Editor’s note: October is National Disability Employment Awareness month (NDEAM). According to the Department of Labor, “The purpose of National Disability Employment Awareness Month is to educate about disability employment issues and celebrate the many and varied contributions of …workers with disabilities.” In the spirit of this month and what it means to people with disabilities, Maribel Steel, who has retinitis pigmentosa, shares her journey in obtaining a certification to be a vocational training teacher in Australia. As you will read, even in the 21st century, the road to success still has a few potholes to overcome.
Blindness is My Journey: Perseverance My Quest
Most people have heard the expression, “Life is a journey, not a destination.” From experience, I have found that life can take us in many unexpected directions. At times, the journey can become a test of endurance, catching us off guard, presenting us with corners and steep climbs. At other times, the path becomes a pleasant stroll with people we meet along the way.
Add to that journey a degree of sight loss, and the experience can become a path littered with obstacles. This was the case when I enrolled in a study course as a mature-aged student living in my home country of Australia. My journey became a solid thirty weeks of persistent effort to attain a qualification as a certified teacher in vocational training.
From where I stand today, nearing the destination, I can stop to reflect on this journey. It has tested me on so many levels, pushing me to sheer exhaustion at times. Self-doubt and my inner critic frequently worked together encouraging me to abandon my quest.
The combination of being blind and having inaccessible study materials, however, was not enough to force me to quit.
Beginning the Course
At the onset of the journey, I was excited, pumped up and eager to look through the student’s manual prior to commencing the first learning module. With the aid of my screen reader, it felt as if I had jumped onto a tandem bike with a trusty chatty guide (screen reader JAWS). We had only travelled a few pages into the reading materials when we met the first obstacle. The manual was inaccessible. This meant the screen reader could not read the visual flow charts and diagrams clearly intended for sighted students. At this early setback, I knew I would have to do what I often do; explore the detour. I’d have to find another way around the obstacle.
Detours Require Tenacity
I have been legally blind from retinitis pigmentosa for over forty years, and one thing I have learned about being on this life path is that I must become more proactive in attaining my goals. If a situation places an obstacle in my way, my first reaction now is not to give up but to make an alternative plan. Plan B, or C, and sometimes D, E and F. “F” is for forge ahead.
Emails flew across the internet; I contacted the teaching college, the Education Department, to officially register my concerns with inaccessible study materials, and wrote to anyone whom I thought could assist me. Meanwhile, the course had begun, and lessons were in progress. I had to start pedalling furiously to keep up with homework assignments.
A quick solution was nowhere in sight. But the college provided a note-taker in the virtual Zoom class as part of the Disability Support I could request. I could also ask for an extension of time when submitting the assignments online.
Vulnerability Attracts Teamwork
My teacher and the training team clearly did their best to try to supply learning materials in a format JAWS could access, but these still contained many complex graphics and tables which JAWS merrily skipped over. The courses materials contained page after page of unreadable content.
As the lessons progressed, I worked in different ways to try to access the materials. This was an exhausting process and I often had to confront my personal sense of vulnerability. Was I an adequate student? Would my blindness lead to disappointment? Was I deluding myself to imagine I could attain a qualification when the teacher said, “Sorry, I don’t know how to explain this visual. You will have to sit this one out.”
With all the barriers stacked thick and mounting fast, I was supported by a growing team of personal “fans.” My life partner, a circle of close friends, and my fellow classmates all kept me going. The journey became a shared one, full of kind and practical support that constantly reminded me I was not alone. Each person in my team played a significant role, and when I needed their help, emotionally or in practical ways, I knew I could rely on them.
Even though my final assignment is still to be evaluated, I have stopped many times on the journey to consider what there was to gain on a personal level. Here are three key lessons I have learned that may help others who take on a similar journey:
- A barrier can become the catalyst that shakes up a system. Become your own advocate; make a noise. It is not good enough for people who are blind or visually impaired to be excluded from education, or career opportunities simply because the “system” is better equipped to help a visual community. The most common barriers are often unnecessary, but unless we point them out, one hurdle at a time, nothing will change. Be an advocate for change so that other people will benefit from your trail-blazing efforts for a more inclusive and thoughtful society.
- No challenge has to be a solo experience. We need to lean in, ask for help, and accept support. A challenge too great to face alone can become an achievement when a team of people work together on a mutual quest. The process can lift all involved to new heights. When we allow other people to help us solve a problem, all sorts of new opportunities become possible and reveal themselves.
- Look how far you have come, rather than agonize over how far you have yet to go. This became my personal mantra, echoed each time I passed another milestone along the way. Instead of dwelling on the upcoming assignments demanding my attention, I was able to stop and enjoy the ones I had already passed and dealt with.
I am on the homeward stretch now, almost there – and free-wheeling with my hands in the air!
P.S. I passed my exams and now I am a qualified Trainer and Assessor in Vocational Education!