Learning Ally Blog: Access and Achievement


Now more than ever, people with learning and visual disabilities are flourishing in the classroom, launching productive careers and becoming assets in their communities. This blog spotlights remarkable individuals who demonstrate that having a visual or print disability is no barrier to educational success.

Meet Timothy Jones - Mary P. Oenslager Scholastic Achievement Award Winner - And Consider Applying Yourself!
Portrait of Timothy Jones. Timothy can be seen from mid torso up and is sitting in front of a brown background. He is wearing a black suit, white collared shirt, and a blue and black diagonally striped tie.

November 18, 2020 by Katie Ottaggio

The Mary P. Oenslager Award is open to college seniors or graduate students who are blind or who have low vision. The deadline for submitting an application is just around the corner on November 30, 2020. If you are a Learning Ally member who meets these criteria, you can brush up your application essays during your Thanksgiving break. We'd love to hear from you! Read more about the award and submit your application here.

We interviewed one of our most recent winners, Timothy Jones. We hope you enjoy his story!

Timothy Jones is a winner of the Mary P. Oenslager Scholastic Achievement Award. Timothy was born blind and was homeschooled; he used braille to access textbooks and course materials. Due to the age of some existing braille books and the prohibitive cost of producing new braille books, his family sought an alternative. When he was about eight, Timothy's mother heard about Learning Ally (Recording for the Blind and Dyslexia at the time) during one of her TVI courses at Georgia State University.

This discovery changed Timothy's academic career. His comprehension increased significantly, especially when accompanied with a braille display. At first, he used technology such as a 4-track tape recorder from his local chapter of the Georgia Council of the Blind and a Victor Reader WAVE. In high school, as technology advanced, Timothy used a computer and a PacMate and later a BrailleSense braille display to access his books. The enormous catalog of audiobooks allowed him to comprehend his material much more quickly and to succeed in high school. He graduated with a 4.0 thanks to Learning Ally.

In the summer of 2015, right before starting a Bachelor of Music at Mercer University, Timothy discovered the College Success Program while browsing for audiobooks. The program gave him the ability to connect both with other blind student and with a great source of encouragement: his mentor. He had previously met his mentor at Columbus State University, where he was a music major as well. Overall, the CSO provided an enormous amount of support for Timothy during his college journey. Timothy went on to receive numerous honors and awards, such as the Al Camp Memorial Scholarship through the Georgia Council of the Blind, the Floyd Qualls Memorial Scholarship through the American Council of the Blind, and even graduated Summa Cum Laude from Mercer University.

Now, life is great for Timothy since receiving the award. Unfortunately, Timothy cannot hang out and play with other musicians due to COVID-19. However, he was able to attend the 2020 National Federation of the Blind Convention online. With his award, Timothy plans to pay for graduate school, and even have a little leftover for personal school related expenses. Since his mother helped him through undergrad, he would like to return the favor and help pay for graduate school.

To other blind and visually impaired students, Timothy offers three pieces of advice: work hard, press on during difficult times, and build a strong network of both blind and sighted colleagues. Peers who are blind can help you find resources, and peers who are sighted can provide a competitive environment for you to grow.

Hear from Timothy himself about what this award means to him in this video.

Learning Ally's National Achievement Awards applications can be found here.

Read More about Meet Timothy Jones - Mary P. Oenslager Scholastic Achievement Award Winner - And Consider Applying Yourself!

Pandemic Thoughts from CSP Mentor Preston Radtke
Woman wearing a face mask for protection from coronavirus. She is sitting in the dark, illuminated from the light of a tablet that she is working on.

November 12, 2020 by Katie Ottaggio

By: Preston Radtke, CSP Mentor

The College Success Program is highlighting how the pandemic is affecting individuals in our blind and low vision communities. CSP Mentor, Preston Radtke, shared the following thoughts.

March 13, 2020, a seemingly meaningless lamppost on a calendar full of the normal highs and lows of life. However, as everyone knows, that was the day that everything truly changed. School closings, canceled concerts, restricted travel...and that was just the beginning. The coronavirus era has brought forth a whole host of unforeseen alterations to all aspects of working and living. In a way, coronavirus's most impressive feat is that it's one of the only occurrences on Earth that has affected the everyday lives of all of its residents.

