Blind World Magazine

Blind students utilize their senses to get around campus.

February 7, 2006.
University Northern Iowan - Iowa,USA.

Kallie Smith and Steve Decker are just like any other couple at UNI, meeting between classes, eating meals and walking home together. But this couple shares one more experience that most others do not: They are blind.

Decker, a junior communications major, has been blind since birth, and Smith, a sophomore in leisure/youth/human services, began to progressively lose what vision she had in junior high. Today she can see little more than light and shadows.

However, the two students do not allow this setback to stop them. They forge ahead by integrating inventive techniques for achieving what most of us assume to be normal, everyday tasks.

One of the simplest and most common challenges faced by blind students is campus navigation.

“Some people think we count steps,” Decker said. But utilizing one’s other faculties proves to be much more efficient. Sounds and smells tell them where they are, and touch and balance tell them where they are going.

Traffic noise indicates a close proximity to 23rd Street. Unique odors and the sounds that Smith’s feet make on the floor bear the signature of each building. And when there is no fountain preacher to shout for her, the dull whisper of the scrolling-word sign beckons her to the Mauker Union entrance.

The incline of Decker’s path marks which direction he is walking on his internal map; on campus, uphill usually means north. And his cane warns of obstructions to be thwarted or staircases to be ascended.

Decker and Smith are not the only blind students at UNI.

The Office of Disability Services registered a total of 12 visually impaired students for the Fall 2005 semester. But these numbers can be misleading, according to Jane Slykhuis, coordinator for the office, as she believes there are a number of students on campus with significant visual disabilities who choose to make their own accommodations.

“We want them to be as independent as possible,” explains Slykhuis. For those who ask for the extra help, she says, the office works to determine “what their needs are and how best to meet those needs.”

Slykhuis’s office provides a number of different services at UNI, many of which will soon become easily accessible via the Internet.

Jill Smith, program assistant for the office, has been working diligently in cooperation with Information Technology Services to design and launch their new Web site, which “will be up in the very near future,” she said.

One of the most common forms of assistance that the Office of Disability Services offers to blind students is

classroom and testing accommodations. They work

with professors to ensure that alternate formats of books, tests and other class materials are available options.

Books can currently be recorded onto tapes and CDs upon request, but Smith and Decker are trying to push this one step further.

Recently they lobbied congressional members in Washington D.C., including Iowa Senators Tom Harkin and Charles Grassley and Rep. Jim Nussle, to support legislation that would require publishers to produce electronic, non-visual editions of college textbooks, which could then be printed into Braille or heard on a computer.

“This option already exists for K through 12,” Decker said.

For now, these two prefer using other methods, such as Kurzweil, a system that scans and vocalizes written text, and JAWS for Windows, a screen reading software program.

Rod Library provides a number of similar programs for blind students, but Smith and Decker say that their computer access on campus is sparse and less than adequate, a situation they are hoping to change before they leave.

Blind test-takers can request readers and scribes from the Office of Disability Services to assist them.

Smith, who has worked as a reader/scribe, explains that she only says what is exactly on the test or writes exactly what is dictated to her.

“We don’t rephrase or define anything. We don’t give them any advantage over other students,” she said. “We just level the playing field.”

Though being blind on a college campus presents challenges that most never experience, Decker and Smith want students to know that it is not as frightening as some may think.

“The hardest thing about being blind,” says Smith, “is that everybody knows when you skip class.”

Most of all, they want to encourage people to “Come up and say hi. Feel free to ask questions. Talk to us.” And don’t feel offended if they don’t approach you first.

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