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12 Ways to Make Universities More Inclusive for the Blind

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Here are 12 ways universities can make their campuses more inclusive to the blind. It’s based off of what I have personally observed and experienced at my university.

1. Braille labels.

It’s imperative that universities put braille labels on classrooms, offices, mailboxes, etc. At my university, braille isn’t everywhere. The other day while I was trying to find a class, I was feeling the wall to try and see if the room number was marked in braille only to find out that it was not.

Braille is how blind people like myself navigate the world. It’s our way of reading something, and yet, the importance of it is still not recognized, nor is it respected.

2. Electronic course evaluations.

The only time an electronic course evaluation has been used at my university is for online classes. All course evaluations need to be distributed electronically to students at all universities. It becomes really awkward when I have something to say about a professor or teaching assistant and have to get someone else to fill it out. Really, that’s something I should be able to do confidentially myself.

3. Make textbooks lists available earlier.

Up until this year, the textbook lists at my university didn’t come out until approximately two weeks (if that) before classes started. But this year, the textbook lists came out at the very beginning of August. This is a very big deal. It help gives someone who is blind more time to get their textbooks in an electronic format through the accessibility/disability/development center.

I have mentioned this a few times throughout my years at my university to a couple of individuals, so it’s nice to be able to witness the improvement, and I think all universities need to follow suit.

4. The contrast of stairs.

Most people who are blind or have low vision use a mobility aid (I use a guide dog), so this really isn’t an issue. But I’m mentioning this for those who may have a bit of useable vision.

I know this was helpful when I was little and could see stairs. Having stairs that are either light on dark or dark on light is helpful for people with low vision because it provides some contrast in identifying steps.

I’ve been told by a friend that my university has contrast stairs in at least one building, but I wouldn’t be able to tell otherwise or know of any others. It’s just something for universities to think about when designing new buildings.

5. An accessibility reporting system.

I think all universities should have a reporting system that enables anyone to report an accessibility concern or issue quickly and easily. I also think that feedback should be given with regards to the status of that concern or issue.

To me, that puts greater accountability on the universities to attend to it, such as a broken elevator. I understand things won’t be fixed instantly or there may be some cases where nothing can be done, but nevertheless, a reporting system would enable any accessibility concerns or issues to be directed at the appropriate contact to have them addressed.

6. Provide descriptions for videos used in classes.

This. Is. A. Problem. Universities, in all aspects, need to plan an activity and assume that there will be people with disabilities involved. This includes professors and lectures.

My professors, for the most part, have been pretty good regarding videos. A professor in my first year, without being asked, went “above and beyond” in a sense by emailing video descriptions to me beforehand.

Then, in my second year, we had to watch a video in a different language, so it had subtitles and was rather lengthy. My professor sent it to my university’s student development center to have it transcribed into a document. It worked out fine. This is what all professors should be doing, not only for the blind but for the deaf, too.

If the video has good narration, it really shouldn’t be an issue from the blind standpoint. However, chances are your university’s student development center can provide guidance on descriptive video options (if there are any available for the said film) and transcribe it if it’s in a foreign language.

7. Student development centers need social media accounts.

Universities’ student development centers should really have a social media presence. My university’s student development center does not have a Facebook or Twitter page. To me, this is very problematic since all other university departments and associations do.

Instead, they get in touch with us via email or our online learning site. This is totally outdated, and I think if they expanded themselves on social media, more people would know of their existence and their services. Additionally, they would be able to reach out to more people and obtain greater feedback that way.

8. Mentorship programs through the student development center.

It would be good, especially for first-year students, to be mentored by other students who use the center. That way, they will get guidance and learn about the center’s services from someone who has had experience and is in a similar situation as them.

9. Accessible interactions.

Professors and teaching assistants, it gets really awkward when you don’t know my name or take no effort in learning it, especially when I always take the initiative to introduce myself. When you don’t, things tend to go a lot like this when you ask the class a question and I raise my hand:

Professor: “Yes?”

Silence.

Professor: “Yes?

Me: (Thinking, “OK, yes. They probably meant me.”)

For some awkward reason, the second time an individual says “yes,” their voice always tends to go up an octave — or five — as if its my hearing that’s the problem, not my vision.

It’s our responsibility as students who are blind and visually impaired to tell our professors and teaching assistants our names, but it’s their responsibility to remember it.

Also, all university employees need to learn how to properly assist a blind person. What I mean by this is all university employees need to learn an assistive technique called “sighted guide.”

To my knowledge, this isn’t taught at my university during any accessibility training they receive. As a result, I’ve been “guided” when I didn’t even require assistance in the first place by people putting their hands on my back/backpack and “steering” me. Unacceptable.

Instead, the blind person actually takes the sighted guide’s elbow will then walk slightly behind you, so you can then “guide” them.

