“I never wanted to be the stereotypical blind person,” Keene State College junior David Crook laughed. “What I mean is that I don’t want to be the one everybody feels bad for.” Crook was born with a rare degenerative retinal disease called Leber congenital amaurosis. Since infancy, Crook said, he has slowly been loosing his sight. Today he has approximately 2 percent useful vision.
Studying communication at KSC, Crook relies on Benson, his seeing-eye-dog, to maneuver around campus.
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Junior Alex Krauth, who has been blind since her premature birth, said she manages her way through campus with the assistance of a cane. “I’m not really a dog person,” she shrugged.
Both Krauth and Crook shared in the opinion that the layout of the KSC campus makes getting to and from class less of a challenge than some might think.
“Pretty much every important building is right off Appian,” Crook said. “You can easily find your way around with landmarks and key features, and everything is away from traffic.” Krauth commented that New England winters have proved the only real hazard for her commute through campus.
“It can be slightly difficult when there is snow or ice on the ground, but usually maintenance has done a great job to make sure every pathway is clear,” she said.
To continue to ensure their routines remain uninterrupted, students like Krauth and Crook seek help within the Keene State Office of Disability Services, located in the Elliot Center.
The Office of Disability Services, or ODS, created a mission to ensure all student activities and programs are made accessible to any student in need of assistance.
ODS Director Jane Warren said students must qualify for the services’ accommodations at the start of each semester through an application process. In the 2012 spring semester, approximately 450 KSC students will be approved.
In a 2012 summary of student accommodations, ODS reported students seeking assistance for disabilities in learning, physiological/emotional help, chronic health conditions, traumatic brain injuries, autism and Asperger’s, to name a few.
ODS provides students who qualify with arrangements such as notetakers, interpreters, prioritized registration, preferential seating, course substitution, and the provision of alternative texts. ODS also coordinates with Residential Life to provide for students’ needs.
Assistant Director Lisa David explained one of the most used services is the space for students to experience “alternative testing,” which allows students who qualify extended time to take exams in a quiet, solitary space.
“Services like these levels the playing field among students,” David said.
KSC junior and film studies major Jamie Del Pizzo takes advantage of ODS’s notetaking service as she lives with bilateral hearing loss, meaning the nerves within her ears do not function.
Del Pizzo explained while she can hear some loud and very low noises with the help of a hearing aid, she relies on her ability to read lips.
Del Pizzo said in addition to having a notetaker, she makes accommodations with her professors to sit in the front of the class.
“I think I work harder than a lot of students,” she explained. “I don’t always hear my professor, so I end up understanding 50 to 60 percent of the class being taught.” Del Pizzo said she often requests professors send her the videos she watched in class so she can view them with closed captions on her own time to better understand the content.
Del Pizzo also said she made an arrangement through ODS and Residential Life to have a fire alarm installed within her room that lights up in addition to making sound.
Program Support Assistant Val Perry said that accommodations such as the ones Del Pizzo has made for herself are available to any student who qualifies, but stressed it is the student’s responsibility to seek assistance within the program.
“Students must qualify for support, and then they must become self advocates.” Perry continued, “We have a reputation for self advocacy—it’s a difference in philosophy than many institutions which hold students’ hands the whole way through.”
Director Warren added, “Students have to be in charge of what they need. We follow a self-determination model and we put out the message that you know yourself best.”
Krauth, a music major, explained she learned in her first year at KSC to make the appropriate arrangements for herself prior to each semester. “I have learned to make sure I stay on top of things and request materials before the course starts,” she said.
Wayne Harvey, ODS counselor and alternative text coordinator, transforms regular text into formats which include PDF files, Word documents, audio files, and Braille. “I’m a counselor and a friend,” Harvey explained, who with Alternative Text Specialist Owen Davis turns Krauth’s text and music scores into Braille.
“My job is to make these students’ lives easier and support their interaction with professors,” he said.
Assistant Director David echoed Harvey when she stated, “We’re the buffer between students and professors, but we always encourage students to talk to faculty.”
Alyssa Marinaccio, a KSC senior with attention deficit disorder, connected with ODS as a freshman. Marinaccio said there have been times she felt frustrated by a lack of understanding and support from professors. “It’s easier on the student if the professor is understanding,” Marinaccio said. “Sometimes people don’t take it seriously enough, and you end up being singled out in the class.” Marinaccio continued and said through the support she’s received from ODS, she has grown to be unembarrassed by her disability.
“Using the services here I’ve made honors every semester,” she said. “If I didn’t use these services, I wouldn’t be as successful as I am today. I’d rather be an A student than not tell anyone about my disability and struggle through.”
Support Assistant Perry could not hide her pride when discussing Marinaccio’s growth through the ODS program.“ Alyssa has come full circle,” Perry stated. “She has learned the ropes; she’s learned to advocate.”
Though the challenge of a disability has proved difficult at times, positivity and determination reign in each of these students’ daily lives. Krauth, though blind from birth, said she considers herself lucky.
“I think I’m special because I may have some different ways of approaching daily tasks,” she said.
Krauth continued, “Mostly I’m treated like any other person you’d come into contact with, but sometimes when I meet people it takes them a little while to get used to the fact that I do have a disability. I wish people didn’t automatically think just because I’m blind I’m limited in more areas in that.”
Crook added he has learned to adapt to the changes in sight he experiences and challenge himself to attempt any task in his way.
“You have to have the type of personality where you can work through it and think quickly. You have no other option than to stay positive,” he concluded.
Julie Conlon can be contacted at email@example.com