The ABCs of Navigating Academe while Blind

If you are new to academia, you’ll appreciate these tips from returning contributor, Dr. Kathie Schneider. Kathie shares some essential advice for blind people embarking on scholarly careers.

Katherine Schneider, Ph.D. is a retired clinical psychologist living in Eau Claire, WI with her ninth Seeing Eye dog. Katherine has published a memoir To the Left of Inspiration: Adventures in Living with Disabilities, a children’s book Your Treasure Hunt: Disabilities and Finding Your Gold and a book for seniors, half of whom will develop disabilities, Occupying Aging: Delights, Disabilities and Daily Life. She originated the Schneider Family Book Awards for children’s books with disability content through the American Library Association and an award for superior journalism about disability issues through the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University. Locally, she started the Access Eau Claire fund through the Eau Claire Community Foundation to help non-profit organizations work toward full inclusion of people with disabilities. She’s a passionate advocate for access for all to the good things of life. Subscribe to her blog for details.

The ABCs of Navigating Academe while Blind: Thoughts of a Retiree

When I read of the launch of this Blind Academy group, I cheered. I longed for such a peer group when I got my first university teaching job in 1975. Now that I’m retired, I’d love to share my strength, hope and experience with those of you who are currently fighting the good fight.  At first I thought I was being too much of a sour old coot, but I checked my thoughts with a book written for all new academics, Ms. Mentor’s New and Ever More Impeccable Advice for Women and Men in Academia by E. Toth and she shares my generalities if not my blindness-specific examples. Then Stephen Kuusisto’s fabulous September 22, 2019 post “On Being Expensive, Difficult and Lonely in Higher Education” dropped into my mailbox and I knew I was not alone in my musings.

Here are my ABCs, with all my best wishes attached:

A: You’ll have to ask (often repeatedly and often unsuccessfully) for the accommodations you need. 

The campus Disability Services office is probably not mandated to help you and may or may not do so on occasion on an unofficial basis.  Even though your campus BELIEVES in equity, diversity and inclusivity, that doesn’t necessarily mean you.  Computers with screen readers have done wonders for access to printed matter, but human beings reading you the wet paint sign and the Mrs. Smith is celebrating fifty years of working in the chemistry office signs are still needed.  When someone meets your access request, a thank you helps it happen again.  Some sage psychologist said “Behavior rewarded is behavior repeated”, but I forget who.

B: There’s a bubble around you because of your blindness. 

You’ll be watched for everything from how your PowerPoint slides look to how clean your house is if you let your colleagues in. You’ll be expected to be flawless, cheerful and serve on every panel the university or community has as the face of inclusion.  You’ll quickly tire of the praise for the wrong reasons (a clean house not your scholarly work). Find a few folks who get beyond you as the Blind Prof and just plain like you.  It takes a lot of work to find them, but it’s worth it for the support they can be.  

C: It costs more in time, energy and money to succeed for you. 

The university should provide those reasonable accommodations you need like those pricey blindness-related gizmos. But you may decide to buy some of them yourself because it’s just easier. The extra time and energy it takes will help you focus on what Must I do, instead of all those “it would be nice” to. Taking care of yourself physically, exercise, diet, etc. is necessary.  I can personally testify (having developed fibromyalgia in my forties) that stress takes its toll even on Super Woman!

D: You’ll be dismissed, disrespected and discriminated against. 

Decide which “hills you want to die on” as one of my colleagues put it.  Yes you can file complaints, etc. but you won’t win friends by doing so. Be ready to move on to another job if it’s truly loathsome and/or your appeals for fair and equitable treatment don’t work. Find a mentor who can advise you about campus politics and/or departmental unwritten rules.   If possible band together with others facing similar issues and with ACLU, faculty union or other agitating folks.  Of course this takes showing up for their issues too.

E: Expect that you’ll face issues every day and will feel exhausted at times. 

You’re not crazy, just tired. 

F: Be flexible.

Sometimes you’ll take a different job than you thought because you want to stay in a particular location. Sometimes you’ll need to throw a pity party for yourself and sometimes you can be truly grateful for having an interesting, well-paying job with mostly bright, humane and fun folks to work with.  

Onward!  All best wishes!


Author: Modwyn

I'm a blind poet, musician, and English instructor, living in Jacksonville, FL. I enjoy reading, writing, gardening, singing, and cooking. When I'm not involved in academic pursuits, I work with blind and visually-impaired people and their families, teaching self-advocacy and independent living skills. I advocate with humor and compassion.

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