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A non-profit publication of the Office of the University Relations of Virginia Tech,
including The Conductor, a special section of the Spectrum printed 4 times a year

Listening to Student Voices: Living with Disabilities

Spectrum Volume 17 Issue 25 - March 23, 1995

(Editor's note: Listening to Student Voices is a series of interviews provided by the University Committee on Equal Opportunity/Affirmative Action to share the views and experiences of students representing the university's diverse community. Next: Invisible Disabilities.)

By Susan Trulove

Lynn Mattioli and several colleagues from the National Federation of the Blind were walking through the basement of the capitol, hurrying to an appointment, when a man stopped them to say, "You all are so courageous. I always get lost down here."

"Maybe you need to get better directions," Mattioli replied.

"Blindness is only an inconvenience if one has the right skills, philosophy and confidence," she says.

Mattioli is confident, and straightforward. Her advice to faculty members wondering how to "deal with" a student with a disability is, relax.

"The way I interact with faculty, and the way most students with disabilities do, is by forming a partnership where each person has responsibilities. My responsibility is to approach the faculty members and let them know my needs. Their responsibility is to be open and ask questions. A faculty member probably wonders how I'm going to take notes, how I'm going to take a test.

"The faculty member needs to have the expectation that I will learn the same material as a sighted person, but that the way that I show what I've learned may be different. For example, as an undergraduate, I took an anatomy course, which depends on very visual material. When the faculty member tested the class, he gave the students a picture of a skeleton and asked them to identify the bones. He could have said to me, `You can't see, so I can't test you.' Instead, we went to the lab where there was a skeleton, and he asked me to identify the bones by touch."

Mattioli takes notes in Braille. When faculty members write on the board, she asks them to verbalize what they are writing. However, she has not yet learned the Nemith Code--Braille for math and science notation--so has difficultly when lectures include equations. She was worried about that as she faced taking biochemistry, "but the professor solved that problem by giving me his notes."

The blind have "a whole bag of tricks," Mattioli says. She can read large print or Braille. The library provides someone to read small or hand-written print. She also uses a reader when she grades hand-written material. At home, a scanner scans text into a computer, which then reads aloud or can print the text as Braille.

"It's important to do what works best, so that I am competitive with my peers. If you don't communicate, which in my case includes Braille literacy, you don't have anything," says Matiolli. "A computer is important, but it doesn't replace something you can stick in your back pocket."

She also stresses the importance of travel skills and her long, white cane, "without which I couldn't leave my house."

Susie Vass-Gal and Scott McDermott agree that communication skills are critical, although they have different disabilities.

Vass-Gal has a hearing impairment from rubella, and a speech-and-mobility impairment because of cerebral palsy. She also has a master's in library science and will have a master's in education before next year.

"I'm very open with faculty members regarding my limitations and needs," Vass-Gal says. "For the most part, people are understanding.

"I've been given extra time for tests and the faculty members are good about speaking up so I can hear.

"One of my professors went all-out to find a classroom with carpet that would deaden background noise so I could hear when we broke up into small groups."

Classmates are also helpful, Vass-Gal says. "I leave my scooter in the hallway because it's a distraction and because it's easier to take notes at a desk. My classmates are very good about carrying my book bag in.

"If I need help, I ask," she says. She prefers it that way.

Haunted by past disappointments, Vass-Gal goes the extra mile to prove herself. She is working at two practicums this semester, and will do an off-campus practicum this fall.

"It was very difficult as a young woman in my 20s to go out in the world and have people only see my disability." She did volunteer work, but decided it was not enough. "If I'm so good, I should get paid. I wanted to do something besides live on public assistance. The good lord didn't put me here to waste what I have. My father didn't bring me to this country to waste my life.

"I decided to use my strengths, which are intelligence and communication skills, to do career counseling--perhaps career development for people with disabilities."

There are physical barriers, "like when it snowed and the ramp at my apartment was cleared, but the snow plow left a pile in the parking lot. As a result, I couldn't board the van."

But the worst barriers come as a result of other people's attitudes, "like when someone asked me, `Can you balance a check book?' Or when I was in a grocery store and a woman asked me, `Are you here alone'. It's hard to come up with a diplomatic answer," says Vass-Gal, who is rarely speechless.

"It has been gratifying that people say I'm an interesting person. It means people have seen beyond my disability. I like to think that I'm an attractive, vibrant, intelligent woman. I read, write poetry, talk with friends about how to save the world.... "

A stanza from one of her poems reads,

My brain works double time
Yet people think
I do nothing half the time.

McDermott enjoys roller blading and hanging out with friends. Increasingly, his activities, like Matiolli's and Vass-Gal's, are related to service for the disabled.

McDermott never considered his hearing impairment a disability. "A lot of people, including myself, don't like to be labeled `disabled.' When I fill out an application that asks, `do you have any disability that will hinder you...,' I always say no."

But faculty members would comment that his writing did not reflect his other work, until, in McDermott's third year, "a professor noticed that my writing was like his daughter's, who has (a specific learning disability). He told me that if I was diagnosed as disabled, he'd give me consideration on my paper. Other wise, I would receive an F."

McDermott was diagnosed "writing disabled," as the faculty member suspected he would be.

"I write the way I hear. In high school, the teachers wouldn't explain why my papers were bad. I thought I was just like anyone else who was getting a bad grade.

"That's why I've become so outspoken--to help people identify as a disability something they've just learned to live with and to let people know they have rights against discrimination and can get help," McDermott says.

"Right after I was diagnosed, I had to take technical writing. I told my professor, and she was really helpful. She gave my papers back two or three times to revise and told me what was the matter. My writing is improved to the point that I'm now diagnosed with a `modified writing disorder.'"

For the most part, McDermott's persistance has prevented misunderstandings that might arise from being hard of hearing.

"Once, I had to ask questions that made a professor repeat himself. The professor said, `If you had been in class....' I told him I was there but hadn't heard. Then he understood.

"College is better than high school. During class, the faculty members will explain or will tell me to see them after class. In high school, it would drive the teachers crazy when I asked them to repeat," he recalls.

"But I'm outspoken. A lot of people with a disability might not go to a professor to get the help they need. It's up to the student to give the professor the letter from the dean of students requesting reasonable accommodation," McDermott says.

"It is kind of hard to go up to someone and say, `I have a disability.' But it is important because you realize what kind of assistance you can receive to get through school."

In early years, McDermott was grateful when a professor in a large class saved the first row for people who have difficulty hearing, even though he did not want to call attention to himself with his classmates. Now he does not have to sit in the front row because he can give the faculty member a small, wireless transmitter to wear. "All the professors have been willing to wear it," says McDermott.

"You have to learn to let people know. Everybody in life needs some sort of help at some time."

Mattioli knows it is sometimes necessary for a faculty member to encourage students to communicate. She teaches Nutrition 1004, an introductory course taken by students from many majors. "Sometimes I've had to assure students that they can ask me questions, although they've never been shy about asking for credit when they improve their projects. Students in my own department have seen enough of me to realize that a blind person can get the job done, and they come to me."

"The biggest challenge is educating people about disabilities. We do this by talking to people, like this, or by the way we live our daily lives," Mattioli says.

"People with disabilities may be intimidated or shy because having a disability has a negative connotation," says McDermott.

"If a faculty or staff member doesn't know any students with disabilities and doesn't know what reasonable accommodation is, they can call Virginia Reilly in the Dean of Students Office--but talk to the student first," Mattioli says.

Faculty or staff groups that want more information are encouraged to invite someone from the students with disabilities' speakers bureau to speak to their class or at a faculty meeting.