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Students grapple with visual impairments

Eileen Duffy | Friday, September 22, 2006

Junior Jim Lockwood is sitting on a bench in the lobby of the Hesburgh Library. Through the window Notre Dame Stadium looms above the pool reflecting Touchdown Jesus’ outstretched arms. Lockwood’s dog Scout gazes up at him affectionately.

But Lockwood has no idea. In fact, he’s never seen the Stadium, Touchdown Jesus – or Scout (his dog) for that matter.

Lockwood is one of the visually impaired (including two blind) students feeling their way through their college careers at Notre Dame. Through a combination of their own skills and the University’s support, they seem to be succeeding.

Dr. Tim Cordes, who is blind, felt his way right to the top of his class – he was the valedictorian of the Class of 1998, earning a 3.99 in biochemistry. He then went on to earn a medical degree from the University of Wisconsin, where he is now working on a doctorate.

He also holds a black belt in jujitsu and carried the Olympic torch in 2002.

Succeeding academically “was just a constant learning process,” Cordes said. Eventually he learned what worked, and what didn’t.

What didn’t work, for example, were the molecular diagrams an organic chemistry professor drew on the chalkboard. What did work for Cordes were raised-line drawings – etchings on plastic sheets. He also listened to taped textbooks (or read them in Braille, when possible), had a talking laptop and employed a device called an Optacon, which features a tiny camera and pins to help his fingers “feel” images.

Where tools don’t suffice, real people – like the students employed by the Office for Students with Disabilities – take over. Students serve as readers and writers for blind and visually-impaired students.

Sophomore Ashley Nashleanas is also blind and majoring in the sciences, though her focus is biology. She uses many of the same tools as Cordes – but those tools initially presented her with problems.

“When I first got to Notre Dame, I had all this equipment,” she said. “Figuring out what to use, and what not to use was a real challenge.”

Lockwood’s visual impairment – a combination of glaucoma and another affliction that is a “mystery” to doctors – allows him to see things in very high contrast (like black on white), so he can often read books once they’re scanned into his computer (which boasts a king-sized screen).

Despite these tools and more, visually impaired students admit that at times, they’ve been lost.

Literally.

“One of the first days after I’d trained Scout [Lockwood’s seeing-eye dog], I was trying to go from DeBartolo to Siegfried and I got completely lost,” Lockwood said. “I got to St. Joe’s Street and heard the sound of golf carts, and knew I was in the wrong place.”

Cordes got lost so many times, he made a resolution during his junior year.

“I decided I was only going to take right-angle turns on campus, even if there was a diagonal going across the quad,” he said. But for him, getting lost was “just part of the game.”

With time-consuming academics and the long commutes across campus, is there ever time for anything else?

For Nashleanas, there’s plenty, and she spends it in the pool – she’s been swimming competitively since the age of 13. She’s currently training for the backstroke and freestyle events at the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing, China, swimming six days a week (or five, if the pool’s closed for a home football game).

The Office for Students with Disabilities has also provided her with “tappers,” or people to stand at either end of the pool and tap her head with a stick, telling her when to flip-turn.

Lockwood serves as Siegfried’s senator, where he earned laughs during the candidates’ spring debate. Asked to describe his campaign in one word, Lockwood replied, “Vision.”

In all seriousness, Lockwood said, coming to college forced him to open up a little bit.

“I was never involved in high school,” he said. “I realized here that becoming part of groups is a really good way of meeting people.”

Part of getting involved, aside from being a dorm senator, includes his membership in Amnesty International.

Cordes, Lockwood and Nashleanas all said they were impressed by the kindness of the Notre Dame community.

“My favorite part about coming here was how everyone was so nice,” Nashleanas said. “If it’s a cold day and I need to find someplace I’m supposed to be, I can ask a complete stranger and they’ll show me, just out of the kindness of their hearts. People are always happy here.”