Standing up for students with disabilities

There were times when the barriers between me and my education seemed insurmountable.

Because I was born with peripheral visual loss, perceptual deficits, and an injured left arm, occupational therapists in elementary school tried to teach me to tie my shoes and zip up my coat, but they ultimately had to admit defeat.

In high school, I was in the honor's program and graduated as a scholarship recipient, yet I still had not mastered these simple skills. As I grew older, I became embarrassed at having to ask for assistance.

The summer before college, I worked with an occupational therapist who introduced me to adaptive devices such as shoe buttons and an on-screen computer keyboard program. Shortly after entering college, I learned to put in and take out my contact lenses.

Perceptual deficits make it difficult, and in most cases impossible, for me to perceive and process graphic information. This caused problems in some college courses, especially science labs.

Though lab work was part of the college's general studies requirement, neither the dean of arts and sciences, disability services director, nor members of the science faculty had a clue as to how I should handle this situation.

I discovered that other students with disabilities were experiencing similar problems.

The surprising solution came from a secretary in the physics and geology department who directed me to a physics class in which the professor taught both the lecture and lab.

He proved to be resourceful and understanding, meeting with me regularly in his office to review course material and assigning me two lab partners who performed most of the experiments while I recorded the results.

As an English major, I was required to take two semesters of a foreign language. I chose French, because I had studied it in high school.

Since pictures were used to introduce new vocabulary, I could have been at a disadvantage. However, the professor always verbally identified the words as she presented the pictures and wrote the words in English for me when pictures appeared on quizzes and exams.

One course I dreaded throughout my college years was geography, which was also a requirement. I postponed it until my last semester because I knew that I could not grasp the data presented in maps.

I finally elected to take geography as a distance learning course because I could study at my own pace. Even so, I might never have mastered this subject sufficiently to pass the course without the assistance of my father, who had minored in geography in college.

A few of my professors did not agree with the philosophy of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and considered me a burden in their classrooms.

The adviser responsible for students seeking their secondary teaching certification questioned my ability to teach, since I could not drive myself to required field assignments.

Ironically, the professor who taught special-education courses did not believe that students with disabilities should be entitled to accommodations unless they were available to all students.

Upon learning his views, I dropped his human exceptionality course. I took it the following semester with another instructor and did well.

Throughout my college career, I spoke to many students with disabilities who had encountered similar circumstances. I came to believe that educators at all levels must be made aware of the needs of students with disabilities as well as available resources.

I was pleased when I made the dean's list and received the Student Government Association Recognition Award, but my proudest moment came when my first published article, "Keeping Educators Up to Date On Rights of 'Differently Abled,' " appeared in the Monitor's Learning Column. This was especially satisfying because my technical-writing professor had announced in front of the class that I would never become a successful writer because of my disabilities.

Productive study habits, use of disability services, small classes, and guidance from friends and family made my college years a time of growth and independence.

As I walked across the stage to receive my diploma, I couldn't help remembering the dreary picture painted by the professionals who thought I might never read and write successfully.

It is important for people like me to advocate for others who have disabilities, to inform them of their legal rights, and to work toward the enforcement and improvement of existing laws. I am currently serving as a volunteer at a Children's Law Center, for the Inclusion Ministry of a church, and online with the World Association of Persons with Disabilities (WAPD).

Throughout my life, I have found that patience, perseverance, and a positive attitude have helped me hurdle the major obstacles I have encountered. Whatever challenges I may face, I know that these qualities will continue to sustain me as I seek to fulfill my life's mission.

Maggie Delaney lives in Latonia, Ky.

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