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The Disability Services Office is a Tool, Not a Crutch

Categories: Blind or Visually Impaired

Student Disability Services OfficeAs an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, despite ultimately graduating with honors, I found myself on academic probation and with less than a C average after my first year of classes. My initial substandard performance was largely born of a reluctance to advocate for myself and secure the accommodations that I knew I needed to reach my full potential. At its root, this was a result of a sense of discomfort with myself as a blind person. Because I was not comfortable in my own skin, I was not willing to stand up and let people know what I needed to fulfill my academic potential. It took me some time to learn that, though disability services offices can be extremely helpful and schools do, in fact, have a legal obligation to provide materials to students in accessible formats, ultimately, it was up to me to ensure that I had what I needed. I was never taught to read braille as a child, so my only viable options for reading or doing school work were on a computer with speech output software, listening to the tape of a live reader, or working directly with a live reader to assist me. My strong preference has always been to work independently on a computer. My reading comprehension is much stronger when I read this way and, moreover, I am not at the mercy of another individual's schedule when I want to study. Despite this preference, and the knowledge that I do better academically when working with a computer, I accepted the tapes and readers that were offered by the disability student services office without pushing them to provide the materials in a format that worked better for me. This was my failure. It was my responsibility to ensure that I had what I needed to be successful. A brief review of my transcript, with poor grades in language classes, dropped math courses and other obvious problems, made it clear that my approach was not working. I not only had difficulty scheduling sessions with readers, but I struggled to comprehend taped readings, particularly those in foreign languages or of a technical nature. In some instances, I dropped classes due to a lack of accessible course materials. Fortunately, about halfway through my stint at college, I figured it out. I learned that it was my job to communicate clearly, assertively, and respectfully to the disability services office and my professors how they could best support me. I realized that, when the school was not delivering on their end of the bargain, it was my responsibility to contact publishers to get electronic texts, and if they would not provide them, to rip bindings off of books and scan them myself. Once I grasped this fact and started using the disability services office as a tool rather than a crutch, everything changed. I took full course loads, worked as a tutor, and was involved in extracurricular activities while earning nearly straight-A's. Despite learning these lessons the hard way, I was lucky to have learned them. Without accepting my blindness, learning to be my own best advocate, and recognizing that, as a blind student, sometimes I will simply have to do a bit of extra work to succeed, I would never have made it through my undergraduate years. I would never have been able to be successful in employment and graduate school settings. It is my hope that somebody reading this will take it to heart and save the trouble of learning this lesson the hard way.
Sean WhalenSean Whalen grew up in Wisconsin and completed his undergraduate work at the University of Wisconsin. He has a Master’s degree in Public Policy from the Kennedy School of Public Policy, Harvard, and plans to attend law school. Even though he has no usable vision, Sean is one of the many young people who were not taught braille as a writing and reading medium while growing up. He learned as an adult and works to this day to increase his speed. Sean is the current president of the National Association of Blind Students, a division of NFB, for his third term. He has been a longtime member of Learning Ally and depends on the audio versions of books to help him get through the huge amount of reading he must accomplish each day. While serving as an intern with a lobbyist in Washington D.C., Sean learned the value of having a mentor. He became a Learning Ally College Success Program mentor because he wants to share his knowledge with current college students. Sean and the other College Success Program mentors are all individuals who are blind or visually impaired and have succeeded in college. To learn more or request a fall 2015 mentoring session, visitwww.LearningAlly.org/CollegeSuccess.