Blind Students Navigate Harvard Bureaucracy

Sitting in her seventh-grade classroom nearly a decade ago, Emily K. Crockett ’08-’10 blinked, just as she did thousands of times a day.

But when Crockett reopened her eyes, the paper in front of her was blurry and she could not see her teacher, the results of the development of a cyst within a brain tumor. She was declared legally blind two years later.

“I went from fully sighted to blind in the blink of an eye,” said Crockett, who is currently taking the semester off and plans to return in the spring.

Helen M. Stevens ’11 loves NASCAR.

“It’s an odd sport to watch in the northeast,” said the Pennsylvania native.

Born with Leber Congenital Amaurosis, a genetic disease that prevented her eyes from fully developing, Stevens has some vision, though not enough to distinguish the cars as they circle the track.

A yellow Labrador Retriever leads Sally J. Kiebdaj ’09 around the Adams House dining hall. The dog sits silently below the table as Kiebdaj eats lunch.

Kiebdaj said she lost her sight legally when she was about 5 years old. Surgery on the cataracts she was born with led to glaucoma, and her eyes developed scar tissue. She can still make out shapes and movement, but is unable to read.

Crockett, Stevens, and Kiebdaj each faced arduous paths to make it to Harvard, but once here, their challenges hardly ceased. The three praise the University for providing technology services, but said the University is often unresponsive to their needs.

A ONE-SIZE-FITS ALL APPROACH

The biggest obstacle for disabled students, Kiebdaj and Crockett say, is poor administration at the Accessible Education Office (AEO), Harvard’s principal office for disabled students.

They characterize the office as out of touch with their needs.

Kiebdaj recounts how, as a freshman, not all of the necessary housing accommodations were made: she was initially placed on the third floor of Mower Hall in a room that had slanted ceilings, and had to switch because of the ceilings soon after arriving.

And while she wanted to enter the lottery normally at the end of her freshman year, AEO worked to reserve an Adams room next to a wheelchair door for her.

“It was kind of a one-size fits all—put the disabled person next to the wheelchair door,” she said with a laugh.

The biggest problems, Kiebdaj and Crockett said, stem from the fact that the office is unresponsive.

“When you have a disability like mine that requires day-to-day intervention in the classroom, it is important that they get back to you quickly,” Kiebdaj said.

The two also said that bureaucratic struggles make it difficult for them to keep up with their coursework.

Crockett said that the assistants AEO hired to read her mathematics coursework to her often would refuse to help her with tasks like looking up practice problems. She said she was unable to pin down what the readers’ responsibilities were because AEO never provided her with a copy of their contract.

Kiebdaj added that services are often hampered because of poor communication between AEO and the Adaptive Technologies Laboratory (ATL), which is charged with ensuring that disabled students have the newest technology.

She said that it once took over a month to set up a piece of technology for one of her courses, and that when AEO finally authorized the installation, staffers set up the machine in the middle of one of her classes.

Kiebdaj and Crockett said that they were initially delighted by the office’s helpful, optimistic attitude, but their opinions have soured over the years.

“They had this incredible attitude of ‘The student knows best what the student needs,’ and ‘It is our job to do what we can for optimal accommodations,’” Crockett said, adding that this sentiment has largely vanished since her first interactions with them.

Kiebdaj said she noticed this same deterioration in the office, saying that the tone changed between the time of her acceptance, in April 2005, and the time she arrived on campus in September.

“That first semester was horrible about access support,” Kiebdaj said. “In some ways it was an absolute disaster.”

AEO did not respond to several e-mail, phone, and in-person requests for comment this week.

TECH SAVVY

There is, however, a marked difference between the accessibility office and technology lab, the students said. They praised the technology lab for its hard-working staff and ability to understand the challenges that disabled students face.

Each year, ATL generally assists fewer than 10 “heavy-use students,” who frequently make use of its resources, along with many “occasional-use students,” according to Robert G. Doyle, the director of media services for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

The office has come a long way since it was taken over in 1993 by the University Hall administration, Doyle said. It now has three full-time employees and a number of part-timers, a big increase from one part-time graduate student, Doyle said.

While the students generally said ATL staff works to obtain the newest technology in a timely fashion, this does not mean that there are no technological problems.

Stevens, who is taking intermediate German and introductory Arabic, said that languages like Arabic that do not use the Latin alphabet pose an issue for the software she uses to do her reading. And because no one at Harvard could translate the Arabic script into Braille, ATL had to hire an outside company to translate the book.

While acknowledging that “Harvard has done the best they can,” Stevens said that the solution is not ideal—she meets a graduate student several times per week to have her Arabic work read aloud to her.

‘LIVE, WORK, AND PLAY’

Despite what they said is room for improvement in the services the University provides, Crockett, Kiebdaj, and Stevens said that most people at Harvard are accepting and supportive.

“The students are really helpful when I ask a question,” said Stevens, who participated in a week-long Freshman Outdoor Program trip in September. “I think that’s probably the best thing.”

Kiebdaj, a member of the ballroom dancing team and the Celtic Club, said undergraduates are sensitive enough to make sure she does not feel different. She laughed as she talked about a Web site called “What to Do When You Meet a Sighted Person,” which contains humorous tips for helping blind people with their interactions with the sighted.

“People who are sighted do not want your charity,” the site reads. “They want to live, work, and play along with you.”