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Utilizing Blindness Skills in College

by Serena Cucco

Wow! I’m on the Quad! Where’s the classroom building? Where’s the Dining Hall? Where’s the Library? My first week at Manhattanville College was quite a learning experience. I had to orient to the campus, meet lots of new people, find ways to get my reading done, manage my time, make sure all my clothes matched, get to all my classes, and get to know my professors. And I had to do it all indepen- dently!
I oriented by using a tactile map, taking notes on my various routes and asking questions when necessary. I found the students very helpful. However, my friends often asked me if I needed help to get to places I already knew how to get to, and I always politely and proudly declined their offers. I have to say that the snow made life a bit difficult for a few weeks! That’s when I learned to appreciate the smokers, who were always outside and willing to direct me when my landmarks and paths were all covered.


Assimilating into College Life
I made friends the first week of school. The first two were the girls in the room next door. The guys on the other side were computer geniuses happy to help me with computer glitches. I often made plans with my friends for dinner in the dining hall or the pub. The few times I went to dinner alone, I almost never ended up eating alone. My friends often saw me and invited me to sit with them. A couple of times, some friends and I made music videos. One time, we sang and danced to “Surfin’ USA,” one of my favorite Beach Boys songs.
In order to handle matching my clothing, I’ve got braille labels in my shirts and sweaters that say what colors they are and what pants they go with. This way I can make sure that my clothes match. I have done my own laundry. I find doing laundry very annoying, just like everybody else does!


Tackling Academic Challenges
Getting all my reading done was a challenge. The ADA Coordinator at the college gave me a list of upperclassmen who were interested in reading for me. Also, during the first week of classes, my professors announced that I needed readers. A couple of students from each class expressed interest in reading for me
for the class we had together. This helped at the beginning, so that I didn’t fall behind right away. It also gave me some time to try out different readers from the list I had been given. Some of the students from my classes ended up being great readers and became my permanent readers. As the year progressed, many of them also became my friends.


I think it was very important that I chose the readers I used myself. If a potential reader wasn’t very accessible or didn’t read well, I didn’t use him or her. Using readers also made it easier for me to manage my time, since I knew that when a reader came I would be guaranteed a good two hours of work time. I had five regular readers who each came a couple of days a week.
My professors have been friendly, interesting, and very accepting of my blindness. When we have a test, they either e-mail the test out to be brailled or give it to me in print and I have it read to me. I take the test on my BrailleNote (Pulse Data), print it out and hand it in.

I purchase all my books in print from the bookstore and I try to get them in accessible format as well. Some of them are available from Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic and others I get as electronic files directly from the publishers. I don’t usually get all of them in accessible form. That’s where readers come in handy. Sometimes my readers scan the material for me. Then I can either listen to the book on my computer using JAWS, a screen reading program from Freedom Scientific and Kurzweil 1000, a scan/read program from Kurzweil Education Systems, or I can download it into my BrailleNote where I can read it in braille. I access some of the material online, again using JAWS.


Beyond the Campus
I became involved in a mentoring program on campus in which children from a nearby homeless shelter come to Manhattanville once a week. We help them with their homework, talk to them, and play games when they don’t have homework to do. Our favorite game is “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” After this, we all eat dinner together in the Dining Hall. The kids love the Dining Hall because they’ve never had this much food, especially junk food!
During the spring semester, I took my first off-campus trip–to New York City! We went to see a Rangers game at Madison Square Garden and the Rangers won! The college president went with us to the game and bought popcorn for us.
I believe the keys to a successful college experience for a blind student are using good blindness skills, like getting oriented, using readers well, and managing time effectively. Make friends, educate your friends and professors about blindness when necessary, and immerse yourself in your new college life.

Serena Cucco is a guest contributor. She was first profiled in TECH-NJ in 1997 when she was in sixth grade. This update originally appeared in The Sounding Board (Fall/Winter 2004), the publication of the National Federation of the Blind of New Jersey.


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