Drury University program helps blind students

Wednesday, June 23, 2010 | 5:25 p.m. CDT

SPRINGFIELD — Her first night in a Drury dorm, Kelcey Schlichting exclaimed, "I'm going to Drury."

Schlichting, a freshman at Carthage High School, was part of a pilot program at Drury this week. The university hosted blind and visually impaired students on campus and taught them about college life.

"You help kids coming from different backgrounds understand what the possibilities could be, what the dream could be,"said Chris Craig, director of the Drury School of Education and Child Development. "If you work hard, you can go here, and we want you here."

The program is part of an overarching mission at Drury, Craig said. With a grant from the Greene County Board of Developmental Disabilities, the school is in the initial stages of launching the Drury University Children's Center for the Visually Impaired.

The idea is to get students prepared for kindergarten and then for the transition from high school to college, said Calvin Churchwell, a certified orientation and mobility specialist.

If blind students don't get the assistance they need, the likelihood of them dropping out of college is higher, he said.

"If we can get them ready, they can go anywhere (to college) and be successful," Churchwell said.

This is important because unemployment among the blind is about 70 percent, said Scott Truax, CareerConnect program manager for the American Foundation for the Blind in New York.

Making the transition to college is hard enough, but it's even more difficult when you can't see, Truax said.

In public schools, blind students have teachers who are trained to teach them.

"In college, that person is no longer there," Truax said.

Blind students have to learn how to order textbooks that can be downloaded electronically and turned from text to speech.

This week at Drury, they learned to use an adapted form of Blackboard, a standard tool for navigating courses on many campuses.

They are learning to be independent travelers, said Angela Meadors, a Missouri State University student, who is planning to become an orientation and mobility specialist and was working with the students as part of her internship.

Drury graduate education students and students from other colleges worked with the group.

Another skill is finding the balance between independence and being comfortable asking for help, Meadors said. Then, there's social interaction.

"I think it's important to understand the whole breadth of what college life is all about," Craig said.

One session included dealing with roommates.

Roommates might not realize that if they leave something on the floor, their blind roommate could trip and fall, said Schlichting, who found the program useful.

Representatives of NanoPac Inc., a company in Tulsa, Okla., that specializes in assisted technology, showed students how to use a bar code scanner. The scanner has 1 million bar codes in its database and more can be added, said Dave Wilkinson, a product specialist.

The scanners are not only useful when grocery shopping, but people can color-code their clothes and make up a bar code so they can identify their clothes, Wilkinson said.

Freddy Marcos of Anderson held the scanner and slowly rotated a can of tuna until the scanner found the barcode. The scanner said "Bumble Bee Tuna," and Marcos erupted in a smile.

"It's a really nice technology," Marcos said.

Other technology included portable GPS devices with Braille readers, and, for low-vision students, there was a magnifying glass powerful enough to read something on the board.

Some of the technology is not new, but, like other technology, it's smaller and more user-friendly, Wilkinson said.

This year's group included students from Missouri and Arkansas, but organizers hope to include Oklahoma and Kansas next year.

Ryan Wood, a senior at Joplin High School, liked the social aspect as much as the technology.

"I don't get out much, so I enjoy being here. It is useful," Wood said.

He compared the experience to being at camp.

Hayley Scholes, who plans to attend the University of Arkansas this fall, said this week made her feel more prepared for college.

"The program is really awesome," Scholes said.

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