[caption id="attachment_34059" align="alignright" width="265"] Kristen Witucki. Photo by Anannya Dasgupta.
Kristen Witucki, Learning Ally's Community Coordinator for Students who are Blind or Visually Impaired, describes what starting college was like for her as a person who is blind and shares tips for students who are currently entering higher education.
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My high school English teacher, Mr. Roddy, communicated his passion for literature every day. He connected literature to history and philosophy, but more importantly, he connected it to humanity: the need to appreciate every moment of every day. When discussing Siddhartha
by Hermann Hesse one day, he said, “It’s a much more difficult, confusing, layered, complex path to have your own life, but it’s YOUR life.” Like the Bodhisattva of Buddhism or like Plato’s Allegory of the Cave
, he is a deeply intelligent thinker whose life work is passing the gift of his learning along to young people. He is one reason literature is such an important part of my life.
Like many of my general education teachers, Mr. Roddy had never taught a blind student. Unlike many of them, he didn't express much apprehension about working with me. Once this led to an amusing mistake. He handed me the same print quiz he handed everyone else. "I can't take this quiz," I said.
"Why?" he asked blankly.
"I can't read it."
While this certainly wasn't the most eloquent display of self-advocacy, we both laughed. While he kept an eye on the other students, he read the quiz to me in the hallway. His reaction made sense to me. Literature was so word-based that most of the time, my accommodations didn't cause me to stand out very much compared to my peers. I also found what he later apologized for as thoughtlessness to be very refreshing. For once, I was just another student.
So if I think about it from the perspective of my teenaged self, I'm not surprised that the week before the college decision letters came to my house, I sought out Mr. Roddy to discuss my college apprehension, rather than a teacher who had perhaps thought a lot more about my blindness. I have no idea what projects and preparation I interrupted at the time, but he patiently put aside his work to talk to me.
I told him about my first real tour of a college campus. I sat in on a class about Gandhi, and when I approached the professor after the class was over to ask him a question about his lecture, he was completely sidetracked by my blindness. He seemed much more worried about how I would leave the classroom than about whether I understood the class.
"Is it always going to be like this?" I asked. "Are people always going to think of me as the blind girl?"
He explained that when he first heard he was having a blind student, he had no idea what to think, and he talked to other teachers whom I'd already had. "I think, as a person who can see, I worried about doing things wrong, or I worried that somehow I would be unkind," he said. "But eventually you taught me that you were just Kristen, and you'd be fine. Now you will have to start at a new school where no one will know you at all, and at first people will worry about what to say or what to do. So you'll have to do the same thing. Your job will be to teach them that you are yourself."
I held onto the conversation like a talisman, returning to it over that challenging first year of college whenever I needed its balm. Some students and teachers did worry about my blindness, others thought of it as no big deal. Some students seemed to be friendly, but I quickly learned that their friendships stood on the superficial foundation of pity. Other students and I forged deep connections based on our love of literature and education or our joy in spending time together. Eventually, I was just myself, not a person who is blind.
If you’re a high school senior and you’re blind or visually impaired, you’ve probably recently decided upon the college you’re attending. Maybe you’re excited about graduating and escaping into the larger world, or maybe you’re worried about representing your visual impairment and yourself in a completely new place. Either way, try to relax, even if you have to fake it for a while, and communicate your whole self to the faculty and students with whom you’ll be working. Don’t just let them know what you need, but let them experience your strengths, your humor, your feelings. Let them know you as yourself.
Kristen Witucki is the community coordinator for students who are blind or visually impaired at Learning Ally and is excited to be working on the College Success Program. Her past roles at Learning Ally have included member, advocate, intern, product support representative and product tester, among others. She loves to teach and to write (except for coming up with titles) and lives in New Jersey with her husband and their four-year-old son.
Start the next school year strong by getting advice from our amazing College Success Program mentors. Like Kristen, they are all individuals who are blind or visually impaired and have succeeded in college. To learn more or request a fall 2015 mentoring session, visit www.LearningAlly.org/CollegeSuccess.