A Question of Responsibility for the Blind

Students Without Sight at Harvard

Cara A. Dunne '92 and Soonkyu "S.K." Shin '91 both say they have had bad experiences with math exams at Harvard.

Shin says he took a calculus exam last winter with a reader who was not familiar with the integral sign, and he contested the grade he received on it. Dunne also says she took an exam with a reader who could not recognize a mathematic symbol.

Dunne's reader expressed confusion about a symbol in a problem, and asked her to guess what it was. Dunne says she refused and "wasted" ten minutes arguing with the woman.

"[The reader] said `Let me draw it on your hand.' I said, `Really, it wouldn't mean anything to me. In Braille, the symbols don't look that way.' [The reader] said, `Braille has got to change then,'" Dunne says.

"I was calm because I knew this had happened before with S.K.. It turned out to be a division sign," Dunne says.

Dunne and Shin have a common bond: they are two Harvard undergraduates without sight. That means they bear the added responsibility of finding readers for or recordings of their academic texts, getting assistants to help with research and proofreading of papers and of having printed syllabi published in Braille. Chores they do almost entirely independently of the University.

"Time I could spend studying or doing other things," Dunne says, "I spend advocating for what I need."

Coming to Harvard

The sophomore never expected to have so much trouble with the details of undergraduate life, Dunne says. Her decision to come to Harvard was a simple one--she came to Harvard because it was "the best."

Dunne, who has skied eight years with the United States Disabled Ski Team, says she applied the attitude she had in sports to college admissions.

"My coach and my father were always telling me to go for the top, so when it came to applying for colleges, it was like go for the top, go for Harvard," Dunne says.

Shin says he came because, as a first-year student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), he realized he was interested in studying psychology rather than economics. He had turned down his original Harvard acceptance in 1987 to attend MIT, where he says, they have a better economics department. Shin says transferring was almost effortless because of his original acceptance.

"To tell the truth, facilities [for blind students] were never a first concern when choosing colleges. Probably should have been, though," says the joint concentrator in psychology and biology.

Dunne marvels too at how little she considered facilities and services for the blind when she made her decision. Dunne was accepted to Stanford University, where, she maintains they provide more readers and notetakers, computer equipment and Braille texts.

"I started thinking, `How stupid I am not to go to Stanford,'" Dunne says.

"It's hard, it's daily," she says. "I've never had so little support in school in my life."

Shin says he was not so disappointed.

"As far as a support system goes," he says, "I didn't expect one."

Assisting Special Needs

There are, of course, resources in the Harvard community for the blind. Blind students can speak with the coordinator of Programs for Persons with Disabilities or the Office of Disability Resources. Final exams--though not midterms--can be arranged by the Office of the Regiatrar. And both Shin and Dunne say the housing and transportation they receive here are good.

But they are not as positive on academic concerns, and the offices for the disabled, as they stand, cannot possibly handle all the extra work and organization the four undergraduate blind students are responsible for in a large research university.

Assistant Dean of Harvard College Thomas A. Dingman '67, who directs the Office of Disability Resources, says his office takes very seriously its mission to give blind students equal academic opportunities.

"Our mission is to insure that we help to make arrangements that allow students with disabilities an equal chance on the playing field," Dingman says.

Dingman says the office has a "tricky" job. He says it shies away from conducting all the administrative affairs because the issue is one of allowing--or teaching--students independence. For instance, the University does not provide students with readings of texts because it believes blind students should learn to use outside resources like Readings for the Blind, a private organization which publishes books on tape.

"If we step in to do everything, we will not be preparing them well for life outside of Harvard," Dingman says.

But the issue of the University's role in helping students with their special needs is more complicated. Harvard, after all, is a school, and Dunne, for one, says she feels that its responsibility should be one of academic preparation rather than a more abstract life preparation.

"If you're here," she says, "you've pretty much proved yourself."

Dunne says she believes that teaching students to demand what they need is not the responsibility of the University. She says she thinks Harvard has given her too strong a taste of bitter reality.

"The philosophy is screwed up. The philosophy should be, `We'll help the disabled students, we'll support them,'" she says. "It doesn't mean tying their shoes, but it means assisting them with the things sighted students take for granted."

Dunne, an economics major, says she was expected to do her economics coursework on tape last year, a task she says was nearly impossible. She adds that the University was also not helpful in getting her economics graphs transferred into a form she can read. Graphs can be remade so that each section is raised and textured to distinguish it from the others, Dunne says.

Dunne says she now looks to her department to help her with the administrative details of her academic career and to arrange for exams. But she says in many ways, she resents having to seek out the assistance she says the University should volunteer.