I am not unique; I too have realized some dramatic shifts in lifestyle. For instance, the biggest change is in my work situation: I work at a major university, and before March 13, I took part in the standard wake up, commute to work, commute home-grind; a grind that I have grown to miss. As of this writing, I haven't been back in the office for seven months. My living room is my office, and my bedroom is my break room. I'm not going to lie; it hasn't been the most pleasant setup. For one, I deeply appreciated the camaraderie of office mates. I miss the lunches and random dashes for ice cream to ease the monotony of a cloudy Tuesday. Sure, we have Zoom meetings and virtual lunches, but it's not the same.

Oddly enough, working from home has actually increased my office's output. I don't know why, but ever since we went virtual, our production has almost tripled. I initially thought that working from home would make everyone stagnate and make an already stressful situation worse; but I wonder if the change in locale has been beneficial for my coworkers. It makes sense if you think about it, working on your home turf; not having to deal with the petulant, annoying office mates that are standard in many businesses. Our output has been so noteworthy that the department is seriously considering making our positions permanently hybrid once things get back to "normal." That's to say, a few days at the office and a few days at home each week for my team.

Living and working with a guide dog has raised some new challenges in the COVID era. Many of my trips with my guide, Burton, were very destination-based such as going to restaurants, shopping, etc. Now, since the majority of those have been closed, many of my trips consist of long geographic loops around my town and slightly aimless wandering and exploring. Aimless wandering and retreading the same route can only be so exhilarating for dogs and because of this I've had to be aware of Burton's interest level to make sure he's not bored. Sometimes a bored dog leads to a complacent dog, which could lead to behavioral or work-related errors down the line.

I'm very fortunate that so far coronavirus hasn't impacted anyone I know directly except for a family friend who has recovered. However, my father is the perfect candidate for infection, as he is older and immune-compromised. Also, my father had a third relapse of pancreatic cancer this summer, an occurrence which was made all the more stressful in the COVID era. Frequent trips to the hospital and family members not being allowed to visit him for extended stays made an already depressing situation even worse. Fortunately, the treatment he undertook a few weeks ago seems to have shrunk or killed the majority of the cancerous cells in his pancreas so hopefully (knocking loudly on wood) he is in the clear.

I really miss concerts, I must say. The prospect of taking a train in to New York or Philly, getting dinner somewhere and seeing one of my favorite bands is something I'd really taken for granted. If I'm being honest though, even if we do get a vaccine or a declaration of "normalcy", it's going to be a long time until I go to another concert or run around carefree in a tightly packed metropolis.

As a teacher, I deeply miss my interactions with my students. I prided myself on building an informal, yet informational classroom experience. Sadly, the human social experience and virtual meetings have yet to create equivalent interactive scenarios.

If I had any long-lasting advice, I would say take up a hobby. Immersing yourself in a hobby or pastime is always beneficial, but in these times of forced isolation and social exodus it's even more so. I'm not saying write the next American novel (but please give it a shot if you like), it could be something as simple as binging a podcast or TV show; or learning an ew instrument. Keeping yourself busy will stave off boredom and increase your overall health and well-being.

It's also really important to lean on your support system. Whether it's friends, family members, or your Learning Ally family, utilize your circle to make sure you don't further exacerbate the cycle of isolation. Remember, everyone is going through this, so if you're feeling lonely and left out, odds are your friends are as well. Reaching out and communicating with them could be beneficial for everyone.

Read More about Pandemic Thoughts from CSP Mentor Preston Radtke

Pandemic Thoughts from CSP Mentor Rachel Grider
Four cartoon faces, similar to a smiley face, are shown in a line. Each face is a different skin tone and they are all wearing masks over their mouth and noses, like those worn to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

November 5, 2020 by Katie Ottaggio

Interview by: Kristen Witucki, College Success Program Curriculum and Content Editor

The College Success Program is highlighting how the pandemic is affecting individuals in our blind and low vision communities. CSP Mentor, Rachel Grider spoke about her experiences via interview with Kristen Witucki in June 2020.

