7 Challenges I Face as a Blind University Student

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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.

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What It's Like to Ride a Horse as a Blind Person

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There are times when I have mentioned I ride horses to both the sighted and the blind and get the “why would you do that?”

My answer is and will always be because it’s fun.

But the truth is, there is far more to it. Riding a horse means another pair of eyes can help me. In some ways this can be great — few horses will walk into something. But in other ways it can be one big mess.

Sometimes a horse will do something you neither asked for nor needed. And growing up with OK vision, I naturally want to check with my eyes to see why. The fact is now I can’t do so because even with the little I can see, I know I am not getting the full picture.

Other times it’s my fault — like when I ask the horse to go right or left when there is no space to do so or another horse is in the way.

With all the odd things (and frustration) that come with horseback riding, I would never totally give it up.

When it goes right, there’s nothing like it. It’s somewhere between flying and working a guide dog (though my only experience with the latter has been a demo dog).

I do need a horse who knows his job well, which can be hard to come by, and the ones who do are worth their weight in gold. I also need someone on the ground who is willing to listen to me. I need someone who fully understands my capabilities. I need someone who is going to forget what they think I should be or need. Not everyone who is blind is the same. Someone with the same vision as me could be totally different. It is a hard thing to explain, and it is a even harder thing for people to understand.

I live in the space many people with a disability live in — I am somewhere in between a non-disabled person and what people assume a disabled person is. I can’t force people to change how they see a person with a disability, how they see someone who is blind, nor even how they see me. I can explain things, I show things that explain it, and I show them with my actions.

One of the first things you are likely to realize when learning to ride a horse is you can’t ”force” a horse to do anything. They outweigh you, but then you learn over time, asking and telling the right way gets them to do what you want. In some ways dealing with people is like working with a horse. If you try and force them to think your way, they are going to dig in their heels and use their weight to keep you from changing their mindset. They may even push back. But, like with horses, with people you can neither be passive nor fight. You have to give the information to them the right way.

And sometimes you simply have to walk away, let things simmer — and try again another time.

Image via Thinkstock.

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'Please Touch the Art' Lets Blind People 'See' Tactile Art

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Most people have been to an art museum or gallery at least once in their lives, and everyone knows to be quiet, respectful and above all, “Don’t touch the art!”

Understandable, yes, but what if you are blind or visually impaired? Sure, someone can describe it to you, but it’s not the same experience.

My son is legally blind, and our goal is to help him experience art and the world around him in the most effective way possible, but visiting a museum has always been a challenge for him.

Enter California-based contemporary tactile artist Andrew Myers and his gallery representatives Sam and Lawrence Cantor of Cantor Fine Art.

Myers’ art is tactile, meaning it is meant to be touched and enjoyed. He is a mixed-media sculptor but is best known for his screw art. Myers drills thousands of steel-head screws into painted wood making a sort of topographical image. He then meticulously paints each screw by hand in extreme detail. The end result is stunning and intended to be admired not just from across the room but up close by feeling each and every screw and groove.

A few years ago, Myers was having a public exhibition of his tactile art when a blind man approached with his friend. Myers realized the man couldn’t enjoy or appreciate the art without touching it. This chance encounter changed everything for Myers. He had never thought about the blind and visually impaired community and the no touching rule. The man asked if he could touch the art, and of course Myers obliged. Myers watched as the man ran his hands across the screws. A smile started to emerge on the man’s face as he was able to “see” the art with his hands. This experience had a deep and lasting impression on Myers and set him on a mission to promote tactile art.

Sam Cantor represents Myers and was equally touched by the encounter, which put both on a path of determination to change the tide of the “no touching rule.” They wanted to do a short documentary film about this issue, and the first step was to find the individual Myers met that day.

The art community is a relatively small one, but they searched high and low and couldn’t find the man. Cantor told me, “We spent a month trying to find the original person who inspired Andrew and just couldn’t so we had to find another way to tell this incredible story.”

Sam & Lawrence Cantor
Sam & Lawrence Cantor

The Cantors sent out over 1,000 emails and Facebook messages to individuals, braille institutes, etc. trying to find a connection. He went into a gallery of a blind institute, and all the signs said, “Please do not touch the art.” He shares, “I didn’t understand how that could be and I questioned it but they asked me to leave. I almost gave up and a week later someone forwarded a Facebook message to a few people who knew a man named George Wurtzel.”

