The International Gazette Philadelphia, PA Summer 2015
How Students with Disabilities Can Adjust to College
By David Block
Transitioning from high school to college can be difficult for most people. Adjustments range from an unfamiliar change of scenery to living far away from friends and family. For blind and visually impaired students starting college without independent living skills might have an incredibly difficult time adjusting.
Six years ago, Dael Cohen, Overbrook School for the Blind’s (OSB) Coordinator of Transition Services, sought to improve this situation for some of the OSB high school students. He implemented an independent living program for them with Jack Reuben serving as a primary instructor.
Reuben said that there are similar programs in Washington State, and Texas.
Being in the forefront of undertaking new projects is no new OSB phenomenon. Established in 1832 in Philadelphia, OSB was the third blind school in the U.S. Perkins School for the Blind in Massachusetts, and the New York Institute for the Blind were the first two.
Former OSB interim director Jackie Brennan said that the school was the first to print an embossed book with raised letters in all of North America in 1833. The book was The Gospel of Mark, and it is on display at the OSB museum.
According to Reuben, the average number of students enrolled in the independent living program ranges from 8 to 10. These students live, eat, and sleep on OSB campus Monday through Thursday. During the week, they learn how to travel and shop independently. They also learn how to set up their own job interviews, and plan their own meals.
Some of the students take college courses at Delaware County Community College while enrolled in the OSB program in order to get a taste of college life.
Reuben recalled one student who seemed independent before he enrolled in the OSB program, but soon he and the staff realized that they were wrong.
”That student’s mother did everything for him,” said Reuben. “She did his laundry, cleaned his room, made all his doctor appointments for him; she drove him everywhere. He had no idea how to negotiate the world as an adult. We had to teach him how to boil water, how to use a washer and dryer. He eventually learned all those skills.”
Last year, one of Reuben’s students took a course at Delaware County Community College, and found herself having trouble with the school’s disability office. She did not get all the help she needed.
“It was her fault,” said Reuben. “In college, you need to make sure you get what you need. They’re not mind readers. It’s not their responsibility to seek you out. It’s yours.” (Reuben was not allowed to release her name because she is a minor.)
Temple University student with ADAH and the Disability Office
Temple University sophomore Arthi Selvan, 19, of Newtown, Pa – 45 minutes from Philadelphia – has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), but she only found out after she started college.
“My biggest challenge at Temple was attempting to navigate college without knowing what was wrong with me,” said Selvan, “and now it’s navigating college with my label.”
Before her diagnosis, she struggled throughout her life in school. She knew that she was intelligent, even though her grades told a different story. She graduated from Council Rock North High School in 2013.
“I always gave 100 percent but always fell short,” said Selvan. “Since I have been diagnosed, I am better able to navigate school. Because of my late diagnosis, though, I am still trying to figure out what it’s like to live life with ADHD. I am still finding the courage to talk to professors about my accommodations, know that my friends will still love me when I interrupt them.”
She still has the ongoing problem of showing up late for class, but she said she would rather be embarrassed and feel judged instead of skipping class.
Selvan is one of approximately 2,000 students registered with Temple University’s Disability Resource and Services (DRS), according to its director Aaron Specter.
“There are a number of students with disabilities that do not register because they don’t need, or feel like they need, services. There are a number who don’t want to utilize services because of the stigma attached based on their past experience,” said DRS Student Services Coordinator Allen Sheffield who has held that position for 3 years.
Transitioning to college can be difficult for anyone.
“This is also true for students with disabilities,” said Sheffield. “There can be many factors. Educational programs that don’t prepare the students for the rigors of college, parents who never allow students to develop independence, social, or self-advocacy skills, students who just are not equipped to handle the jump from high school to college … College is what you make of it! The more a student is willing to speak up for what they need and own that, the more they will be able to become involved and enjoy the full experience.”
Sheffield said he hopes to see disability become more of a piece of a person’s identity rather than a medical condition.
