do not announce themselves and just start petting, talking to, and/or taking pictures of my guide dog without my knowledge or permission. Remember, always ask! It is important that when Izzy’s harness is on you give her respect as a working guide dog, and me respect as her handler. Remember, your actions could put my life in serious danger. So when you see Izzy, do not pet her, talk to her, feed her, take pictures of her etc. It is very difficult to have to tell people to stop, and it’s not a task I enjoy doing.
5. Formatting assignments. Everyone knows the assignment format that professors seem to generally want: double spaced, size 12, Times New Roman font and something to do with the margins that I’ve never understood because, well, I can’t see the margins. It also gets really tricky when I print an assignment out and there are blank pages amidst the assignment, or a page that isn’t facing the right way when all of the others are, etc. My rule is that it’s my job to edit my work to the best of my ability, not rely on a friend. For those of you who might be in the same position, here are my strategies.
When I print my work, I always go to my university’s library to have it stapled.That way, they will be able to remove blank pages and put the pages in order for me. If it’s an assignment I’m submitting online I find that Pages (the program that I use to do my work) is horrible for screwing up the formatting when viewed on others’ computers, so I have gotten into the habit of submitting assignments as PDFs. All of my professors are also required to give me word counts as opposed to page counts since my computer will verbally tell me I am on a given page, but not how far down on that page. It’s challenging because sometimes formatting can be very visual and professors are precise about it.
6. Lack of Braille. At my university, not every room number is accompanied by Braille, nor are the professors’ drop boxes. That makes things difficult because if I want to simply submit something to my professor’s drop box or find a classroom, I need to rely more heavily on help from others. Braille is a form of communicating and being able to navigate the sighted world; it needs to be kept up to date and it needs to be everywhere.
7. Feeling like I always have to prove myself. The truth is, I don’t need to prove myself to anyone. But sometimes I feel more pressure to prove to my sighted peers that I can do what they can do. I try not fall into this. I do things because I want to do them, not because I’m trying to prove anything to anyone.