Volume 70, Issue 1 - Seeing stars: a bright future for students with disabilities

Courtesy of Jaclyn De Vries

By Emmalee Manes, Life Editor

Students with disabilities on college campuses experience a unique college life that is hard to imagine.

Sophomore Katie Kilgore was born with Retinitis Pigmentosa ­' the same degenerative sight condition her mother and grandmother have.

'[It's hard] whenever people are talking about something really beautiful,' Kilgore said. 'I used to be able to see the stars but it's been at least ten years if not more. Even then I couldn't see the constellations. Me and my dad would sit out on our front porch at my house before my mom and dad divorced. We would sit out on our porch and dad would say, 'You see the moon?' And I'd say, 'Yeah.' And he'd say, 'Look about two inches to the right.' And he'd say, 'Do you see that bright star? That's Venus.' And he would use Venus and the moon as reference points to show me other stars. And there was a time when we didn't go out and look. And the next time I didn't see them. So it still makes me sad that I can't see the stars or the galaxy or meteor showers or anything like that. I look at the moon and I'm happy I can see the moon, but I wish I could see the rest.'

Although Kilgore is not completely blind, her eyes cannot see details, perceive depth, or tell when things are on a different plane.

This can make maneuvering around a college campus quite complicated. When there's a massive crowd Kilgore has to say to herself, 'Okay. Where am I going? Where's the path?' Still, Kilgore is not completely at a loss.

'I have a good memory so I can find my way around places I'm familiar with,' Kilgore said. 'Since I'm a music major I've gone from here to the music building a lot. I've done it in the dark. I've done it in the day. I've done it when it's raining. I've done it in the snow last semester. I can basically do it under any circumstances.'

Junior Ashley Shaw, a fellow blind student, receives help from Emmit, her two-year-old service dog. Emmit leads Shaw around obstacles, finds doors into buildings, helps her up and down steps and refuses to budge when silent cars zoom down the street crossing. Although Emmit loves to sniff and talk to friendly students, Shaw asks that students ignore him when his harness is on.

'When I'm trying to walk and a student stops and talks to him he gets excited,' Shaw said. 'He's very social. He loves people so he wants to play. That distracts him from doing his job ' I really need him to focus to keep me safe.'

When people see visually impaired students walking around, they tend to act strangely, Kilgore said.

'They don't know what to expect,' Kilgore said. 'So when they meet an actual blind person and they don't meet their preconceived notions, they're thrown off.'

Kilgore said it seems people expect blind students to be either shy or mentally at a disadvantage, which is not the case.

'I'm a very fast learner when I want to be,' Kilgore said. "I'm just as dynamic and entertaining as any other person'and I'm extraverted!'

Director of Academic Support La-Juan Bradford said the office exists to provide accommodations to students with disabilities, not special education.

These accommodations can be something as simple as a quiet room or extra time to take a test, and serve to make things equal, not better for students who need them. Academic Support also provides tutors for any student who needs extra help in a class.

For students like Shaw and Kilgore, and many others, such things make a huge difference.

'[Academic Support] will do whatever they can [and] go above and beyond, to help us in whatever area we need help in, which could be getting books in electronic format, reading the tests and several other things,' Shaw said.

They have even made small changes around campus to make Lee more accessible for disabilities, such as adding textured bumps called truncated domes on sidewalks to signal a street, smoothing sidewalks for wheelchairs, putting handicap buttons on doors and building hand rails inside restroom stalls.

While such things may sound like special treatment, Bradford said equal access allows students with disabilities to have the same educational opportunities as other students.

'I've wondered if part of [why students don't understand equal access] is because your generation has been pushed to treat everybody equally,' Bradford said. 'But to what extent are we doing that to a fault?'

Despite the fact that 10 to 15 percent of college students nationwide have some sort of disability, only two to three percent of student bodies self-identify as having a disability, said Bradford. She blames this huge gap on the fact that students are afraid or do not understand the positive help they could receive from Academic Support.

With the help of Academic Support, students like Kilgore are free to make the best of their college education as other students do.

'I'm a normal person like everyone else,' Kilgore said. 'I have things I want to do, things I love doing; mostly music but other things [too]. None of my professors have said I can't do something. They tell me I need to work on things, but they tell that to everyone.'

Despite her disability, despite the fact the last of her sight could leave her any day now and despite all those other difficulties college students face, Kilgore remains optimistic.

'I have come to the conclusion multiple times that If I was born sighted or if I somehow ' even if God now reached down and gave me my full vision ' I don't think I'd be the same person,' Kilgore said. 'It makes me sad sometimes, it's frustrating, it's very irritating. There have been times when I've gotten really emotional about it; but at the end of the day I would not be the same person. I don't think I would try to see into people as much' I also don't think I would be as dedicated to music as I am because I'd be distracted by other things like Instagram or Snapchat. Maybe I wouldn't have as good of an ear for music as I do. I wouldn't have the friends that I have.'

Kilgore said the source of such optimism is her relationship with God.

'I've come this far, so I know God's going to bring me through the rest of it,' Kilgore said. 'And it's going to be much better than anything I could do on my own.'

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