Wurtzel is a fully blind artist and craftsman who works at  The Enchanted Hills Camp for the Blind in Napa Valley, California. The Cantors visited Wurtzel and told him about Myers’ work. He was completely in support with the project of getting the word out about tactile art. The Cantors took some photos and Myers set to work on a screw art portrait of Wurtzel.

George Wurtzel
Photo via Sam & Lawrence Cantor

The end result was the documentary called, “Please Touch the Art!,” which has gone viral, and they couldn’t be more thrilled to give a spotlight to this issue. The documentary shows Wurtzel feeling his portrait for the first time.

Cantor shares: “We had no idea where the project would take us, but we wanted to do something. I’m blown away by the blind community; they are the strongest, smartest people I’ve ever met, and I’ve learned so much from them. I had a stance that visually impaired people were less than able to do things and that thought has been slipped for me. George told me, ‘I’m not disabled, I can do anything you can do.’ It’s an amazing attitude, so don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something. You can figure out a way to do it and keep going for it.”

Andrew Myers' Screw Art of George
Photo via Sam & Lawrence Cantor
George Wurtzel Touching His Portrait for First Time
Photo via Sam & Lawrence Cantor

George Wurtzel's Final Portrait in Screw With Paint

In the same way the Cantors found Wurtzel, someone in the blind and visually impaired community brought The Academy of Music for the Blind to their attention. Cantor attended one of their LA shows and told me, “I can’t remember the last time I cried, but we were bawling they are so talented we were blown away and knew we had to get attention for them. Their music is featured in our documentary, and they will be performing at our upcoming art show featuring Andrew’s work.”

The free exhibition “Please Touch The Art” runs from June 24-August 31 in Los Angeles and features Andrew Myers and 16 other tactile artists. The Academy of Music for the Blind will be performing and 10 percent of the proceeds from the show will go to their academy.

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When People Say ‘You Don’t Look Like You’re Blind’

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It was a little over 48 years ago when I put on my first pair of eyeglasses, and the feeling of seeing clearly for the first time was indescribable. The transition was like leaving a dark movie theater and stepping outdoors on a bright sunny day. My eyes needed time to adjust to everything suddenly appearing clear and focused.

For 36 years, I enjoyed perfect vision provided I wore corrective lenses. That all changed 11 years ago with two words: macular hole. It began when I removed one of my contact lenses, and I looked in the mirror to see half of my face missing.

While I had never heard of a macular hole before, I learned the macula provides the sharp, central vision needed for reading, driving and seeing fine detail. A macular hole is a small break in the macula, which located in the retina, the center of the eye’s light-sensitive tissue.

Though all the statistics pointed to a favorable prognosis, it didn’t work out that way for me unfortunately. I’m reduced to counting fingers, since I can no longer see the eye chart. Developing macular holes in both eyes has destroyed my central vision.

I’ll never forget the devastating news. “Ms. McCoy,” the doctor said, “I’m so sorry to tell you there is nothing more we can do for you.” Those simple words confirmed my worst fears — I was now legally blind.

The doctor told me I lived with high myopia (extreme nearsightedness) all my life. He went on to say that even though I did all the “right things,” due to the high myopia, macular holes, surgeries and glaucoma, my vision loss was irreparable.

Appearances Can Be Deceiving

Prior to losing my sight, I used to think that when a person used a white cane, it meant they were totally blind (no light perception). I was wrong. The range of sight loss is enormous and differs greatly from one person to the next. There really is an immense gray area.

Stephanae McCoy (Photo credit: www.boldblindbeauty.com)

To give you an idea of my sight loss, imagine yourself in a dense fog with visibility being only a couple of inches in front of your face. Your equilibrium is off and your steps unsure. You feel claustrophobic, as the fog is so heavy. Stumble, fall, repeat. It’s unending, and you wish it would just go away. You wake with it, you go to sleep with it and in between waking and sleeping you have to come to terms with the fog.

