July 29, 2016

Gaining Independence as a College Student who is Blind

Photo of Meganby Megan Dausch, a Learning Ally College Success Program mentor

The word independence was one I always revered. It was a word spoken again and again by my teachers and parents.

Independence was always the prize they wanted for me, and something I knew I wanted for myself. But I thought that independence implied always doing things singularly by myself and never asking for help.  I imagined independence as a ladder with many rungs: from taking my first step  as a baby, to going to college, to living on my own. I wondered when I’d reach the top of that ladder?

In high school, when my friends started to drive, I could tell their independence had undergone a major shift. They could go where they wanted on their own terms. I didn’t feel like I had this same independence rite of passage, since I couldn’t just hop in my car and go wherever I wanted, whenever I wanted.

During college, my independence started to blossom.

Everyone walked everywhere on campus, so we were all in the same boat. I walked to the dining hall just as my sighted friends did. Most freshman didn’t have cars, so we took the campus bus into town when we needed to venture off campus.

College taught me a lot about independence, but perhaps the most important aspect of independence I learned about was that asking for help is okay.

I remember one incident vividly.

I had just attended a presentation by a visitor from the U.N., and I was walking back to my dorm. I ambled along, thinking about the presentation, and suddenly realized I was lost. I swept my cane in front of me, wishing that I would feel something familiar: the edging around the path to the library, the lamppost near the path to the upperclassman dorm, anything recognizable. The concrete stretched in front of me, unfamiliar, unblemished and unyielding. Where was I?

I heard a small group of people approaching, their voices bursting with the excitement of being freshman. I knew I could go up to them and ask for directions that would get me back to known territory, but I didn’t want to interrupt. I didn’t want them to feel that they had to go out of their way to help me. I didn’t want to ask, because I didn’t want to seem like I was lost. Their voices faded as they walked away, and a tiny voice inside felt relief that I must at least look like I knew what I was doing.

I walked a little while longer, but I still didn’t know where I was. I hardly ever frequented this part of campus, and just one wrong turn could send me up an even more remote path.

Finally, when the next set of footsteps approached, I took a deep breath and, feeling as if my face was on fire with humiliation,  I asked for help.

“I’m going that way, anyways. Come with me.”

The hot flush of embarrassment slowly faded from my cheeks as we began to chat. I began to let go  of the feeling that I was relying on someone for help, that I should have known where I was.

As it turned out, my rescuer was in my English class. We talked about our upcoming paper and how we liked the class, and we walked into our dorm together.

A few days later in class, we were working on a group project about Othello. One of the members of my group was the person who helped me find my way on the quad the other day.

“Hey,” she said to me, “Do you mind if I email you the paper I’m working on? I’d really like to get your opinion. Maybe you have some ideas about how I could strengthen it?”

I smiled. “Sure. I would be happy to take a look at it.”

The next day, as I  sat in my dorm room, I heard my email ping. I opened up her paper and began to read. With the click of my keyboard, something else slowly clicked into place.

I had asked her for help the other day, and now she was asking me for help, too. Next time I got lost, maybe I wouldn’t feel so embarrassed.

As I read her paper, I thought about how independence isn’t about doing everything alone, but is about knowing when to ask for help. No one can live without the support of another. We all need help with things sometimes, whether we have a disability or not.

College taught me one of many important lessons about independence;  true independence is really about interdependence and helping each other. Asking for help is nothing to be embarrassed about. It’s completely okay, and something everyone will do in life. I realized that the top of that ladder for me doesn’t exist; rather independence is a winding road, a constant journey on which I never embark alone.

Learning Ally LogoMegan is a mentor in Learning Ally’s College Success Program, a program designed to help blind and visually impaired students navigate college-life. In this free (donor supported) program, students receive guidance, audiobook technology, and access to a network of support. Sign up today at LearningAlly.org/CollegeSuccess

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– Jules Johnson


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