Editor’s Note: Elizabeth Rouse, currently a student at the Louisiana Center for the Blind, has spent most of her life in a classroom setting. Coming from a family of educators has enabled Elizabeth to grow up in an enriched environment geared toward encouraging self-advocacy in all realms of life, especially academia. After graduating from a small high school in May of 2016, Elizabeth began attending a liberal arts college where her skills in self-advocacy were truly put to the test. It is our hope that some of Elizabeth’s suggestions can benefit blind students from all across the nation venturing into both familiar and unfamiliar endeavors this fall.
Back-to-school season can seem overwhelming at times, especially for blind students entering a new environment. Whether you’re heading off to your first semester of undergrad or starting to take control of your IEP meetings as a high school student, unfamiliar challenges can feel daunting. Over the last eight years, I’ve learned quite a bit about navigating new situations, and I’m excited to share a few of them with you in the hopes that my experience can make any of these steps in your educational journey even a pinch less stressful.
One of the simplest pieces of advice I can offer is to use your voice. Letting those around you, whether they are teachers/professors, disability services staff members, or even your closest friends, know what will help you is important. As uch as we sometimes wish someone could simply read our minds and understand what we need, that isn’t reality. Instead, we are tasked with the responsibility of requesting, suggesting, and advocating for anything and everything that will make the classroom more conducive to our unique learning styles. After all, no one knows what we need to succeed better than ourselves.
Building on to the idea of communicating with those around us, working alongside those same individuals comes next. Pay attention to certain steps in the process that make gathering resources easier for you. For example, if you are working with an office to find an accessible textbook or trying to schedule your upcoming IEP meeting at a time when everyone can attend, be attentive to deadlines and respect that you aren’t the only student working with these entities to accomplish tasks. Make sure everyone is on the same page and remains tied into communication channels. It’s also important to remember that, in some instances, a system may already be in place to help you succeed. Check with an office coordinator to see how things have been done in the past. Use the tools already available to you before you start building systems from scratch. If there isn’t a system in place at your academic institution, remember that you’ve got a Federation family ready, able, and willing to assist. Reach out to someone in the National Association of Blind Students to see if someone has gone through a similar experience. Doing everything alone gets tiring, and it’s perfectly normal to lean on others for support since you’ve also got classes and extracurricular activities to contend with.
When I first started college, I was anything but confident in my own abilities. I’d just graduated from a tiny high school, and I thought I was the only blind student at my college; however, by communicating with the Student Support Services office, I found two other blind students on my campus. They became a pivotal resource for me, and together we worked through difficulties we faced both in and out of the classroom. By sharing both my positive and negative experiences with them, my confidence began to grow. The more challenges I faced down and overcame, the more I felt I could take on. By working alongside those willing to help me, I evolved into a more confident person. I also stepped outside of my comfort zone, attending events like Washington Seminar, which helped me recognize how my newfound, and still developing, sense of confidence could benefit others to come after me.
The age-old phrase “Rome wasn’t built in a day” is sadly true. Developing as a communicative and confident student dedicated to collaborating with others takes time. Throughout this process, it is essential to try and remain calm when things get tough. You may experience stress, frustration, and a sense of defeat, but learning to cope with these feelings is a part of growing in your level of maturity. The more calm you remain, the more you can handle in a level-headed manner. Screaming, crying, and throwing things at a wall may work wonders on your frustration levels, but after your temper has settled, the problem still stands, and all you’re left with is a mess to clean up. The most important thing to remember, though, is that you can clean up that mess, take a few breaths, and tackle the problem from a different angle. Academia is a wonderful environment for students to grow into their own talents and abilities. Be patient with yourself and the situations you face, and remember to tap into your resources because no matter how you may feel, you’re never facing things alone.
As you enter the classroom this fall, I encourage you to keep this Japanese proverb in the back of your mind: “Fall seven times and stand up eight.” Students are resilient, dedicated, and much stronger than we think.