“I would also like to see more proactive access, universal design, and supports put into place to support the faculty in making their classes accessible.”
Interaction between able-bodied students and students with disabilities is an ongoing problem.
Sheffield added, “More often than not, it is the ’able-bodied’ student that has a harder time with the student with a disability. … People often have a limited exposure to and default to that experience in their conceptualization of a person with a disability. For example, the uncle who was severely intellectually disabled that was put into an institution. The family friend who has an adult child that never learned language. This and other media influences can skew a person’s conceptualization of what to expect of a person with a disability.”
Unlike blind and/or paralyzed students, Selvan can keep her ADHD a secret.
“I do feel the judgment when I have to step outside of the room to take quizzes in a separate room with extended time, but some people who know what I have, treat me differently only to support me and help me be the best I can be.”
College student with visual disabilities and/or ADHD can benefit from digital technology.
The digital revolution resulted in more technological advances in the past 5 years versus the past 50. It’s happening everywhere – including the Library for the Blind, 919 Walnut St. Philadelphia.
“We’ve made technological changes within the past few years,” said Keri Wilkins, an administrator at Library for the Blind. “Now we can download Braille and audio books directly to the Internet. Before we couldn’t.”
Andre Watson, 38, a blind Philadelphia psychologist, remembered how the library’s services were more cumbersome when he was in high school, college and graduate school.
“I used to have to carry a big tape recorder,” said Watson. “The books [on tape] would come in these big plastic boxes.”
Watson remembered that some recorded books would consist of 20 to 30 tapes. In addition, if another Library for the Blind user had the book out, other users had to wait. Unlike regular libraries, the user could keep the book out as long as he or she wanted. Some users would have to wait a few years before certain books would be available. Losing books on tape or keeping the books indefinitely never resulted in library fines. (I know because I kept a few books I badly needed. I also had trouble getting certain books on tape because either someone else had it or I was on a waiting list.)
Because the books are now on the Internet, those days of waiting for books are gone.
“They can now download books onto their thumb-drive,” Wilkins said.
All the reader has to do is download the book, place it on a thumb drive, plug it into a special cartridge player from the National Library Service in Washington, DC. and listen to the text. These playing devices are only for people who are partially or completely blind.
This technological progression has freed the listeners from having to wait for the books on tape/cartridge to arrive in the mail.
This writer remembers that the mail and availability were the only way to get books on tape. Today, that method is obsolete, and it has been that way since the mid 2000s. (I know because I’m a user of the services.)
Library for the Blind is under the umbrella of the National Library Service in Washington, D.C.
According to their website, the Pennsylvania Home Teaching Society and Free Circulating Library for the Blind was established in Philadelphia in 1882. In 1899, it was incorporated with the Free Library of Philadelphia.
(Consult http://www.loc.gov/nls/about_history.html#one for additional information.)
According to Wilkins, the Library for the Blind moved to its current location 919 Walnut Street in 1974. She added that their branch services about 4,000 blind and visually impaired users. She estimated that the National Library Service has about 150,000 book titles available to users either in Braille or on cartridge.
Originally, the talking books were on records. Then in the ‘70s, the books were transferred and recorded onto tapes. Within the past decade, books became available on cartridges.
There are similar organizations that provide the same type of services.
Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic in Princeton, N.J. has also moved away from placing their books on tape. Their users can now rely on a thumb drive and the Internet to access books. The books no longer need to be mailed.
Although the two agencies made similar technological advances, their agendas differ
The national library service provides popular and classic books for their users to listen to, while Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic’s books are more academic. College and graduate students usually use Recording for the Blind over Library for the Blind, but once out of college the same users switch to the national library service.
When talking books were returned to organizations under the umbrella of the National Library Services, the staff would immediately send the same book to the user next on the waiting list.
When clients mailed back their talking books to Recording for the Blind, the staff would tape a new book over it. The wear and tear of the tape often resulted in Recording for the Blind turning out talking books with terrible sound quality. Those days are now gone.