Once you acknowledge the fog is not going to dissipate, you find a way to navigate through it by learning new techniques. With time and patience, you gradually adapt until you become adept at working within the fog.

To the outside world you “appear” as if all is well and you can see clearly. And since you use a white cane to safely navigate the world, many times people will say to you, “But you don’t look like you’re blind.”

People don’t understand how I can dress stylishly or put on my makeup. The expectation that all blind people have to appear or behave a certain way is a huge misconception. Quite simply, the people we were prior to the loss of our vision, and the things that brought us joy, are still intrinsic to who we are today.

Handling the Stigma on Sight Loss

What I’ve found since losing my sight is there are so many stylish women who are blind or have sight loss that I felt it was time for a fashionable icon to represent them. Abigail, the white cane icon and mascot on my blog Bold Blind Beauty, is a beautiful image that evokes power, independence, chicness, confidence and success — a woman on the move stepping forward with purpose.

Once, an eye doctor told me that it would be a tragedy for me to learn how to use the white cane when, in fact, I believe the real tragedy is the shame many people feel when losing their eyesight. Having a visual image that evokes beauty, confidence and purpose is one way to change the stigma surrounding blindness.

Follow this journey on Bold Blind Beauty.

The Mighty is asking the following: What is a part of your or a loved one’s disease, disability or mental illness that no one is aware of? Why is it time to start talking about it? If you’d like to participate, please check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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10 Intrusive Personal Hygiene Questions People Ask Me as a Blind Woman

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After the initial shock wears off when people discover I’m legally blind, the “tip-toe questioning” commences. That’s when a sighted person decides to ask me ten less offensive questions on their quest to get the balls necessary to ask me that one, burning question they’re dying to know relating to my disability. While I’m pretty open to answering just about anything with relation to my visual impairment, I’m busy and I’ve got two kids to take care of. In an effort to avoid this annoying process, here are 10 of the most common personal grooming questions I’ve been asked along with my honest (sorry, Mom) responses.

1. How do you shave your armpits? Yup, people have asked me this. No, really. Do you remember that Julia Roberts long armpit hair phase?  Well that “look” doesn’t fly with me! I shave my underarms like any other woman. In the confines of my shower, I put a little bit of liquid soap under my armpit. I raise my arms over my head (one at a time, of course) and then make three long strokes with my Venus razor in the direction the hair grows. I go slightly farther down with the razor than I did before I lost my eyesight just to make sure I haven’t missed any stragglers.  TMI? Remember, you asked.

2. How do you pluck your eyebrows?  I’m a firm believer in knowing your limits. Plucking my eyebrows is beyond the scope of my current skill set as a blind woman. I’ll own that. For $7.00, I can walk into any nail salon in New York City and get a brow wax.  Money well spent if you ask me. However, I am happy to report that does not mean I don’t use tweezers for other personal grooming.  I am quite capable of pulling out an occasional chin hair by feel!  Don’t pretend you don’t have any. You know who you are.

3. Can you paint your own nails?  In a word, no. But if I’m being totally honest, that was always difficult for me, even when I could see. On occasion, I do paint my daughter’s nails with a non-toxic nail polish called Piggy Paint. The brush is large enough for me to hit those tiny fingers, giving their nails enough color to make them happy.  At 3 and 1 years old, neither one of them are requesting French manicures, so I’m in good shape. At least for now.

4. How do you put on lipstick?  I became blind when I was 32 years old. I had a good 16 years of practice before becoming visually impaired. I think I know where my lips are. MWAH!

5. What about mascara and eye liner?  If I wasn’t already blind from cancer, I probably would have lost my eyesight in a tragic liquid eyeliner accident. That crap is not easy to apply for any woman. I usually make a feeble attempt in the hopes I will somewhat resemble Adele, but I actually end up looking more like Johnny Depp a la “Pirates of the Caribbean.” Not pretty. Truthfully, I tend not to wear eye makeup because it irritates my eyes. If I do want to wear it for a special occasion, I will happily pay someone to do my makeup professionally.

6. How do you shave your legs?  Same as the pits (see #1). I hike my leg up against my shower wall, lather up, and break out the razor. I start at my ankle bone, going all the way up my thigh, then move slightly over with every pass of the razor. I’ve cut myself many times using this method, but no more than I did when I had 20/20 vision. Sometimes, being a woman is just complicated. Pain is beauty, right?

