Friday Friends Spotlight
Back to School With Matt Harris
After an upbeat conversation with my fellow author about choosing to return to academics despite significant hearing loss and profound vision loss, I decided to feature him on my blog during Blindness Awareness Month (BAM) in an interview. His can-do attitude and pro-active pursuit of problem-solving and strong communication make him a role model for many of us with similar challenges who can benefit from higher education. You will find Part 1 today and Part 2 tomorrow.
1. What is Usher Syndrome and when were you diagnosed with it?
Usher Syndrome is a genetic disease associated with the eye disease, Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP). With Usher Syndrome, a person experiences both hearing and vision loss. Not everyone diagnosed with RP gets Usher’s, though. Thirty-five years ago, at age 21, I was diagnosed with RP and declared legally blind. At that time, I had perfect hearing. About 15 years ago, however, I began to experience hearing loss, and last year I was diagnosed with Usher Syndrome. I now maintain 1% of my vision and 40% of my hearing. I would rather focus on what I have than what I’ve lost.
2. What made you choose to return to college now and what are you studying?
In 1998, I earned an Associate of Arts Degree in English. Ever since then, it’s been in the back of my mind to go for my bachelor’s degree in English, but I never had the opportunity. When my wife and I separated a couple of years ago, I wanted to write a new chapter in my life and stay focused on positive things. So that’s when I prayerfully decided that this would be an excellent time to go back and try to earn my English Degree at the University of Baltimore.
3. What fears / challenges did you have before going back to school?
Although I was successful in earning my Associate of Arts Degree back in 1998, I was still fearful that I might not be successful at a four-year college as I contemplated my return. Back then, at my two-year college, I was still legally blind but had better clarity in my central vision and my hearing was fine. Before I started at the University of Baltimore in 2015, not only had I been out of the classroom for 17 years but I had also just recently been diagnosed with Usher Syndrome and both my central and peripheral vision were in the legally blind range. But I decided to step out in faith and trust the Lord, and Jesus helped me overcome my fears.
4. How did you prepare to become a student again?
First, I prayed a lot and asked Jesus if this was the direction He wanted me to take. And if so, then open the door, and I’ll walk through it. After the University of Baltimore accepted me into their English Degree program in the spring of 2015, I was introduced to a woman at the college named Kourtney Branigan. Mrs. Branigan works with the Center for Educational Access (CEA). In short, Mrs. Branigan helps assimilate students with disabilities into the classroom. She and I worked together over the summer of 2015 preparing strategies for me to be successful for that upcoming fall semester.
5. What classes are you taking and how do you feel about them?
Right now, I’m taking an Ethics course and a short story writing class. Since I am a writer, I love the short story writing course. I have learned so much from my instructor, Professor Boyd, and from my classmates about how to develop a story. I love hearing the stories and ideas that these kids come up with. They have such sharp minds. They’ve been very accepting of me. In fact, one of my classmates even took the picture of me in the classroom used for this blog. Ethics is a course that everyone has to take. I am taking that one online. I am learning a lot about philosophy and different ethical theories that will certainly help broaden my understanding of the world.
6. What kinds of modifications are your instructors making to assist you?
My laptop is equipped with the assistive technology called ZoomText. This software allows me to access printed material by enlarging the text. So one of our strategies is to try and get the course material onto my computer. There are several ways in which we accomplish this. Mrs. Branigan transfers my textbooks onto a PDF. Then she sends them to me via email, and I download them into a file. When the professors use hard copy handouts, they always email me them in an attachment. That way I can access them on my computer. If my professor writes notes on the board, he / she will email me a copy. My test time is also extended.
We also have a feature on our college website called Sakai. Sakai is similar to an online classroom, where students can have discussions and where professors can upload messages, assignments, lectures, and reading material. This is an excellent tool for me because it’s compatible with my ZoomText. Last year, for my hearing loss, professors would wear a small microphone, and I used a receiver with headphones that amplified their voices. Last spring, however, I acquired a pair of hearing aids that helped me hear better in the classroom. Now, I no longer require the microphone and receiver device.
What information, if anything surprised you in this interview? Have you attempted a challenging task or who do you know that has gone out on a limb to pursue an interest or goal?
You have read “Friday Friends Spotlight: Back to School with Matt Harris” by Amy L. Bovaird and Matt Harris. Copyright October 14, 2016. Please take a moment to leave a comment. Thanks!