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.