To this day I’m not sure how I learned about Wisconsin’s Division of Vocational Rehabilitation (DVR), only that sometime in 2002 I met someone at a small café in Madison who described to me what DVR is and what they can do to help persons with disability rejoin the workforce. I really wish I could remember who that person was… I owe her a huge thank you!
What I discovered was DVR assists with vocational counseling, providing various services and supplies unique to the person and their employment goal, and even provides financial assistance for college training to obtain that employment goal. What? Really? (By the way, all states have a Division of Vocational Rehabilitation…)
Then I went home. I was driving again at this point, took me 5 years to gain enough confidence to do so and I still took the back roads… Anyway, I went home and that meeting resonated something in me, a need to do something, to become a part of the outside world again, to make a difference somehow… That resonation took a while to ring the bell for me but it did. In 2003 DVR opened a case file for me and I started a whole new set of classes… I had decided that I wanted to go back to school to become a counselor and work with individuals who have transitioned into an acquired disability. I wanted to share my experiences with others to let them know they still have a life ahead of them. My employment goal.
So, there I was at Madison College, wow –my first day of school! I’m in COLLEGE! Forty-three years old and I was in COLLEGE! An unbalanced, wobbly, blurry mixture of excitement and fear (fear taking up the majority of the mix), wiggled through me. Could I really I do this? Is this really real?
Those first unsteady steps into college life were like first steps into kindergarten. It was an unfamiliar, scary, and hugely challenging step. I really was scared and worried. Not so much about my desire of going back to school but more so, an apprehension of the challenges of real deal college classes I was about to discover. It had been a long time since I was in school…. I graduated from high school in 1976 and here it was, 2003, I had stopped the academic part of learning a long time ago…and now I was at the start of beginning to learn about and understand another whole new element of Cheryl. Besides the college courses I was taking, I was also taking a course in me.
Before my classes began, and the halls filled up, I thought it might be a good idea to embark on trial runs on making my way to my classrooms, to work on finding my way around a completely unfamiliar environment. That was really my first class! I’m glad I enrolled myself in that one because when the trial runs stopped the real deal began! I now understand the importance of prerequisites!
I also signed up for a counselor with the college’s Disability Resource Services. There I met my dear friend Todd Jones. Todd was my counselor of all things education and emulated that all things are possible with a disability. When Todd was younger, he endured a life changing car accident which resulted in a spinal cord injury and permanent quadriplegia. When Todd met me in the waiting area and showed me to his office I was amazed at his immediate promising presence. Todd taught me more than I think he he did… He showed me that yes, all things are possible. To this day Todd and I remain close friends and I love him dearly. When you’re with Todd, you see only Todd. There is no wheelchair and no obstacles. He does, however, make quite a statement driving around in his giant red pickup truck! I can barely get into it without a stepstool! But that’s Todd – a do anything kind of guy.
With Todd’s help we arranged accommodations that would support my success in and out of the classroom. One such accommodation was using a tape recorder to tape lectures. This helped tremendously because I could not multitask listening to a lecture and taking copious notes at the same time. I had my own unique form of note taking but for notes that were more specific, I was assigned a note-taker who would do that for me. Accommodations like these allowed me more room to pay attention to what was being said which helped keep me in the moment of learning and away from that unnecessary noise. But it also meant I took two of those classes a day, double the work.
I sat in the front row of every class to stay ahead of movements other students would make. If I didn’t put myself up front, those movements would disorient me to the point of me falling out of my chair, not a pleasant or pretty experience. I was able to request a chair that did not move, some of the lecture rooms had those. Again, movement, even while sitting would throw my perceptions amuck.
Another accommodation I tried was extended exam times and taking exams outside the classroom, in a quiet area. Concentration was a big problem for me so those services helped a lot. As the semester rolled on, I discovered a trick of the trade – earplugs! Using earplugs I could stay in the classroom and take the exams just like everyone else! I couldn’t hear a thing besides the ringing in my ears, another side effect of ototoxicity. My ringing is in the key of G. Oh, and if I needed additional time to finish an exam, I took it in the classroom.
Another supportive service was the Learning Center. Here there was one on one support from instructors on any topic I needed help with. Here is where I met Beth Bremer. Oh my Gosh – this wonderful woman filled me with such support, understanding, motivation and inspiration that I could do nothing but succeed! Like Todd, Beth and I are the best of friends today, she is a definite burst of sunshine and energy! I love her dearly. To both Todd and Beth – thank you, thank you, and thank you.
A little suggestion – If you or someone you know has a disability and is pursuing college, I strongly recommend hooking up with Disability Resource Services. All colleges have one, but, it’s up to the person with a disability to seek out their services, they do not come to you. It’s worth it and you’ll be amazed at the many types of supports, services, equipment, and more that is available to make learning with a disability a grand experience.
So, armed with supports in place and a road map to classrooms, my first semester began by mixing with people everywhere who were moving in and out of their own plans and unknowingly moving in and out of my challenges. Walking through a sea of students was the most difficult. I had my cane in one hand, and my backpack strapped to a luggage carrier on wheels which I pulled along side of me with the other. Once I started moving, there was no stopping me; literally, I couldn’t stop because the momentum I had to put out was like that of a speeding bullet. When I did, I would stop in a jerking, wobbly halt, steady myself with my cane and carrier, straighten my body, head and eyes up from staring at the floor, and with my head shaking from side to side, try to orient myself to where I was. When I found my bearings I would start again until I reached my final destination. I must have had a vibe of sorts because people, well, most, would move out of my way. Those that didn’t threw me off course like a hurricane to a sailboat. Ouch. But really, I know I looked rather strange working my way through those people so those that got out of my way probably did so to avoid contact at all. I don’t blame them, I would’ve too.
My perception was absorbed with that of constantly sensing and anticipating a fall, but I kept going. My sight was filled with a sea of bouncing and blurring feet and people, with walls, floors and doors swirling around a circus of confusion. But I kept going. I also felt the stares, I heard the whispers. But my own whispers held me to my conviction to make this work. I stepped into my first Madison College class and began my quest for higher learning, which as it would turn out, was just the beginning of something incredible on the horizon!