Kristen Witucki: How has the pandemic changed your life?

Rachel Grider: I thought I'd have much more time! I had a list of things I wanted to accomplish: starting a YouTube channel, making recordings, writing. Because of the slower pace of life, I began to feel more inspired and figure out what needs to change. The pandemic oddly helped me to focus on what is most important to me.

Kristen: Can you explain more about that?

Rachel: I realized I love music, and I know that's weird to say, because I studied music. But with some experiences I've had before, I lost some of the original joy it gave me. I associated singing with stress. Practice only made me feel inadequate.

Now during the COVID crisis, when I have long hours with myself, I started to set aside some time each day when I would just do music for fun, I would not care, I would just sing or listen to music. The only purpose of doing this was to help me to feel joyful. I pulled out some of the music I used to listen to in college, and it reminded me of the excitement it used to give me when I was younger and less jaded. It also helped me to step out of my comfort zone. I started to learn more about myself and my capabilities.

Kristen: What are some of the new projects you are doing?

Rachel: I'm doing a big virtual choir for NFB (National Federation of the Blind) right now. I didn't think about doing this three months ago. The pandemic has forced me to try things like that.

Kristen: What has changed in the blindness community now that everything is virtual?

Rachel: [Now that everything is virtual] you are on even footing with sighted people, so there is not a stigma about blindness over Zoom. In some ways, it's not as good because [people who are blind or low vision] can hid while using Zoom. You aren't showing people that you can use mobility, but in another way it's cool because when you're with sighted people on Zoom, you can be more yourself, because you don't worry about them judging your blindness.

Kristen: Is there anything else that has changed for you since the beginning of the pandemic?

Rachel: In some ways I'm busier than I was before. And procrastinating is no longer an option. Now that the pandemic has happened I'm stuck here, I can't go anywhere, I'm excited to just be able to move forward again. I feel like I need to stop putting things off and just explore more.

Read More about Pandemic Thoughts from CSP Mentor Rachel Grider

Meet the 2020-2021 CSP Mentors Part 5
Two women with blonde hair walking down a path with their arms around each others shoulders. Their backs are to the camera. There is tall green grass on either side of a the path and an open, blue sky above them.

October 29, 2020 by Katie Ottaggio

Compiled by: Kristen Witucki, College Success Program Curriculum and Content Editor

The College Success Program is pleased to introduce our 27 Mentors for the 2020-2021 academic year, and what better time to do it than during Meet the Blind Month! Our Mentors represent a variety of interests, personalities, experiences, and knowledge. Read on to learn more about a few of them in Part 5 of this blog series and see if you have anything in common. You never know when or where a connection can be made!

This blog is the fifth in a 5-part series. You can read Part 1 herePart 2 here, Part 3 here, and Part 4 here.

If you are a college student who is blind or low vision, and who is interested in working with one of our Mentors, please email csp@learningally.org to begin the process!

Rachel Grider
Education: BM in Vocal Performance and Composition from CSU Stanislaus; MM in Music Performance and Theory Pedagogy from Peabody Conservatory

Rachel is from Modesto, California. She is currently teaching music at the Modesto Academy of Music and Design and Gottschalk Music Center, as well as performing freelance. Rachel is a member of Sigma Alpha Iota and Py Kappa Lambda.

For Learning Ally, in addition to mentoring students, Rachel co-hosts our podcast, College Knowledge.

Rashad Jones
Education: BM in Music Education (choral/voice) from Columbus State University

Rashad is a native of Columbus, Georgia (where he currently resides), and is the 2nd oldest of 4 siblings. As a self-proclaimed people person, Rashad can often be found enjoying a conversation with close friends and family, while relaxing in the comfort of his home. He enjoys attending church where he serves as minister of music, traveling, interacting with people, and helping others whenever possible! 

For Learning Ally, in addition to mentoring students, Rashad co-hosts our podcast, College Knowledge.

