Life on campus as a visually impaired student: navigating bumps in the road and elevator battles


By Emily Bejerano

You’re driving to campus. There’s mild traffic, the weather is nice, no rain or snow today. You park rather quickly and go about your day walking to your classes and saying ”Hi” to some people you know on your way. Seems like a regular experience most people don’t even concern themselves with. For me, well… it has a few more bumps in the road, quite literally. 

With my long white cane (no, it’s not called a stick) I can feel every crack, indent, bump, and piles of stuff on the sidewalk. I’m used to the unpredictable yet predictable sidewalks around campus. However, finding the entrances to where I am trying to go is another mission. As you can imagine it gets a little annoying standing outside a building for several minutes just trying to figure out where the entrance is – if you see this, no I’m not standing there to enjoy the weather.

Now, I have taken orientation and mobility training to know my way around campus, to know where the ramps are, memorize how many steps there are if I decide not to take the ramp, know where the door handles are in the doors I use the most, learn where to find the buttons to open the doors, and know where to be 10times more cautious to not walk into glass, a metal pole, or something I may not see. But it is still a mission sometimes. Depending on the weather, brightness outside, activity of people around, or if I’m distracted in the slightest, Istruggle to find my way around. 

My visual impairment is difficult to explain because it’s not due to an abnormality in my eyes. (Ironic isn’t it?). It’s all neurological. To put it rather simple and not put my non-science lovers to sleep, I have progressive vision loss due to degeneration of my optic nerve, which transmits visual stimulI to my brain. It’s a never ending debate between my eyes and brain, they fight for who is seeing what they think they’re seeing. I’ll confess I sometimes enjoy hearing the tea of some drama going on between people, but I don’t love being the host of the drama-causing organs.

After the first battle is won, I walk inside to find the elevators. I find my way inside quickly, as long as my vision doesn’t get blurry or distorted from the change in brightness there is when entering a building from outside. When I am in the elevators my second battle begins. I’ve noticed many elevators solely have the braille and lifted numbers for any visually impaired people to use. Now, that wouldn’t be a problem if I was always taking my time to feel the braille and click on the right button or if there is always someone else in the elevator. Unfortunately that is not always the case, I’m often in a rush to get to class on time, be able to go to the bathroom, or catch up with a classmate or professor before class. Being a low vision person combined with the normal rush to get somewhere can be inconvenient or dangerous, depending on the environment. 

There have been many instances where I may press the correct button in the elevator, but the elevator makes stops along the way and I get confused about what floor I’m on. On several occasions, I walked out of the elevator, thinking it was my floor, and figured out several minutes after I was not. One particular elevator I love at GRCC is one in the back area of the Science Center. You know the one right across the stairs or sitting areas, depending on the floor you’re in. Most complain about the slowness of this elevator, but I love it because every time it moves up/down a floor, it will have an audio cue that I could keep track of to know how many floors I’ve passed. Sadly, other elevators I’ve used in the student center, RJF hall and ATC building do not have this system installed. 

Something as simple as an audio cue can truly make visually impaired elevator users get to where they’re going more efficiently and without the stress of losing time. After I’ve found the floor I’m intending to go to, I’ve won two battles. It is usually not difficult to find my class because I spent several weeks training with orientation and mobility to know how to navigate towards class. But given the need to go to someone’s office, a different classroom, or anywhere I haven’t practiced going, can be daunting. Most entrances to rooms/offices are clearly marked with a plaque with a room number and braille. I’m grateful for the contrast most of them have; some do not have much contrast though, so then, like a detective, you’ll see me focused on finding the culprit plaques labeling the room numbers. Once my detective work is done and I’ve successfully found the culprit, I have arrived at my destination. 

I have to plan for an additional 15 minutes to walk to and from class daily. It is 15 minutes I lose with something so ordinary. Grand Rapids Community College is abiding by the guidelines of the American Disability Act and the Disability Support Services office makes sure to accommodate students in the manner they can; however, there are still barriers that may not be noticed or evaluated by the ADA. Implementing greater contrast in building entrances, for room plaques, an audio cue in elevators, and possibly having student employees available to guide low-vision students to where they’re going could be very helpful. Unfortunately, there will always be some kind of barrier someone with a disability faces, but noticing them is important in finding ways of removing them. 

God gives the toughest battles to his toughest soldiers, right? Well, I guess I’m tough, I win those battles. Navigating through school shouldn’t be a battle, studying, excelling, and getting involved in school are already enough. 

Editors note: Video and audio edited by Sophie Deiters.

Previous articleGRCC’S Clothing Drive and Free Clothing Shop
Next articleGRCC preps students for April commencement at GRADfest 2023