7. How do you take care of your “lady parts?” Don’t believe someone has really ever
asked me this? I hate to tell you, it’s happened on more than one occasion. I have two responses: I either leave “it” alone or seek out professional help from an aesthetician (waxer). Do not, I repeat, do not attempt to go anywhere in that general vicinity with an electric trimmer. I tried that route once when I was pregnant with my first child and I needed an emergency visit to my OB-GYN afterwards. Yeah, how’s that for an overshare. Needless to say I didn’t need stitches, but it came pretty damned close. No thanks, this blind chick has learned her lesson.

8. What about your Aunt Flo? Are you kidding me with this? (Insert eye roll with my good eye here.) Here’s the thing, there are certain things a lady knows just because she’s a lady. It doesn’t require any significant detailed explanation. We have 4 other senses besides eyesight that allow us all to know what’s going on with our bodies. And that’s all I’m going to say about that. “Period.”

9. How do you brush your teeth? With a toothbrush. Enough said.

10. How do you style your hair? My hair has always been relatively short. I’m the low-maintenance type and never fussed over my “do” so to speak. I would wash it, towel it off, and blow dry. Most ladies will agree that if you’ve gotten into the habit of parting your hair to one side, it just seems to naturally land there after awhile. That didn’t change after I lost my eyesight.

Since being diagnosed with alopecia in April 2016, hair is no longer an issue for me.  I just choose between one of my two wigs, throw it on, and go. At home, I’m usually au natural – meaning I’ve startled a few delivery men by answering the door in all my bald-headed glory. I have to admit, I’ve kind of enjoyed that part of my hair loss journey.

Here’s the thing, I totally understand your curiosity. It’s not so much the questions themselves that bother me, it’s their delivery. Take it from this blind woman, most ladies don’t like being asked overly personal questions with regards to their beauty regimen. Would you ask a sighted person any of these questions? Probably not.

If you encounter someone who is blind or visually impaired, stop the “tip-toe” questioning.  Respectfully, come right out and ask what you want to know. You might be surprised by some of the answers you’ll get.

The Mighty is asking the following: Share a conversation you’ve had that changed the way you think about disability, disease or mental illness. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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What I Hope for as a Blind Transgender Guy

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Growing up, there were two secrets about me I wanted no one to know. I had “weird feelings” — what I later understood was being transgender — and I was and am very visually impaired. Both were and are hard for some people to deal with. Both are visible to those around me. Both mean that people ask odd questions sometimes. ”What do you see?” ”How do you use that big stick?” ”Do you need help?” ”Can’t glasses fix it?” ”You’re faking, you can see some.”

The trans questions are often both more frustrating and more unkind. ”What’s it like?” ”What surgeries are you going to have?” ”Why did you choose to be this way?” ”Do you like guys or girls?” And the worst, ”You could just be a lesbian, you know that, right?”

I am not a girl, I was just born in a female body. While I am legally blind, I have some vision, and I can for the most part do things without help. If I need help, I will ask.

Sometimes I wonder what causes people to ask what is “wrong with me” more — the cane, or the fact I neither look straight or totally male or female by society’s standards. Hormones will change my appearance over time, but for now I am at the crossroads of gender. In a sense I am the same way when it comes to my vision; I am somewhere in between sighted and blind. I have enough sight to see a person, though not much else. I have fallen off curbs, walked into things, and all those experiences visually impaired and blind people know all too well.

I wish people would understand that my visual impairment hasn’t broken me. I still ride horses, still live my life, and still am me. Being transgender, being female to male or as I think of it a trans man, doesn’t make me a monster; it doesn’t mean I need to be fixed. It means I was unlucky enough to be born in the wrong gender, and I have to take hormones and have surgeries to get to the true me.

I am not someone who is going to hurt your kids, nor do I need to be prayed for. I am simply the blind guy standing on the street corner, who is hoping he will get through his day being gendered correctly, and not walk into any stop signs.

The Mighty is asking the following: Are you in both the LGBTQ and disability/disease/mental illness community? What is one thing you want society to know about your experience? Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.
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