Against all odds

Erica Crist

Blind student shares how she adjusted to Kent State

Jennifer Kennedy, junior communication studies major, walks back to class after getting lunch at the Student Center yesterday. Kennedy is blind and uses a cane to navigate her way across campus. SEAN DAUGHERTY | DAILY KENT STATER

Credit: Carl Schierhorn

Imagine walking from Lowry Hall to Taylor Hall, and having a stranger who has been following you ask if something is wrong every time there’s a break in the song on your iPod.

This happened to Jennifer Kennedy, junior communication studies major. She is blind.

“Sometimes students can be too helpful,” Kennedy said. “I stop when I’m walking along, explore the area with my cane and listen to the traffic, and people will think you’re lost. And all you’re doing is collecting information, and it’s hard to explain that to people.”

Kennedy went blind when she was 14 years old from uveitis, or inflammation of the retina, she said.

“I had some trouble when I was about 5, and so we didn’t know if it would return,” she said. “And then I had a battle between 13 and 14, and then they said there was nothing else they could do. So I said OK . I sat down with my family, and we decided to get off the medical merry-go-round and start my life.”

Kennedy said she has what is called tunnel vision – she can see shapes and colors, but she has no peripheral vision at all.

In 2001, Kennedy chose Kent State because Student Disability Services was a good organization, and the people on campus had good attitudes, she said.

“I think in general, the attitude of the campus is very open,” Kennedy said. “One of the things I enjoyed about here was that I didn’t strike people as odd.”

SDS provides assistance to students with varying degrees and types of disabilities so they have equal academic opportunities. Mobility, visual, hearing and speech impairments, as well as specific learning disabilities and more are all covered by SDS with proper documentation.

“What we do is meet with each individual student and work with them to determine their needs and the accommodations we can provide for them,” said Mary Reeves, director of University Health Services and SDS. “For blind students we can do Braille translation, accommodate books in Braille, provide note takers or assist them with any kind of classroom situation.”

Services offered by SDS to help people with visual impairments also include personal and academic counseling.

However, Kennedy said she realized after her first year of college that she wasn’t ready.

“I took the next year off and got training at the Louisiana Center for the Blind,” she said. “It’s a program for adults of all ages, and while I was there I took a college class so I could see the skills needed.”

SDS works with students one-on-one to help in their transition to college life.

“We try to meet with students and families before they come to campus, and we review the accommodations they received in high school and the differences with what they’ll have in college,” Reeves said. “Then we give them a tour, work with an academic adviser, sit down and develop accommodation letters for them to get to faculty and resident halls.”

During Kennedy’s year off, she found out what skills she had, which ones were working for her and which ones weren’t. She came back to Kent State in 2003, and she became president of her hall council and a member of the Kappa Phi Club. Then she went Greek and is now a Delta Zeta.

“It’s a good experience to get involved because you realize that college isn’t as catty as high school, and there is more of an attitude of acceptance,” Kennedy said. “No one has ever said, ‘You’re blind, and we don’t think you can do it.'”

Being a student in the College of Communication and Information is another great experience Kennedy has had at Kent State, she said.

“The professors are super and open about things,” she said. “Or they’re insightful and ask me, ‘How can we do this in class today?’ I take almost all of my exams with my professors. I can’t just walk into an exam, read it, and walk back out. And if I take an exam all the way over in DeWeese with SDS, then I miss the second half of the class with the lecture. So the communication studies people have been great and really helpful.”

Although Kennedy is involved with many organizations on and off campus, she chooses not to use every service that SDS offers to her. Specific accommodations are not extended by SDS unless they are requested. A student has the right to completely refuse special help.

“I walk – I don’t use the SDS bus — so I have to walk and build a mental map in my head,” Kennedy said.

Heather White, the manager of the grounds department in Campus Environment and Operations, said the safety of all students who walk on campus is the most important reason why snow must be effectively cleared from the sidewalks and roads.

She said the grounds department works closely with Reeves and SDS to make sure ramps are clear and to know which residence halls have the most disabled students in them.

“If there’s any concerns from students, they contact our office,” Reeves said. “If a ramp is blocked, snow on the sidewalk, special electronic doors – we will handle all of those things for them.”

The only thing that Kennedy thought SDS could do to improve the college experience for a blind student is to have more Braille around campus.

Contact assistant features editor Erica Crist at [email protected]