An Academic Challenge

by Mark B. Lasser

On Saturday, May 16th, a gathering of thousands of people came together for an annual rite of spring, the graduation of the class of 2015.  What made this year special for me was that I walked the graduation processional with my white cane.  Not only did I receive my master of science in accounting, I led the College of Business at the University of Colorado-Denver’s grads as the outstanding student in the graduate program. 
The university deserves credit for welcomingly receiving my request for braille programs for both my guests and me.  It was only 10 months earlier that I had thought this was an impossible achievement.  I have since learned that pretty much nothing is impossible for blind people given enough desire and grit. 
I lost my eyesight less than a year ago to a rare condition called non-arteritic anterior ischemic optic neuropathy (NAION), the result of which was a loss of about 95% of vision and complete loss of any ability to read or use a computer.  I was within 6 credits of finishing my degree and was preparing to take the rigorous CPA examination.  The condition I had caused me to lose my sight progressively over only about a week.  I was devastated, depressed, and thought life as I knew it was over.  The first month was just horrible.  I couldn’t cook, write, access my music, update Facebook or even tell what time it was without asking others for help. 
Through the help of my wife and friends, I started to find ways of connecting to the world and learning how to connect to a semblance of normalcy. As I didn’t even know that phones could be made accessible, my wife bought me a talking watch and eventually an iPhone and iPad, and proceeded to download every app with the word “blind” in it or reviewed on any blindness-related forum.  I was not even aware of screen readers at the time, so she researched resources for me.  I love living in Colorado, but as many readers likely know, our DVR has some issues, and I was told it might take 12 to 18 months just to get a case open.  People who know me do not characterize me as a particularly patient person.  That time frame was not going to work for me.  I had things to do – such as finishing my degree and finding a job. 
My wife Stephanie found me some instruction online for iOS devices and a local AT tutor to give me a first orientation with JAWS.  As this was prohibitively expensive, we were fortunate to get additional help through the Colorado Center for the Blind, which is only an hour from my home by public transportation (which, at the time, I had no idea how to use and navigate).   I immersed myself into learning assistive tools and braille with passion and determination.  I was told over and over again to be patient. That only made me more impatient.  I was told to take it slow and that it takes time to accept one’s blindness. Why would anyone presume to know this about another person?  I recognize that this process is different for everyone, but I believe that all blind people should be pushing to learn more, to work more, and to push themselves to the highest level of their potential. 
I managed to learn uncontracted braille in about 6 weeks and then learned contracted braille over the next 10 weeks.  I’m still frustratingly slow reading by my own standards, but I’m reasonably fast with a slate and stylus and on a Perkins brailler.  I learned to use the kitchen again thanks to one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met in my life, an affectionately scrappy ex-Philadelphian named Maureen Nietfeld (check out her videos on the YouTube channel Breaking Blind). The most difficult challenge for me was technology.  I was trying to get back to a graduate school level of reading and writing in time to be able to finish my degree.  I won’t lie; initially I did not think I would be able to finish the degree or pass the CPA exam as a blind person.  I was fortunate that the university and the head of my program, Dr. Michael Roberts, were adamant that I would not only finish but also that I could return to being a lecturer at the university, a position I was performing prior to losing my sight.
I taught myself basic JAWS through the Freedom Scientific tutorials and the webinars.  I still have a lot to learn, but I was able to figure out enough between my own persistence and through the help of many young blind people who are near experts in assistive tech tools that I decided to finish my degree starting in January of 2015.  I completed my last two courses without being able to read any print, without being able to read letters on a computer screen or in e-mail.  I used a combination of tools including iOS accessibility, VoiceDream Reader, JAWS, braille index cards that I made with an interline braille slate, and learning to give a presentation through shadowing with an earbud in one ear (muchas gracias to the crazy aspiring blind Argentine journalist Francisco Crespo). 
I learned many things over the last year that many blind people probably take for granted.  One thing about being newly blind is that I had no preconceptions about how things worked in the blindness community.  I did not know that blind people could use computers as well as they do.  I didn’t know that the unemployment rate for blind people has been in the area of 70% and that not nearly enough is being done to remedy this.  I didn’t know that blind people get graduate degrees, go to law school and are in top professional positions across the world.  I was pleasantly surprised to find out how fun braille is to read and how fascinated people are when you open a braille book or magazine at a local coffee shop.  I learned that there are people who can be jerks to blind people, and that those people are vastly outnumbered by people who are accepting and supportive.  I have also witnessed some unfortunate things that I would like to help change.  There seems to be too much judgment in the blind community as to “right” and “wrong” ways to do things and to think about the world.  Some of this leads to rifts that the sighted world sees as folly.  I have also seen too much tearing down of accomplishments.  I was informed by people that I was an “overachiever” in an accusatory tone, as if this were both a negative and an outrageous behavior that should be mitigated. I have seen entirely too many excuses for blind people not learning and performing to the levels of their sighted peers, and for a lack of manners and social graces.  
So my advice to both newly blind people and to anyone who’s been blind their entire life is to push yourself to achieve more than you think you are capable of, to listen with energy to those who are telling you what you can do, and to listen with cynicism to those telling you what is not possible or “not for you.”  Be thin-skinned when it comes to receiving praise and encouragement and toughen up against anyone who detracts from your progress.  I had doubts in myself mostly based on ignorance of what being blind is about.  Once I realized that I could do everything I wanted to do intellectually, it was only a matter of shifting gears and working as hard as possible.  I’m proud of my accomplishments, and keenly aware that I did not manage to get where I am without incredible support.  I think every single one of us has the capability to do more, to be stronger, to have grit and to do amazing things.