Recently, the United States celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. This landmark law has opened many doors to equal access and opportunities, but learning how to request access can be an overwhelming challenge. In today’s post, I wish to highlight some of the self-advocacy skills I used growing up and continue to utilize today.
When I was finishing the eighth grade, I saw many friends obtaining summer jobs. Most people were working at grocery stores, as camp counselors, or in restaurants. Since I am totally blind, these jobs would have been difficult. Therefore, I called a friend and described my predicament. I explained I used the phone regularly, liked talking to people, and could use a computer. At the same time, I asked the school to provide my transcript so my friend, whose family owns a world-renowned travel company, could see my grades. He understood my desire to have the same opportunities as my friends and offered me a job as a receptionist. I worked with a supervisor to obtain a copy of the staff directory, and gathered information about the most popular tours. I transcribed these documents into Braille so I could ensure I was knowledgeable. I arrived to work early, had a desire to learn, and posed questions to my supervisor to help me become a vital member of the team. Holding this first job was an experience I will always treasure.
Self-advocacy continued as I chose a college. I began researching colleges by asking about the services available for students who are blind. For example, did the college have a Braille embosser? Was the text-to-speech program, JAWS, on any computers in their computer labs? Had any prior students who were blind attended their university? On one phone call, a disability director said he had never heard of Braille or of JAWS, and wondered how Jaws, the movie, helped a student study. I calmly described Braille and JAWS, but realized quickly this particular college might not be the best fit. After touring several colleges throughout New England, I selected Fitchburg State University which was a tremendous decision. Fitchburg had a Braille embosser, JAWS on several computers, and staff members who were always willing to assist me. I worked closely with the book store to learn names of textbooks that would be used in each class. I also asked professors to e-mail documents either to me or to the disability services staff so I could access the same information as my peers. Through excellent organizational skills, a positive attitude, and a willingness to adapt if a strategy wasn’t working, I was named to the Dean’s list during every semester of college.
Self-advocacy can be daunting and making an initial request can cause a pit to grow in a person’s stomach. However, I am most grateful I began advocating for myself as a young person. Through the support of my parents, a dynamic teacher of the visually impaired, and exemplary mobility instructors, I have become more comfortable asking for accommodations. I welcome each situation with an open-minded approach, use appropriate language, and try to create a resolution which is congenial to all involved parties. Each challenge helped me to grow, and become the happy, active adult I am today.