Dear Lou Anna,
Amanda Gretka’s dorm room in West Holmes is like most other MSU students’ dorms. She has a pink fitted sheet with yellow stripes on her futon, portraits on the walls of sunsets and waterfalls, a closet chock-full of clothes and a lofted bed in the corner. On her desk, Gretka keeps her everyday necessities, including an audio-enhanced laptop that reads everything that comes onto the screen, along with a photo-scanner magnifying glass that scans print and blows it up hundreds of times larger than its original size. Wait…a what? Yep, that is right; she has a magnifying glass scanner. Gretka, a physical therapy sophomore, is one of the many visually impaired students at MSU. [ag1]
We all know about the stresses of college: Am I going to get this assignment done on time? How am I ever going to juggle 16 credits this semester? I don’t know if I can handle all this homework. However, students with visual impairments, like Gretka, face additional challenges. Knowing how stressful college is for students without a disability, I can’t even imagine the challenges faced by students who are visually impaired. MSU is doing well in helping accommodate these students, L.A., but we should make sure we keep our reputation as a school that will be a positive aid to the visually impaired.
In fact, Gretka transferred here from Grand Valley State University (GVSU) this year, partially because MSU offers more resources to visually impaired students. She found MSU to be extremely helpful when it came to her disability, in part because MSU has a wide array of disabled students. “The more people there are, the more help there is,” she said.
For instance, Gretka used the help of the Resource Center for Persons with Disabilities (RCPD), located in 120 Bessey Hall, for assistance in her transition to MSU. RCPD, which has been aiding disabled students since 1971, services both MSU students and employees with disabilities. RCPD’s mission is to lead MSU in maximizing ability and opportunity for persons with disabilities, such as blindness and visual impairment, brain injury, chronic health disabilities, deaf/hard of hearing, learning and cognitive disabilities, mobility disabilities and psychiatric disabilities.
RCPD also helps students find a place to live. “[RCPD] is how I ended up in a single room,” Gretka said. Her room is also handicap accessible and more spacious than the average MSU dorm. “[RCPD] helped me get approval,” she explained. “It’s basically to help fit my accommodations; some of the things I use are really expensive.” Much of her machinery, including her photo scanner, also takes up a lot of space, making a more spacious room necessary.
Beyond living arrangements, one of the most challenging aspects of being blind at MSU is trying to navigate such a large campus. To help curb this predicament, the RCPD office allows blind students to access Web sites for campus construction updates with their specialty computer programs that read the site’s text out loud. The RCPD office also puts blind students in contact with a student willing to walk around campus with them. Gretka declined the offer however, because her boyfriend attended MSU last year, and she was already familiar with the campus. “I was here almost every weekend,” Gretka said. “I learned about construction and other problems with finding our way around from being here so often.” But other students are not so well-versed in campus layout, and a “walking buddy” becomes a valuable resource for them.
RCPD also does much in the way of providing academic and social opportunities and resources. The center employees help visually impaired students with alternative testing options and set up extra-curricular activities such as wheelchair hockey and beeper baseball. RCPD even has alternative Study Abroad programs for the disabled, such as the four-week program in Dublin, Ireland, that works in collaboration with the Office of Rehabilitation and Disability Students (ORDS) to provide a unique opportunity to explore attitudes and beliefs about disabilities.
[martz]”We have approximately 30 students annually, who are visually impaired, that we give assistance to at RCPD,” said Virginia Martz, a blindness, visual impairment and mobility disabilities specialist with RCPD. “What we do to provide help for them depends on what kind of help the individual needs. At the beginning of the year, when things are usually a little busier, students make an appointment with the RCPD, especially if they just need advising. There are a variety of things that students are currently utilizing through the resources at RCPD. It all depends on what their needs are.”
Another organization the administration deserves praise for, L.A., is Tower Guard, a prestigious group which has been around since 1934. Tower Guard works together with RCPD to help about 450-500 students with print-related disabilities each year. In the past, Tower Guard members used to actually read text out loud to visually impaired students in the Tower Guard office, which is the second floor of the Beaumont Tower. With the advent of technology such as recorders and computers, however, Tower Guard enhanced its services to continue to be a successful aid to the blind. The organization is run by approximately 80 sophomore students per school year that are carefully chosen to be members based on their academic excellence, leadership skills and commitment. [ag2]
Spanish and education junior Piper Marunick was president of Tower Guard from 2006 to 2007 and knows what a successful and important organization it is. “I have found it very rewarding to not only be part of this great history and organization, but also to aid students in such a wonderful way,” Marunick said. “I have gained such an incredible respect for those who have visual impairments.”
L.A., the university deserves recognition for allowing Tower Guard to flourish as an organization. They do much to assist visually impaired students, such as constructing e-text (a way of converting a printed book into a digital format where it can be accessed by a computer). “We upload our books that we e-text online at bookshare.org ,” Marunick said. “From here, students with print-related disabilities can access these texts through college campuses all throughout the country.” Additionally, Tower Guard also offers a campus orientation, in which they walk students who need assistance through campus.
Blind and visually impaired students recognize and appreciate the help they receive at MSU. “I’ve already talked to more people here in the past two and a half weeks than I did my entire time at GVSU,” Gretka said. It is organizations like these to be proud of, L.A. – they are the reason we stand apart from other universities when it comes to giving aid to the visually impaired. However, more can still be done to assist those with disabilities at MSU, especially visual impairments.[ag3]
Blind students need to be made aware of organizations like these right away. Gretka had heard the name Tower Guard, but was not sure what kind of organization it is. What good are these valuable resources if not all students with disabilities are aware of them, L.A.?
In order to get the word out about these organizations, the university should make sure the hall managers of each resident hall are made aware of the blind students in their buildings, enabling them to offer their support. Perhaps a reach-out welcome packet at the start of each school year would help blind and visually impaired with their transition to MSU and inform them about the different groups and the extended help they can receive.
Much of the confusion that blind and visually impaired students face may also come from the lack of Braille around campus. Many campus buildings, elevators and signs lack Braille, a valuable tool for these students. L.A., don’t you think it would be helpful for the university to encrypt Braille onto all of our signs?
Despite minor room for improvement, MSU has still proved to be a top choice for blind and visually impaired students. As Gretka put it, “MSU is awesome.” Good job, L.A., on the assistance to the visually impaired here at MSU. Let’s be sure to keep aid for students with disabilities a priority at MSU.
Seeing U. Lead
Dear Lou Anna,