When Shikha Desai turned 17, she lost her vision. She is one of Georgia State’s nine reported students living with blindness, according to Saretha Pyant, Disabilities Services assistive technology coordinator.
“I could always see the board and papers,” Desai said. “And then all of a sudden in school I couldn’t see. So, each year it was going down a little bit. But when I was 17, it was really drastic.”
Even though she has retinitis pigmentosa, which is the disease that robbed her of her sight, she still listens to music with friends, sits through her women’s studies lectures and enjoys the sounds and smells of the city like many Georgia State students.
“I do normal things. I just take a little bit longer. I use my cane and usually I know the way, but if I don’t then I ask for directions,” she said. “And I’ll tell them to don’t grab onto my hand or anything, because I don’t like that.”
Desai said the university accommodates her through the Office of Disabilities, but there is still room for improvement.
This academic year, Desai moved from her parent’s house to the University Lofts to gain independence and to meet new people. Since then, her mobility coach, provided by the university, has shown her to her dorm and bus stops.
“There’s braille on my door, and there’s braille on the elevator too. But it doesn’t talk. So, I just get out a little bit, and I just feel the sign on the side to see what floor I am getting off,” she said.
Desar’s accessibility improvement suggestions:
- To make daily activities easier, Desai said braille should be added to bus stops.
“I ask people when I get on the bus to go to Aderhold if it is the right bus,” she said. “Any signs should have braille. Anybody can produce braille for any sign.”
- In the Center for the Visually Impaired, she said there is a vending machine she can access, unlike the ones on campus.
“There is a big sheet of what’s in the vending machine and the food. In the same row as A1, it will say what food is in that row,” she said. “And the buttons on the vending machines can be braille too.”
- Desai said the chirping in intersections makes her feel comfortable when crossing Atlanta’s intersections, but she usually relies on the sound of parallel traffic to guide her.
“Whichever way I am crossing, I hear the traffic moving,” she said. “If I am walking straight, I just wait for the traffic around me to go.”
A professor’s recommendations to add accommodations for the blind:
- Judith Emerson, Georgia State professor and advisor for ABLE, a student organization for disability advocacy, said more chirping crosswalks, like the ones at Gilmer and Central intersection and Gilmer and Courtland intersection, should be added throughout campus as well.
“If you ever notice that when you travel those intersections and you hear that chirping noise, that is at the benefit of people who have visual impairment,” she said.
- She said the cracked and disintegrating sidewalks on campus should be maintained, because it can be dangerous for pedestrians with or without visual impairments.
“The sidewalks crumble…I try to make sure that the students who do have mobility issues make us aware,” she said. “If the route that they use has a problem with where they are travelling, then they need to advocate for themselves through the Offices of Disabilities. They can contact me. They can contact ABLE.”
- Emerson said elevators should have an added voice feature.
“It would be nice to upgrade our elevators to have that voice alert so that our students who are blind know when they are on the floor,” she said. “But that costs money.”
The resources the university offers
Desai said she utilizes the Office of Disabilities’ talking computers, voice memo on her phone and braille note taker.
Additional resources are offered to students with blindness, which include converting textbooks and documents into braille, electronic text or audio files, according to Pyant.
“A student has the option to hire a note taker whom will be compensated through the office of disability services,” she said.
The Office of Disability Services also offers screen-reader software, double-time on tests and priority seating.
“However, academic accommodations are determined on a case by case basis,” she said.
Pyant said students who are blind should prepare before attending Georgia State by registering with the Office of Disability to form an accommodation plan, and she recommends for them to use priority registration to reserve alternative media in advance.
Connecting without sight
Desai said she wants people to know that individuals who are blind are “living our own lives.”
“We can ask for help, I guess. We don’t usually need help,” she said. “If something is coming in front of us, our cane will get it…some people actually grab my arm pull me right or left. It’s not right.”
She said she chose Georgia State to step outside of her comfort zone.
“I’ve been around a lot of blind people in the blind community, but I have never been around this many sighted people and big crowds,” she said. “I wanted to learn that and get better at walking in the city.”
Desai is active on campus through being in the social work club and chorus. But she has never heard about ABLE and wants to join to meet other students living with disabilities.
“I don’t know what other disabilities are out there,” she said. “It would be helpful.”
Emerson said there are currently no registered students with visual impairment in ABLE, but anyone is welcome to join.
“Our organization is not only for students who have disabilities, but students that are interested in getting to know [and] being more aware of accessibility,” she said. “Not all of members actually have a disability themselves.”
Emerson, who teaches for Georgia State’s College of Education & Human Development, said she hopes the student body is accepting and understanding to those with disabilities.
“Often times people don’t know that a person is blind on the street. They might want to help that person, but that person might be independent enough to not need anyone’s help,” she said.