“Nobody loves you when you’re down and out” John Lennon sang once. That song was on the charts in 1974 when I was a sophomore in college. Though it’s not one of Lennon’s best songs it did make sense to me as a blind student trying to get an education. My blindness was both the “down” and the “out” back then, and it’s still hard today to explain how I got a college education at all, as the obstacles were formidable.
Though I didn’t know it, 1974 was the first year I had something like civil rights. The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 had just gone into effect. A precursor to the later Americans with Disabilities Act, the 1973 law, also known as Section 504, said in plain English:
No otherwise qualified individual with a disability in the United States, as defined in section 705(20) of this title, shall, solely by reason of her or his disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance or under any program or activity conducted by any Executive agency or by the United States Postal Service.
Because my college years occurred over forty years ago I was often a solo act—that is, the later cultural advantages of the disability rights movement were not yet apparent. When I needed help I was strictly on my own.
I had no Braille skills; no large print texts; no note takers; and only occasional readers. I did have books on tape and long playing records from the Library of Congress.
What else did I have? A good ear. A great memory. And a capacity to ask important and appropriate questions in classrooms.
These traits are simply characteristic of all good students. But boy oh boy did I need to rely on my own capacities.
Alright. It was worse than that.
Consider the professors who said: “you can’t have extra time to complete this assignment. Sorry kiddo, but education is competitive.” Or the ones who said: “you should take something easy like intro geology.” And the ones who called me a whiner and complainer because I was invariably falling behind.
In those days, a request for an accommodation was unheard of. Moreover, if you had to ask for one, the prevailing ableist impulse was to simply declare the person with a disability as a malcontent or malingerer.
There were no disability services offices. Zero.
And while today’s university administrators and faculty are generally not well informed about disabilities, certainly they are called upon to understand accommodations are part of the game. (I say “generally not well informed” for I hear consistent stories about arbitrary, peevish, and cruel professors who routinely believe their classrooms are “accommodation free zones”).
As for me, somehow, despite all the odds I became a professor at a well known institution of higher learning.
Today the blind have talking computers, iPads with speech, iPhones with scanning and voice capability, electronic texts that can be read aloud with software, and there are laws supporting access to educational materials.
Some days I think I’ve arrived in the golden age. I’m an Athenian in 5th century BC.
Who would imagine that in 2015 blind students and faculty would still be struggling for a foothold in colleges and universities? Yes while most colleges have offices devoted to providing disabled students with accommodations, a clear majority do not take that work seriously enough to incorporate it into how they develop software for learning or how they provide library services in the age of required accessibility. This is true at my own university, Syracuse, where there are no concerted systems to assure that academic materials are available for blind students or faculty.
I know of course because I’ve been talking about this on my campus for over four years.
Some administrators here at Syracuse have grown weary of me. Unable or unwilling to address the accessibility failings of the university, they have let me know in rather unsubtle ways, that I’m a malcontent.
I am of course no such thing. I’m just persistent. Persistent with a disability and in a job that requires me to utilize and incorporate texts in my research and teaching.
My problems are not “mine” as some in administration would like to have it.
I know there are blind students and scholars all over America who are in my shoes.
My wet, spongy, Melville shoes.
If think if I had a rock band I’d call it “Blind Melville”.
Our first song would be: “Nobody Loves You When You’re Blind and Need Books.”