Surviving University with a disability

By: Keely Grossman- The Brock Press

Brittany Brooks _ Students with disabilitiesAll of us have a story. Whether it be a story of intense suffering, violence, loss, joy or triumph, we all have one. Some stories are painful to tell while others are not. Regardless of how hard it can be that story needs to be shared. Whether it is as a way to inspire, motivate, or help others, or simply as a way to bring peace to yourself.  In this article I am going to share my story for all those reasons.

I used to want to be a veterinarian, or a doctor and I would tell anybody who would listen about those dreams. I was your average child and I didn’t really know what I was saying at the time. At the age of 10 one of my teachers at public school informed me that I would never be a vet or a doctor. I was crushed. I had to accept the fact that these two particular vocations required the vision I did not have. The same teacher not only told me I could never be a vet or a doctor, she also told me I’d never make it to university and at the time I believed her.

The years I spent in public school (grades one-six) were years in which I was bullied because of my visual impairment. To navigate I used a “white cane” which is a mobility aid for those who have vision loss. Students would steal my cane and I was forced to walk blindly to classes listening to the sounds of their laughter as I went. They also left me alone on the playground which meant my best friend throughout those five years was a wall. If I was in the middle of a conversation with a classmate they would leave while I was still talking, leaving me talking to the air. Then came taunts and laughter claiming that I was “crazy” for talking to myself.

It wasn’t just students who made those years miserable; it was also the teachers. Most of them didn’t know how to help me academically and did not make the effort to try. I wasn’t surprised when they told me I’d never go to university.

At the age of eleven I transferred to a boarding school for the blind just outside Toronto. Things were better there – for a while. At fourteen I fell in with the wrong crowd; I hung out with a group who pushed me past my comfort zone and who did not respect me. A year later I was switched to a new residence. Feeling hopeful, I embraced the move and the change of the environment, residential staff and students.

However, things did not go as I had hoped. Less than two months into the year my mother had to have a meeting with the residence staff on my floor. To the staff I was judgemental, rude and possessive. All that was enough to make a girl who had already been bullied for several years go overboard and I became deeply depressed. I began to hurt myself in ways I never imagined possible. People that were supposed to be my “friends” turned against me calling me an attention seeker. One psychologist even encouraged me to be ashamed of the way I looked by telling me to wear dark glasses so that people would not be able to see my eyes. She told me my looks were “off putting.” This negativity made me feel worse about myself.

That same year I decided to apply to get a guide dog. I applied to two schools and got accepted into both. The summer before grade 11, after a month of intense training and bonding I was able to bring my guide dog home. Having her made my life easier as I was able to be more independent and free. Having a guide dog made grade 11 a more bearable year, but in reality it was just as bad as the previous one.

Before entering  grade 12 I went to a summer arts camp for three weeks. There I discovered my passion for writing and slowly I began to grow more confident. Maybe university was not a pipe dream after all.

When grade twelve began, I informed my guidance counsellor of my plans to go to university the following year. She told me I wasn’t ready and at the parent/teacher interview a few weeks later informed my mother that I wouldn’t get into any “big schools” and that I wouldn’t succeed. My mom and I ignored her and went ahead with sending in the applications. I was accepted to three out of four universities that I applied to. They were Carleton University, the University of Waterloo and of course, Brock University.

As soon as I stepped foot on Brock’s campus for their spring open house, I instantly felt at home. The people were nice, respectful and knowledgeable about all that Brock had to offer ;both academically and socially.  Not only that, but they also were concerned about my dog’s needs as well as my own.

Academically, Brock offered me courses in the fields of Dramatic Arts, English and Child and Youth studies, the three disciplines I was interested in the most. Socially, Brock offered a number of clubs that involved volunteering, mental health awareness and the arts. On top of that, Brock had a small, but expanding campus and many opportunities to study abroad.

My name is Keely Grossman. I am a first-year student at Brock University, with my guide dog Onyx. I am in the English Language and Literature program and plan to do a combined major with another subject come my second year. The majority of people with a visual impairment are unemployed and do not attend a post-secondary institution. I am proud to say that I have overcome the bullying, negativity and depression to get to Brock, my home for the next four years. I have high hopes for my future because now I am a university student, something I have always wanted to be. I aspire to be a teacher so that I can help young people overcome obstacles and attain their dreams. What going to university means to me as a person with a disability are an education, a job, a life, and most importantly a future. It is not the size of the school that matters. It is the people who make up the school that are important and Brock is made up of incredible people.

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