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Finding their way – blind students navigate college life

Published: Jun 06 2016
Finding their way – blind students navigate college life    - Photo
Sight provides more than just a view of the concrete objects around you. It provides context, non-verbal social cues, visual stimuli, warnings of danger and cultural reference points. It identifies a friendly smile, an open chair in the cafeteria, the beginning of an argument. Sight is also the primary sense used in a traditional academic environment – check the notes, study the charts, read the textbook, watch the video.

BSC sophomores Cole Roberts and James Yesel, both legally blind, have mastered their college experience without access to those visual cues. These students have an impressive ability to problem solve and get what they need from their environments. Both excel at finding workarounds for challenges, advocating for their specific needs and advancing toward their goals.

These two young men are, as Roberts states, “the same as you.” For the most part, yes, but few college students apply such determination to their studies.

Due to an inherited genetic disease called retinoschisis, Yesel had very limited vision most of his life, then lost the rest his senior year of high school – waking up one day with no vision.

“I wasn’t expecting it. My disease is genetic and wasn’t supposed to get worse than it was at birth, but it did.”

And yet, he went to school that day. He says his biggest challenge that year was his advanced math class. Transferring formulas, understanding differentials, all proved difficult at the time.

At BSC, Yesel has completed several math classes, as well as an array of other subjects, with the help of his professors and some innovative adaptive methods.

Yesel cites accounting as one of the more difficult BSC classes he took. “It’s so visual. You see a journal and a ledger. I can’t see that. [Associate professor of accounting] Joe Vuolo worked for hours to help me mentally see what others saw on the page.”

Vuolo is not the only instructor to work closely with these young men. From incorporating tactical graphs into math class to reading tests aloud and providing transcripts to videos, BSC faculty have partnered with the young men to ensure they succeed in the classroom.

The Sykes Student Success Center at BSC has also been a resource. In addition to creating 3D graphs and charts, Shirley Jacobchick, student support services assistant, makes digital books accessible for the students by converting each PDF file into an accessible format, editing the text and removing photos and graphs from the document. Only then can their reading software read the textbooks back to them.

“They both are exceptionally smart students, and have taught me to think outside the box. For instance, when they took accounting, logic and statistics, I’ve had to visualize how the screen reader would read it back to them so it would make sense and they would understand the material,” Jacobchick says.

Born with WAGR syndrome, Roberts has been blind since first grade when he also lost a kidney to cancer – both issues associated with WAGR. He says losing his sight was a shock, but considers himself lucky.

“We knew I’d lose my sight, we just didn’t know when. But I was lucky because many people lose their sight later in life and then they have to learn everything twice – once with sight and once with blindness. I just had to learn things once throughout grade school and middle school.”

In addition to his computer and tactile accommodations Roberts also uses a Braille-based device, called a BrailleNote for some work, as well as a talking calculator and a
talking dictionary.

Roberts has one semester to go at BSC and then plans to attend Global University, an online bible college, and go into ministry.

“So many people have supported me – my vision teacher, classroom teachers – all have taught me to be independent and successful,
to never give up. I want to help others never give up.”

Yesel will complete his associate degree at BSC this spring with a 3.94 GPA. He plans to go to Dickinson State University on the BSC campus and start his own business someday. He isn’t sure what that is, but perhaps something involving his passion for cars.

Yesel says he likes to add horsepower to vehicles people don’t expect to be powerful.

“My friends do the driving though.” 

For more on this story and others like it, check out the Spring 2016 issue of BSC Magazine.