After a brain tumor took away his sight when he was eight years old, LSA senior Nicholas Hoekstra had to adjust to a new way of life. Determined to live on his own terms, Hoekstra learned to cope with the social and academic difficulties blind individuals face every day.
“(Blindness) is something you deal with your entire life,” Hoekstra said. “You are constantly encountering new situations and things to adjust to, and it often takes a bit longer to figure out how to do it in your own way.”
New computer technology and special accommodations have enabled Hoekstra and other blind students to navigate the academic environment with greater ease. Some blind students, however, say they feel that obstacles remain on the level of social interaction.
In recent years, the University has installed ergopods – computer workstations with specialized software and hardware – in various campus facilities to make computers more accessible to students with disabilities. In addition to features such as adjustable monitors and magnifying capabilities, ergopods offer students access to software that enables blind students to navigate the Internet using only the keyboard.
Another resource at the University is the Office of Services for Students with Disabilities, which provides transportation for disabled students and aids blind students by obtaining audio or computer versions of course materials and securing special classroom accommodations such as allowing blind students more time to complete an exam.
SSD director Sam Goodin said that while disabled students clearly encounter difficulties at the University, the academic performance of these students does not seem to be affected.
“When we compared the grade point averages (of disabled students) to those of other undergraduates in LSA, we found them to be very similar,” Goodin said. “They are achieving despite the disability. About 500 students have been granted classroom accommodations, and the fact that I only get a few complaints per term speaks of the climate of our University.”
But Goodin added that part of the difficulty in addressing the many concerns of disabled students is that disability groups have different needs and that many at the University lack an understanding of the struggles disabled individuals face. He said that informing the campus community about the issues that concern people with disabilities would improve the social and academic environment for disabled students.
For Hoekstra and other blind students, such as Rackham student Fred Moss, this lack of understanding often presents the greatest challenge arising from their disability. Moss, blind since birth, said blind students must constantly educate their peers about the concerns and desires of the blind.
“Sometimes you feel you’re constantly having to teach people what constitutes an appropriate interaction, and that can be tiring,” Moss said. “Often I feel like I need to make a handbook on social interaction.”
Moss added that although his general experience with people on the street and in the community has been positive, he wishes others would recognize the tremendous effort individuals with disabilities must often put forth just to live their lives.
“You have to be willing to go into situations and deal with obstacles and your own discomfort,” Moss said. “You are always conquering it. My biggest coping mechanism is pushing through – but that is hard to learn, and I understand why people with disabilities get tired of pushing.”
In fact, Hoekstra said that while he is fairly accustomed to living on his own and dealing with the everyday issues that relate to his disability, he is not as well adjusted to dealing with other people. Although Hoekstra said the social environment of the University is better than that of his hometown, he said he still encounters individuals who focus only on his disability.
“People will come up to me on the street and ask if I need help when I am getting along just fine,” Hoekstra said. “Some people will assume I can’t do anything, and others ask tons of questions and never learn other things about myself. It is nice when you meet a person who doesn’t say anything or forgets that I’m blind completely. It’s important (people) realize (my blindness) is a minor part of my life,” he said.
In hopes of improving the overall understanding of the issues surrounding disabilities, students and faculty developed a program last year promoting the study of disability at the University. The University of Michigan Initiative in Disability Studies, or UMINDS, provides an interdisciplinary course on disability topics each semester and funds research grants and lectures from visiting scholars.
“The primary goal of UMINDS is to expand diversity at the University by integrating the study of disability into research, scholarship and teaching,” said Tobin Siebers, chair of the UMINDS steering committee. “We need to make education accessible to everyone. We need to change the ways we teach, design buildings, develop subject matter and approach the relationship between students and teachers.”
Siebers said that the ultimate goal of UMINDS is to establish a disability studies program at the University.
“Once you begin to look at disability as a critical concept and not as a personal defect, it can be seen as an intellectual tool to approach other fields of knowledge,” he said. “There is the potential to change the way we see the world.”
Moss said the UMINDS initiative is one of the greatest strides toward increasing the understanding of people with disabilities that he has seen as a student at the University.
“I am really excited to see the kind of growth going on around that initiative,” Moss said. “If students with disabilities are on any campus, then indeed we have the opportunity to participate in the discussion around all kinds of issues. The more we are present, the better.”