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Education: Post-Secondary Education for Blind Iowans

Primary Tasks

    Secondary Tasks

      Since the 1930s students at the Iowa School for the Blind had been taking college preparatory classes. Records from the Iowa Commission for the Blind show that several blind Iowans attended college. At the 1937 Commission Board meeting "[t]here was an informal discussion about the advanced education of blind boys and girls under the State Board of Education. Mr. Palmer [School Superintendent] thinks that all should have the opportunity who express a desire to go to college. Grant Perrin of Cedar Rapids and his desire to return to the conservatory of the State University was discussed. He will complete his Doctor’s degree. Mrs. Holmes [Commission Director] had already talked to the Board of Education in favor of his going and Mr. Palmer reported that he has received encouragement that it might be arranged.”

      Those blind Iowans who attended college had few resources for assistance. Neither the School for the Blind nor the Iowa Commission for the Blind had the legislative authority at that time to provide assistance for post-secondary education. However, the Commission did occassionally offer loans for college students to pay for books or sighted readers. Those blind individuals who attended college faced a number of obstacles, including difficulty in obtaining educational materials in a format they could use and resistance from college officials who did not believe they would be able to keep up with course work or that they would not be able to secure employment upon graduation.

      Until advances in computer technology came in the 1980s, the production of Braille or other tactile materials was time-consuming. Finding a source for books proved problematic as well. Commission for the Blind records from July 1935 indicate that school superintendent Mr. Palmer was looking into a project for transcribing books for college students through the American Printing House. Also mentioned was a Braille transcription project by the federal Works Project Administration and a Red Cross Braille transcription course. In Iowa, the Temple Sisterhood Braille Group provided transcribed Braille materials. Even with these sources, the frequent changes made in textbooks from year to year made obtaining the necessary textbooks in Braille difficult. In addition, the transcription required that the transcriber understand the subject matter. A note in the Commission Board meeting minutes from June 2, 1938 highlights this issue: "Graham Porter said he would like his German textbook in braille, but again, where to get a reader who can dictate? If he can find one in his community, he will do this."

      Many blind college students relied on sighted readers instead of Braille materials. Commission for the Blind records from 1951 noted that they were paying for readers for three college students: "the bio-chemist at Iowa City who is studying for his Ph. D. for whom we pay a reader. two boys from school- Dick Heffner at Drake- pay reader and Harold Henningon at Ames for whom we pay reader."

      Technological Changes

      Technological advancements made obtaining materials in an appropriate format much easier. Notetaking with a slate and stylus was supplemented with portable recording devices (from reel to reel to cassette tape, and now digital recorders). The development of Braille embossers, Braille transcription software, and refreshable Braille displays have increased the speed at which Braille educational materials can be produced. New, computerized methods for creating tactile drawings make diagrams and other visual representations easier to use. The introduction of Nemeth Braille Code for mathematics significantly improved the ability of a blind person to learn math and solve problems. Likewise, the development of special Braille code for computer languages opened this field to blind persons. Screen access and magnification software, portable computers and scanners, talking calculators, digital talking book readers, and more have also made it easier for blind students to access print and visual materials. The Iowa Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped is now the state agency charged with assisting blind students and educational institutions in obtaining educational materials in alternative formats.

      Legislative Changes

      No state or federal law prevented colleges or universities from denying admission to a blind student. As a result, many blind Iowans were denied access or faced discrimination from professors if they were admitted. Legislative changes sought by disabled activists improved the educational experience for blind Iowans seeking post-secondary degrees. Two federal laws passed in the 1970s prevented educational discrimination based on disability. The Education Act of 1972 offered new protections against discrimination for blind persons seeking a college education. Title IX, Section 1684 of the Act states “No person in the United States shall, on the ground of blindness or severely impaired vision, be denied admission in any course of study by a recipient of Federal financial assistance for any education program or activity, but nothing herein shall be construed to require any such institution to provide any special services to such person because of his blindness or visual impairment.”

      In addition, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 required that "No otherwise qualified individual with a disability in the United States, as defined in section 706 (20) of this title, shall, solely by reason of his or her disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance or under any program or activity conducted by any Executive agency or by the United States Postal Service."

      In addition, changes to the Rehabilitation Act gave the Iowa Commission for the Blind the authority to assist blind Iowans pursuing a post-secondary education as part of their vocational plan for competitive employment.

      Blind Iowans Talk about Their Experiences as College Students:

      In the selected excerpts below, blind Iowans talk about their experiences in adjusting to college life, using alternative techniques, and in encountering discrimination.

      Karen Keninger
      Susie Stageberg
      Roger Erpelding
      John Hamling
      Peggy Elliot

      (See also Patricia Smith's discussion of Braille transcription.)

      To hear the full narrations, read transcripts, or find additional oral histories in which blind Iowans talk about post-secondary education, visit the Oral History page