"You don't have to call your professor to arrange an exam--why should I?" asks Dunne.

Shin also says he largely conducts his academic affairs through the department. He has teaching fellows in his class describe diagrams or images, and maintains a close rapport with his teachers.

"If a system is not going to work, I just say `Fine, I'll deal with it on my own.' People have trouble--some people I know even expect the Dean's office to come up with ways to take midterms," Shin says.

"I have no thought of that. I just say, `Professor, this is how we do it. Is that okay with you?'"

But Shin says he sees a problem with what he thinks is Harvard's incredible decentralization and daunting bureaucracy. Shin says often when he encounters problems, he speaks directly with Dingman. But he says he believes Harvard needs a more comprehensive policy in meeting the needs of the disabled.

"I think it will be important to have guidelines to make policies under," Shin says. "Harvard, at least the office, likes to have the same model applicable for everyone, and that just doesn't work."

Working Towards Policy

Marie Trottier, the recently-hired coordinator of the Program for Persons with Disabilities, says she too hopes there will be a more comprehensive policy in the future, and that she can shape it.

Trottier says Harvard, as it stands, really has no other policy beyond section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, which is the civil rights act guaranteeing qualified people with disabilities equal opportunity under the law.

She admits that is a somewhat amorphous guarantee, but she says she hopes the blind students at Harvard will help her make competent policy recommendations in the future by telling her their needs.

"I'm asking them to contribute to me. They're the ones who deal with it day to day," Trottier says.

"I'm kind of putting the onus on them now, so they can help contribute to the community and help me meet the needs of new students coming into the University," she says.

Shin himself has assumed a more direct role in preparing to meet the needs of incoming students. He was hired by Dingman's office to research computers and technology for the blind, and Dingman is confident about the work that Shin is doing.

"He's a user, of course, but he's also very knowledgeable," Dingman says.

This spring, the Office of Disability Resources will acquire a talking computer, a computer with enlarged print for the visually impaired and a Braille typesetter, says Shin. It will also acquire a scanner which will read and then transfer text onto a disk, which could then be used with the typesetter. Shin says he is excited about the purchases.

"[The acquisitions] would be a big help to Cara and me and some students in the graduate schools," Shin says.

Dingman also says he is optimistic about these technologies, and their usefulness to students.

"In the past, we haven't been able to get the biggest bang for the buck because we have students with such different needs," Dingman says. "We'd be getting things one or two students could use."

Dunne herself is active in helping to meet the needs of disabled undergraduates, though in a less official capacity. She is co-chair of the Advocating a Better Learning Enviroment (ABLE), a student group which works to make Harvard both more physically and academically accesible to the disabled.

Dunne is also starting another organization with Laura F. Harris '92. The organization, called Networks, aims, its charter says, "to establish a support network of scholars, alumni, teachers, administatrators and community residents," who will shop or excercise with the disbled, or who will help the disabled put together resumes or take notes. Dunne emphasizes that Networks is not a volunteer organization, but one of "mutual support."

Radcliffe has agreed to sponsor the organization, and Dunne says she hopes the first meeting will take place in a couple of weeks.

Student Life

But beyond advocacy and activism, there is undergraduate life. Dunne is preparing for a Japanese speech contest that will be held in two weeks in Washington, D.C. She regularly transfers the recordings of friend's lecture notes into Braille pages. She spent last fall training with the Harvard ski team, but now she tries to keep in shape by jogging every morning. She spends the weekend with her friends, who, she says, make being at Harvard worth it.

"I really love the Harvard atmosphere," she says. "I love the people. I love the things they do."

Dunne says she sees her Harvard experiences as another challenge, and says she hopes, by the time she graduates, to have changed the school a little.

Shin takes his class notes on his laptop computer with a module that transforms the lines of print on the screen into Braille. He makes his way back from the Yard to Currier with his yellow labrador, Ziggy, on the careful path a friend showed him. He likes his life in Currier, and calls the atmosphere "comfortable" and "homey."

Shin also makes his way down to Quincy, where he is a counselor for the Eating Concerns Hotline and Outreach (ECHO). He is also active in the King's Fellowship, a campus Christian group.

And after experiencing problems with his calculus exam last year, he does not worry so much about testing. He says he is sure the people in the Office of the Registrar know his name.

"[I think they recognize my name and] say, 'Oh, yeah, right. This kid is sensitive about a lot of things.' I don't mind. I hope I'm sensitive...a sense of justice, whatever you want to call it, that when they say, `We want to make everything equitable,' yeah, I'm all for that and nothing else," Shin says.

"My blindness is at best, inconvenience. And if I have to make an extra effort because of that inconvenience," Shin says, "I'm all for that."