Sam Van Der Swaagh
Education: BA in Unique and Interdisciplinary Studies from City University of New York

Sam grew up in NYC in the West Village with his large family of 2 sisters and 3 brothers. He was homeschooled through high school along with his siblings by his outstanding parents. Sam has experience in tutoring college freshmen and sophomore level courses such as STATS, biology, and chemistry.

Although Sam's major during college was Applied Psychology and Neuroscience, he is currently pursuing a career in textile design. His interests were radically changed! If Sam is not "in the studio" weaving carpets and fine fabrics, he spends his free time swing dancing, training for long distance runs with friends, and experimenting with origami. Sam's artistic passions are certainly bolstered by his visual impairment that drives him toward tactile forms of expression and affords him a unique perception of the world. Sam's visual condition consists of albinism, nystagmus, and astigmatism. He is a large print reader yet often prefers listening to audiobooks or utilizing speech-to-text options. Sam also enjoys talking about the latest science and technology innovations.

Stephanie Zundel
Education: BS in Child Studies with minors in Special Education and Psychology and an MS in Human Development Counseling from Vanderbilt University

Stephanie grew up in New Jersey and is the oldest of four siblings. Her passion is working with children and animals. She lives in Colorado with her Seeing Eye dog, Marley, where she works as an elementary school counselor.

She absolutely loves to exercise! She recently tandem cycled for the world championship in Milton, Canada, where she and her pilot represented the US and won a bronze medal in the sprints. She also enjoys running and ran the New York City and Boston marathons with Achilles International Nashville. She ahs junior and senior black belts in White Tiger Kempo and has been boxing since the age of ten. She believes that education and advocacy are the key ingredients for a successful college experience.

Tabitha Brecke
Education: BA in Humanities and Find Arts from the University of Wyoming; MA in Counseling with emphasis on rehabilitation from the University of Arkansas; PhD in Adult Education from Auburn University

Tabitha currently works as an accommodation specialist in the Office of Accessibility at Auburn. Prior to returning to school, she worked in the rehabilitation field as a rehabilitation teacher, counselor, and supervisor. The achievement of goals by students or clients that they previously thought impossible is the aspect of her career that she enjoys the most.

Tabitha has many hobbies including reading, knitting, weaving, playing harp and singing. She is a member of the American Association of Blind Teachers, an affiliate of the American Council of the Blind, and is the secretary of that organization.

Zachary Mason
Education: BS in Animal Science from Cornell University; MS in Animal and Dairy Sciences from Mississippi State University

Zachary grew up on a dairy farm in Northern New Hampshire. He lost almost all of his vision due to a brain tumor. His involvement in county and state 4-H livestock extension programs impacted his professional and personal life. At Cornell, he was involved in many groups such as the Cornell Dairy Science, Cheese, and Food Science clubs and became a member of the Alpha Zeta honors agricultural fraternity. He also belonged to the Cornell Dairy Fellows Program; a curriculum within the Animal Science department, which is well-known for training the future leaders of the dairy industry. Zachary has a passion for problem-solving, farm families, and agriculture as a whole. He believes ingenuity and flexibility are the keys to success for the exemplary people who are blind that he knows.

To read the biographies of the rest of our Mentors, click here.

Read More about Meet the 2020-2021 CSP Mentors Part 5

Top Takeaways From Our Webinar - Navigating an Online Coronavirus Landscape: College Social Life
A group of 5 female friends are having a picnic on a grassy lawn. Two of the women have their dogs with them. In the background is a river and a city skyline, with the sun setting behind the buildings.

October 27, 2020 by Katie Ottaggio

By: Katie Ottaggio, CSP Engagement Operations Manager

Each month the College Success Program hosts a webinar with topics of interest to students who are blind or have low vision. This fall we are taking on the ways in which COVID-19 has altered the landscape for students in all facets of life: academic, personal, and professional. This month, CSP Mentor Brilynn Rakes talked with two of our other Mentors, Maureen Hayden and Rashad Jones, about cultivating and maintaining a social life during a pandemic.

In case you missed it, here are the top takeaways from this informative webinar. You can also view this webinar in its entirety by clicking here.

Consider utilizing the ExTriCurricular theory.

