Students Face College from the Blind Side

Louise Andersson, Staff Writer

Although these students cannot see, they are not blind to what they can accomplish through determination and perseverance, leaping over hurdles without leaving the ground.

Daniel Amezcua, 24, a foreign language major with an emphasis in Spanish, is in his fifth year at Glendale College. His goal is to earn an associate degree and find a job as a translator; however, being blind has slowed down the process.

Amezcua was not born blind, but he woke up one morning five years ago without vision.

“I thought it was still night time even though it was 7 a.m.,” he said. “I reached over to get my phone, but I couldn’t see it.”

He had previously been told his retinas were weak, but his doctors decided that an operation might hasten his blindness.

It took him about a year to get used to it, but becoming blind turned out to be an eye opener.

“It was a blessing in disguise,” he said. “A way to stop judging a book by its cover.”

When people ask Amezcua if he remembers his appearance, he gives them an honest answer.

“I forget what I look like,” he said. “I only remember parts of it.”

His first day back on campus, he got so lost that he had no idea where he was. But looking back, he said he eventually learned by facing the challenges ahead of him.

“Getting lost was the best way to find my way,” he said.

Matthew Sidlinger, 30, is a business major who, after 10 years at the college, has not given up on earning an associate’s degree. His goal is to acquire the degree by 2016, before he opens up his own computer business for the visually impaired.

Sidlinger has been blind his whole life. Unlike Amezcua, he has never laid eyes on his surroundings. Instead, he relies on two of his other senses: sound and touch.

“A person’s voice say a lot about their personality,” he said.

There are 30 visually impaired students at the college and 10 to 15 of those students are blind.

Scott Ziegler, an alternate media specialist at the college, converts print school material to versions available to students with disabilities. He said that he believes in the idea that when someone is missing one of their senses, such as sight, the others, such as hearing and touch, get stronger because they are relied upon more.

“I don’t know if it is a biological or a psychological thing, but I think it is true,” he said.

One alternate way of reading is braille, which enables individuals to read through the touch of their fingertips. It is mostly used in science and math — classes generally considered the most difficult and the reason why many of the aforementioned students are still in school.

“If it takes you, as a sighted person, three hours to spend on math a day, it takes them six,” said Ellen Oppenberg, a professor at the Center for Students with Disabilities.

Ziegler converts all course materials to formats that are accessible for students with disabilities, braille being one of them, and since one print page converts into about five pages of braille, he keeps himself busy.

He also converts materials into e-text, which functions as a voiceover of the material he structures in a word document, and is used for the majority of humanities classes.

Blind students have to request their course material about two to four weeks in advance in order to give Ziegler enough time to convert it.

They also have to request extended time from their professors for their tests, file paperwork of authorization to take the tests in the High Tech Center and go to the Instructional Assistance Center for tutoring and extra help.

Meeting blind students on a day-to-day basis has given Ziegler a strong sense of empathy and an insight into their everyday struggles.

“Just for them to get here is harder than most of our whole day,” he said.

Through the use of Access Services, the transportation to and from college gets easier for these students. But once on campus, they mostly have to navigate on their own.

“There is an irony in being blind,” said Amezcua. “When I know where I am going, people ask me if I need help. When I do not know where I am going, there is no one around.”

However, sometimes people can be more of a hindrance than help. Sidlinger said a lot of people seem more focused on their phones than their surroundings. Because that is not an option for him, he encourages people to pay more attention to what is going on in front of them.

The worst part of the day for Sidlinger is trying to find a place to sit in the cafeteria, holding his cane in one hand and his wheel bag in the other.

“Just come up and say ‘hey do you need help?’ It doesn’t hurt to ask,” he said. “I think it is really cool when a person cares.”

Both students said Glendale College is one of the best schools adapted for students with disabilities and that they appreciate the accessibility of the college trams.

“It made life go much faster,” said Sidlinger.

In the job market, however, adapting to this kind of disability is more difficult.

“Tell an employer you have a disability and they are immediately in fear,” said Oppenberg. “They don’t know how to react or what to say.”

Oppenberg does her best to encourage their ambitions but also tries to remind them to set up realistic goals.

“If it was just based on personality and tenacity, they would be my choice of candidates,” she said. “The problem is that the world out there is not ready for these disabilities.”

Both Amezcua and Sidlinger have attained internships at the Braille Institute, earning about $200 a month. It might not sound like a lot, but it gives them a sense of independence.

“I have days when I ask myself ‘why am I even trying?’ but then I think ‘I did not get this far to feel sorry for myself,’” said Amezcua.

“They have both been given a lot of negative setbacks,” said Oppenberg. “But they are still here, still kicking and still trying.”