From the Editor: With the introduction of the Accessible Instructional Materials in Higher Education Act, blind students across the country have been hard at work advocating for our right to an equal education. However, advocacy takes many forms, even when it comes to our own personal journeys. Robert Parsons is pursuing a Masters degree at Western Michigan University in Rehabilitation Counseling and Vision Rehabilitation Therapy. Robert serves as the Vice President of the Michigan Association of Blind Students, a Board Member of the National Federation of the Blind of Michigan, and the President of the NFBMI Kalamazoo chapter. When he isn't juggling Federation work and an 18 credit graduate courseload, Robert enjoys cooking, reading, and debate. Below, Robert shares his journey and how he learned that engaging in self advocacy both on and off Capitol Hill as a student can make a difference.
It is said that people that run track and field experience a sensation called a runner’s high. This experience, where the individual, usually at the precipice of exhaustion, in infused with an invigorating burst of energy that facilitates victory during a race or completion of a previously set goal. My current chapter in the novel that is my journey as a blind student is in the midst of a runner’s high, aptly renamed student’s high. Like the runner’s high, I am at the end of my current journey, at the threshold of academic exhaustion (if I write one more case study, I promise you …), and I am quickly becoming infused with energy and excitement in a medley of realms that is facilitating completion of the task that is graduate school. What’s better, however, is the ambition that this high has built to pursue further academic and professional dreams, something I would have never fathomed prior to my blindness and interaction with many of my mentors.
I first decided to return to college and acquire a degree in 2013 after vision loss. While recovering in the intensive care unit of the hospital after the attack that took my vision, my vocational rehabilitation counselor pitched the idea of returning to college and training as a blind student in order to increase my rehabilitation potential. I immediately agreed and became excited about this new experience, but also extremely nervous because I had never met a blind person in an academic setting. However, after training, an introduction to my local NFB chapter in Richmond, VA, and the acquisition of both an Associate’s and Bachelor’s degree, I set my sights on becoming a vocational rehabilitation counselor, where I could instill the same drive to guide my future as my counselor and mentors had with me. Such readiness drove me to apply for and get accepted to Western Michigan University’s dual master’s program for Rehabilitation Counseling and Vision Rehabilitation Therapy.
Passion, for me, has always been equated to what gives me the most energy and opens the possibility of creating networks and opportunities. There is no other part of my academic, extra-curricular, and personal experience that accomplishes this more than advocacy. Though I discussed Washington Seminar already, it is only the foundation that was laid for me to hone and craft my advocacy skills. I attended my first Washington Seminar in 2015, where I, along with 27 members of the Virginia affiliate connected with elected officials and their staff to discuss issues that are prevalent to the state’s, a nation’s, blind. The work done there showed me that despite the consensus of a world that always does not consider your potential, skill, and work ethic, you can make a difference in the process of things that affect you. The philosophy of raising expectations for this blind guy carried me to advocate for a job in my community college to tutor students despite my supervisor not being able to fathom a blind student providing that service to his sighted counterparts. During this application process, also in 2015, my supervisor called me into the educational support center to describe her hesitation to allow me to become an English tutor. After advocating fiercely and showcasing my skills, grades, and comprehension of their reporting system, I was given the position to tutor English. Upon graduation from this community college, I was a tutor for English, French, World History, Geography, all of the Sociology courses offered, and Women’s Literature. That first true, tangible success not only showed me I could advocate for myself, but that I was good at it and could do it effectively for others. This influenced my decision to become a rehabilitation professional, the decision to advocate for my spot in my fraternity, Iota Phi Theta, Inc., and a plethora of other organizations around all three of the campuses I have traversed throughout my academic career. This advocacy also gave me the confidence and vocabulary to have difficult conversations with my loved ones, who culturally are still understanding blindness, to release the reigns on my frequent travel and trust my abilities to do the excellent work of the Federation nationwide.
Where things are right now in my educational journey makes me cringe, smile, and binge eat cookies out of anxiety. I began my graduate program in 2018, where it was projected that I would complete the program between 3.5-4 years. Since beginning, however, I have taken the maximum course load of 18 credits each term while working on Federation projects, publishing my own article in a peer-reviewed journal, and finding what interests me most in the rehabilitation field. This term, the final for my coursework, I began my practicum experience in one program and applied for internships in the other. Working deadlines for applications, researching information for certification exams, and doing the great work of the Federation has revealed to me that I am not only interested in rehabilitation counseling, but even more interested in effecting the way that the higher education community trains and prepares these future counselors to interact with and advocate for their blind clients. While I have been enjoying my experiences in completing one chapter of my educational journey, I believe that I have discovered that my passion has shifted a bit. It is for that reason that I declare my next leg of the journey will be as a doctoral candidate for a Rehabilitation Administration graduate program. My student’s high during my home stretch instantly became the prelude to the next chapter in this novel, because with higher expectations my achieved realities continues to spark new dreams. Students, there is so much power in unwavering support and a network that provides empathy. The National Association of Blind Students and the Federation as an organization has these qualities, and without this family I would have slowed my momentum years ago. Be best!