If you aren't sure what kinds of activities to join, and you feel you can handle more than one, it's a good "rule of thumb" to join one academic activity related to your major, one activity that has a community service component, and one activity that you do for fun. During the pandemic, this model might not work for you in quite the same way, but it's a good rule to consider.

Moving from virtual to in-person meetings can be disorienting.

After months of interacting with your peers virtually, meeting them in person can be disorienting; they may recognize you but you only know them as a name and voice on a screen. When this happens, try diffusing the situation with humor, and don't be afraid to ask for extra verbal clarification for the next time you meet.

Define for yourself what you're comfortable with.

If you're concerned about group sizes, set your own personal limit on the number of people you're willing to socialize with. Identify what you're comfortable with when it comes to meeting with friends and peers both indoors and out.

Events are still happening; go out and find them.

One place to look for events is through virtual advertising and marketing. Follow your school via social media; you'll not only be able to see school sponsored activities but you'll also be able to identify the various student organizations that are running.

And don't rush to delete your emails. Your university and student organizations may use this channel to communicate the activities they're running and the guidelines they're following to make sure everyone stays safe. Find out if there are any student list servs you can join to ensure these messages make it into your inbox.

Word of mouth is a powerful tool as well. Ask your friends and peers what they're doing to stay social and how that's working out for them. Their input can help you decide if you want to pursue a certain activity or take it off the table.

Many social activities can be taken online.

Some organizations may have started online or remote activities well before the pandemic began. Others are attempting virtual for the first time. Here is a list of social activities you may or may not have considered doing online:

  • Meetings with student organizations like student government
  • Special interest activities like virtual game nights, book clubs, bible study, hobby classes like cooking and pottery painting, etc. These experiences can be done through an organization but also can be ones you create on your own.
  • Virtual conferences and conventions
  • Holiday activities like pumpkin carving or singing carols
  • Family reunions, birthdays, and celebrations

Put some social activities on your calendar.

You may also want to consider scheduling your social activities. Many social activities used to be spur of the moment, but that isn't always possible in our current environment. Try scheduling an activity a few weeks in advance. It will make it easier to follow through and will give you something to look forward to.

Incorporate exercise into your life and make it social.

Whether you're working out at the gym on campus, your local YMCA, or online fitness classes, exercise is a great outlet during this time. If you want to do your workout in person but limit the number of people you come in contact with, consider a personal trainer. A one-on-one environment is good for tracking the people you're in contact with. Be sure to research what is available through your university as some colleges offer discounts for things like personal training.

Connect with others from the blind or low vision community.

Remember that there are thousands of other college students who are blind or have low vision and are also trying to figure out how to be social right now. Reach out and connect with them! Go to your favorite social media channel and search things like "blind cooks", "blind scientists", "blind musicians", etc. You'll find many people that share your interests.

You can connect with other college students through the College Success Program, too. This can be done through our exclusive Facebook group as well as our twice weekly Meet Ups (call in details are sent to members of the day of). You may also want to consider connecting with a CSP Mentor, who can help you with identifying social opportunities or share events and activities they're aware of. If you are not currently a CSP member, you can register for free here. To connect with a Mentor, please fill out this form.

Sometimes you need to put in a little work.

During this time of uncertainty, it's essential to reach out, connect, and maintain relationships. It can be daunting to try to figure out ways to be close remotely but it's worth it to maintain your friendships and sanity. During college, your academics are extremely important, but your relationships and experiences are equally vital, so find a way to make those happen. And, as all our panelists agree, they've never regretted getting on an online meeting to connect with family and friends.

Lean into this new world.

A year ago, none of us would have imagined we'd be dealing with a pandemic and the affect it's had on our social lives. But here we are! It's important to refresh and connect whenever possible. Lean in and embrace it. Don't hesitate to reach out to others. Relax and have fun!

And last but not least, don't underestimate the value of a good hat.

Many events have moved outside, and for those with light sensitivity, now is a great time to invest in a good hat. You can even use it to show some school pride!

Read More about Top Takeaways From Our Webinar - Navigating an Online Coronavirus Landscape: College Social Life

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