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Summer Academy at Penn State Helps Prepare Blind Students for College

by on July 27, 2014 1:00 PM

When Madeline Link walked up to the customer service desk at Walmart and asked for help finding groceries, she experienced an emotion most people wouldn’t feel at that moment: empowerment.

Link – a blind high school student from Allentown – says she’s always had trouble asking others for help, whether it’s just for school or for assistance related to her disability. Thanks to a program newly offered at Penn State, she and other young visually impaired students from across the state are learning how to advocate for themselves in their daily lives.

David De Notaris, the director of the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry’s Bureau of Blindness and Visual Services, says visually impaired individuals face difficulties many people never think about: crossing a street, using an ATM, using a cell phone, buying groceries, doing laundry. The list goes on.

De Notaris helped teach these and other vital skills through the Bureau of Blindness’s Summer Academy, which helps high school students learn skills to help them transition into college and independent living. Formerly hosted at a rehabilitation center in Johnstown, this is the first year the college-focused program has been held at Penn State.

“I felt very apprehensive and nervous when I first started this program,” Link says. “It can be hard for anyone to admit that they need help.”

The academy started back on July 13 and runs through the beginning of August. Participating students sleep in Penn State dorms, attend college classes and learn everything from using assistive technology to self-defense.

On Sunday, the students found themselves at the Stone Valley Vertical Adventures challenge course, preparing to balance on wires two stories above the ground with the help of Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center staff.

Tarik Williams, a visually impaired resident assistant with the summer academy, says even though navigating a high-ropes course isn’t a vital life skill, the confidence to rise to the challenge of doing so is.

“Building confidence is a big part of this whole process,” Williams says. “There are so many things that these kids think they can’t do – but they can. They just have to do it a little differently.”

Williams attended the program himself back in 2011, after losing his vision in his junior year of high school due to a genetic disease. He says that without the summer academy, he wouldn’t have been prepared for the struggles that come with attending college.

Everything from eating in a cafeteria to simply letting professors know of their disability presents a challenge for a blind student, Williams says. Attending the academy left him so well equipped “to be an advocate for myself and my needs” Williams decided to come back and help empower new students in the same way.

Shaver’s Creek program director Will Wise says the visually impaired students haven’t been the only ones learning. When Wise taught the students how to canoe on Saturday, he encountered a new problem: how do you demonstrate rowing technique to someone who can’t see you?

Wise solved his problem with a new process he says he’ll now use from now on. Rather than just describing the motion of the paddle, he brought the students into the water and taught them to move the water around them by feel.

"I wouldn't have been pushed in my teaching like that if I hadn't worked with these kids," Wise says. "They taught me much more than I probably taught them."

Even though Williams says the summer academy helped prepare him for college, he knows that the students attending the three-week program will still face challenges and adversity in the future. The important thing, he says, is to choose to face them.

“Whether you’re sighted or not, there were always be obstacles and you can always find a reason not to do something,” Williams says. “At the end of the day, you just have to believe in yourself and do it anyway.”


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Michael Martin Garrett is a reporter and editor for who covers local government, the courts, the arts and writes the Keeping the Faith column. He's a Penn State alumnus, a published poet and the bassist in a local indie rock band.
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