There's Always More to Learn: Cassie's Educational and Internship Experiences

Growing up is an ongoing process; no matter how much one knows there are always more lessons to learn and more avenues to explore. I was born in Madison, Wisconsin where I lived until I was seventeen when I moved to Tacoma, Washington to attend college. I am an only child, and a few months after I was born my parents discovered I was blind. My exact condition is called Leber's Amaurosis which affects the vision-related nerves more than the eye itself. In short, the doctor who diagnosed me compared my eye to a camera where the picture is taken, but the image never appears on the film. I am still able to see different kinds of light (i.e. sunlight, fluorescent light, etc.).

At 18 months, I was enrolled in an early childhood program that taught me to adapt to basic everyday life without the benefit of sight. I learned basic navigational skills, such as moving around obstacles or open doorways, along with learning to recognize different shapes and simple objects. When I was five, I started kindergarten. In the morning I learned to read Braille and travel with a cane and then in the afternoon I attended the regular kindergarten. In early grade school when my classmates learned to print and write cursive, I learned to type and use other basic assistive technology. In classes with important visual aspects such as gym or math, someone from the vision program would help me. Socially, I was wary of my peers and preferred to sit by myself and read while the other kids played together. However, I learned to open up to people and make friends as I got older.

In my mid-teens I realized I wanted to go to college. I craved independence and knew I wanted to move somewhere else, and I figured that going to college was one good way of getting out of town. Reinforcing this motivation was the summer I spent between my junior and senior year of high school working for a "light assembly" company. The employment agency that placed me there said that other possible workplaces had "made excuses" about limited resources and this was the only job they could find, given my age and experience. So for six miserable hours, four days a week, I sat in a dimly lit room snapping together little pieces of plastic. That did it. I was motivated to go to college, and find better work options. I visited colleges in the Northwest, along with California and Virginia, and decided to apply early to my first choice, the University of Puget Sound (UPS), before applying anywhere else. When I received the large envelope in the mail from UPS, containing the letter of acceptance, I couldn't believe it. I was excited about living out this dream.

I was the first visually impaired student to attend school at UPS in several years, so the Disability Services Office had to become acquainted with a lot of new adaptive technology in order to get materials converted to Braille, customize visual assignments, and otherwise help me access the campus. Fortunately, they were very willing to work with me, and the majority of my professors were very accommodating. In addition, I was familiar with most standard computer applications and had my own system complete with the assistive text-to-speech software Jaws for Windows, so if need be, my professors and I could email assignments and other essential materials back and forth. I also had a note taker with a refreshable Braille display known as a Braille Note that I used to view documents and take notes in class. These, along with other assistive tools, were provided by the Wisconsin Department of Vocational Rehabilitation (DVR) and the Washington Department of Services For The Blind, as I was, and still am, considered a resident in both states. As my time at UPS progressed, the challenge became a learning process for everyone involved.

A second challenge was learning my way around campus. In addition to my visual impairment, I have a spatial disorder which causes me to have difficulties mapping out routes in my head, so that it takes me twice as long as other people with visual impairments to memorize even basic routes. Stress or severe preoccupation can often intensify this confusion, even when I do have routes memorized. Fortunately, my mobility instructor, the Office of Disability Services, and I were all able to work together to come up with solutions. I would Braille step-by-step notes for myself based on recordings of instructions my mobility instructor made for me. I would consult these notes as I walked the routes and memorize various landmarks and what they signified. For instance, the dorm immediately before mine had a fan constantly running, so I knew to turn to go to my entrance a few steps after passing the fan.

I graduated from UPS in 2006 with a Bachelor's degree in communications and had built a resume listing my work-study jobs, along with clubs and activities I had been involved with during school. I applied and interviewed for several jobs, and finally, two months after graduation, I landed a basic entry-level job at a sales company. It took me a considerable amount of time, along with a switch from full- to part-time, to get the gist of the sales process, but I finally did. This job did not feel like it was the ideal fit for me. I knew I could do something more challenging.

At UPS, I had volunteered as a disk jockey at the school radio station and greatly enjoyed it. Thus, I decided to enroll in a broadcasting class at Green River Community College (GRCC) in Auburn, Washington, in order to supplement my education and pursue a career in the radio field. As I took the class, I became acquainted with the staff from the Disability Support Services office at the school. At one point, they asked if I would be interested in participating in a day-long conference concerning college students with disabilities and their experiences in postsecondary environments. I eagerly said yes and was thus introduced to many of the staff from DO-IT, as the program put on the conference. As we shared stories and ideas my interest in the program grew, and we agreed to remain in contact regarding possible internships. Shortly thereafter, I was offered a paid internship working for DO-IT and GRCC evaluating the college website for accessibility issues, training staff and students to use various assistive technologies, helping students with papers, and assisting in the development of disability awareness info and tips for the website and the DO-IT/GRCC newsletter. As I continued to get to know staff and students at Green River, my enjoyment of the work and overall interest in the field increased so much that I would consider doing similar work on a long-term basis. I loved being creative in my writing along with the challenge of coming up with new strategies for tricky situations.

After completing my DO-IT AccessSTEM internship at Green River, I assisted at the DO-IT Summer Study program for high school and college students with disabilities. For the week I was there, I helped a class brainstorm ideas for a presentation on web accessibility, and assisted one particular student who was visually impaired with learning to use Jaws for Windows as she learned to develop her own web page. I especially loved her eagerness to learn and appreciated her patience and sense of humor when I hit the occasional rough patch trying to figure out how to show her something more complex. Once again, working with this young woman was a mutual learning process, except this time, she was the one teaching me to teach her and I loved playing the part of the mentor that week.

Currently I have nearly completed a second internship through DO-IT at the Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle. Mainly, my job has been to critique the center's websites, documents, and web applications for accessibility issues and write up feedback reports. At first, it was a bit of a switch working with more web developers than students, but I soon grew accustomed to the change and as in the other settings, I've grown to enjoy the whole process. Through my college and internship experiences I realized that I have more options in my life than I originally thought. Based on what I learned I have begun looking into jobs at colleges, as well as jobs developing and editing web content. In addition, I may go back to school to pursue a two-year masters degree in counseling psychology. Though I don't have a definite career path at the moment, I feel much more confident about my future than I did a year ago. Thanks in large part to DO-IT, I've gained a great deal of work experience over a very short period of time, along with a much more developed resume and there are many more possibilities now open to me.