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This article, reprinted from the
e-Newsletter of Moravian College and Moravian Theological Seminary,
describes one of the classes taught by Dr. Christie Gilson. Of particular note is the impact of Dr. Gilson on her students and the way in which she responds to them.

September 29, 2011

“Boy that sun is bright. And if I think it’s bright, it must be really bright!” With that touch of humor, the woman Kayleigh Birdsong was guiding broke the ice and let Birdsong know that the topic of blindness was not taboo. “But all individuals with disabilities have various ways of reacting to persons without disabilities,” adds Birdsong, who says she saw her town through new eyes that day.

Birdsong and her classmates in Christie Gilson’s freshman writing seminar recently took part in a unique service learning project in downtown Bethlehem, in partnership with the Center for Vision Loss in Allentown. Her experience was similar to that of the other students, who all came away from the experience recognizing that disabled people are just people.

“My client walked with pride, admitting that being blind isn’t fun, but that it isn’t the worst thing that could happen. … I wonder how someone could feel that way, but [just] as you can never judge a book by its cover, you can’t judge a person by their disability,” adds Sarah Wegner.

Gilson, who is blind, already had taught her students the proper way to guide others with vision impairments. Some of the techniques used are fairly intuitive, such as helping the person avoid a rough sidewalk or obstructions such as signposts or benches, for example.

“I tell them to always ask how the person wants to be helped first,” Gilson says. “People want to help, but there are a lot of factors [involved in guiding someone], so always ask.”

The students worked in teams, with one guiding and the other describing the environment as they moved around town. “A blind person likes to shop just as much as anyone, but needs certain information to do so effectively,” she says. “The student might say, ‘We are in the book shop now, in the CD section. Rock is on our left and classical on our right.’” Alerting the visually impaired person that a step is coming or a door way, is also helpful. Watch for cobblestones and grates in the ground. Remember to guide for the width of both of your bodies as you walk around various elements.

Contrary to popular belief, when guiding a blind person, it’s not necessary to hold your arm at a stiff 90-degree angle. “You can hold your arm down, naturally, and when you move your arm back, that’s my signal to walk behind you,” she explains. These physical cues help in addition to the spoken word.

Gilson’s students chose her course, titled “Asylums, attics and closets: an overview of disability in America” because they have more interest in disabilities than the average student. In her class, they will be exposed to a variety of disabilities, not just those most people think of immediately.

“I use the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) definition of disability—something that impairs a person in doing their daily activities,” says Gilson.

Dillon Farrell may have considered his client’s age a disability, but didn’t by the time the activity ended: “She showed me that vision impairment does not mean sadness and negativity when she radiated happiness the entire sixty minutes I was with her. She showed me that growing older does not mean growing boring when her energy and excitement blew mine out of the water!”

The students also will be exposed to the social, psychological and health issues that can challenge those with disabilities. Those who are blind or visually impaired, for example, are mostly older and have a 70 to 80 percent unemployment rate. Many have no family members around to help them. They face isolation and are misunderstood or even feared by the general public.

“Stores are mandated by law to help a blind person shop,” says Gilson, who serves on the board of the Center for Vision Loss, “but not to take you to the next store.” This missing element can leave the blind shopper stranded, asking strangers for help. “Having someone to show you around restores a sense of dignity and eliminates some of the stress.”

Gilson’s students wrote papers describing their experience, and all were positive, leading her to plan future service projects. They also will be asked to write an advocacy letter; critique a movie that portrays a disability and determine its accuracy; and finally write a research paper about any aspect of a disability.

“This project was useful to the people from the Center as well as to the students who can see that people with this disability live active, happy lives—they’re not in a corner feeling sorry for themselves. That rarely happens. This helped decrease the students’ fear, uncertainty and nervousness around someone with a disability,” Gilson adds.

“Elsie made me realize that just because a person is disabled doesn’t mean that the person is helpless,” says Nick Roberts.

“And I noticed that people with disabilities are the same as people without disabilities,” says K.C. Carpenter. She was just like me—she loved to laugh, have fun and spend time with people who were willing to help her.”

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