10. Location of the student development center.

I really like where my university’s student development center is. While it’s on the fourth floor of a building, there is more than one elevator that can be used to reach it. Once you get off the elevator, you have to walk a few feet, turn and you’re there. It’s very straightforward.

This may not be the case at other universities. It’s important to make sure students feel their center for disability and accessibility services is really “accessible” in a physical sense. If there’s only one elevator to reach it or if it’s in a complicated or hidden location within a building, then chances are it’s not.

11. Volunteers at social events.

My university has some pretty big social events. These tend to be primarily run by our students’ union. However, these really big events could be creating barriers for people with disabilities.

For example, my university has a vendor fair where a bunch of on-campus clubs, businesses and services at the university set up tables for students in a specific location for students to browse through at their leisure. It could really deter a new student who may have a disability from attending due to accessibility reasons. Having a couple of volunteers there to strictly help students with navigation and describing booths would be very helpful.

Not being able to participate in these events can be a big barrier in getting involved around the university. When I’ve been to events like vendor fair, I’ve had to ask each individual about their booth, which is fine for someone like me who is outgoing, but maybe not for others.

12. Accessible computer software.

Universities need to make sure all of the computers that they have available for campus-wide use have accessibility programs pre-installed. For Windows computers, this would mean, to my knowledge, Jaws and ZoomText. I strongly recommend that universities invest in Apple Mac computers, which have all accessibility features already installed, including a screen reader called VoiceOver and a very good zoom feature (speaking from experience).

Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images

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5 Things Children of Parents With Disabilities Understand About Life

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People often ask me how I ended up with such amazing kids. “What did you do,” they ask, “to end up with such sweet, easy-going kids?” I’m not saying this to brag, and my girls do have their moments of misbehavior like any other kid. But I do feel like they’re pretty remarkable. And I don’t think it’s anything I did. I do have a hunch, however, that growing up with a mom who doesn’t see like other moms has something to do with it.

I think they, like many children who have a parent with a disability, understand certain things about life that other kids their age may not yet get.

I recently asked my daughters, ages 10 and 6, what those things are, and here’s what we came up with:

1. Sometimes you have to take the long way.  

Whether waiting for a late bus or lost Uber, my kids know that we sometimes have to leave an hour before we need to be somewhere that most parents can drive to in 10 minutes. They also know that we need to allow time to relieve, water and harness Mommy’s guide dog. On Mondays we walk to my younger daughter’s gymnastics class, which is about a 30-minute walk and a 5-minute drive. Sometimes when we’re halfway home after class, my daughter hangs her head dramatically and says, “I bet all the other kids are already home eating dinner by now!” And I say, “Yes, I bet they are.” (And sometimes I add something about those kids not getting the good exercise she’s getting by walking!)

woman and two girls stand on steps with guide dog
Joy, her two daughters and her guide dog

2. Kids can do a lot of stuff.  

Children are often more capable than many adults think. Whether we like it or not, children of parents with disabilities often end up lending a hand (or foot or ear or eye) to their moms and dads. Inadvertently, they often end up learning how to do certain things that typically parents do. My 10-year-old, for example, has become a pro at pinning our location when we order an Uber, as this is often difficult for me, even with zooming or using the voiceover on my phone.

While I try my best to make sure my kids get to be kids and aren’t expected to do adult tasks, I am often surprised at how willingly and capably they do things that many people would underestimate their child’s ability to do, such as reading labels on food packaging and learning bus routes. I don’t love the fact that I often have my daughters check over my makeup in the morning, but when we’re running out the door and there’s no one else to ask, they’re my go-to girls. And really, I don’t think there’s much harm in having to tell your mom her eyeshadow is uneven.

3. Life isn’t always fair. 

Sometimes you try your best, and you still end up last. It doesn’t make sense why some moms can walk and some can’t, why some dads can see and other can’t, or why some moms can’t get out of bed in the morning. Sometimes life just isn’t fair. It can be a tough lesson to learn, but one that leaves kids very much in touch with reality.

4. You can’t judge a book by its cover. 

When my girls see someone with a cane or any kind of assistive device, they understand that’s only a little piece of that person. They know it doesn’t mean the person is incapable. They also know physical disabilities don’t necessarily correlate with mental ones. And most importantly, that any disability, whether physical or mental or emotional, does not affect a person’s ability to do good in the world.

5. Flexibility is the key to most everything. 

Over the years, my girls have probably ridden in more modes of transportation than anyone their age — or my age. Between friends and family’s cars, neighbors’ minivans, Ubers, Lyfts, taxis, busses, trains, planes and boats, they have had to figure out a million seat belts and seat configurations, wedging themselves wherever they will safely fit. They have waited outside for late busses for over an hour, been late to activities even though they themselves were ready on time, and changed vehicles at the last minute. They know waiting, and they know change, and they have the ability to be flexible.

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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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