The following article originally appeared in the
Saratoga [California] News..
It illustrates how, despite being born without any vision, Susan Schulter has been able to be a successful college professor.
When young Susan Schulter--then Susan Bailey--was growing up, her family's Los Gatos home always had its share of pets, and she loved them dearly. She loved animals so much that she set her heart on becoming a veterinarian. With the death of her hamsters, however, came the sad realization that she didn't have the emotional make-up to be a vet.
The fact that she has been blind since birth had nothing to do with her choice. In fact, it never even crossed her mind.
Several decades and academic degrees later, it still limits very little in the West Valley College English teacher's busy life. To Schulter, her blindness--a birth defect that allows her to perceive light and darkness but no shapes or colors--is as natural as the fact that she has brown hair and hazel eyes. If, however, it can become a learning experience for others or the impetus for edifying conversations, so much the better.
"I don't really see myself or what I do as unusual, but I do like to share it with others if it can be of help. I want people to feel comfortable around blindness. My parents never made disability a limitation. I'm extremely grateful that as I was growing up, I was always encouraged to be physical," she says, explaining how her parents raised her to be on a par with her brother and sister.
"Can" rather than "can't" was always emphasized. Because of this, Schulter was a big fan of playgrounds and also became a swimmer, horseback rider and tandem bicycle rider. She says she believes the quality and quantity of these activities helped her develop a good sense of her body's place in space.
A native of Michigan who came to Los Gatos at about age 5, Schulter graduated from the old Quito School, Monroe Junior High School and Westmont High School. She says that although some blind or sight-impaired children benefit from attending specialized schools, she is glad her parents sent her to public schools.
She began learning Braille while a preschooler in Detroit; her mother and grandmother also learned it in order to help her out. She continued her studies in elementary school the same way sighted children learn their visual letters. Her textbooks, reprinted in Braille, came from the Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. Until age 12, Schulter navigated without any tools but her body and her memory--counting the number of doors between rooms, for instance, or using her hands and arms "like antennas," she recalls, to feel along walls and avoid obstacles.
When Schulter was 12, a specialist came to her school and taught the handful of blind students there how to extend their sense of touch by using canes, which also provide cues by the sounds they make when hitting something. Cane travel was Schulter's only source of navigation until her early 30s, when she got her first guide dog, a yellow lab named Kelsey, provided by Guide Dogs for the Blind, a nonprofit organization based in San Rafael.
Instead of becoming a veterinarian, Schulter decided teaching was her calling. She received a bachelor's degree in literature/creative writing from UC-Santa Cruz and a master's degree in English from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Afterward, she worked at San Jose State University for 14 years as a lecturer in the English department. She took a job with West Valley College's English Department about two years ago. She calls this her "dream job" because she doesn't want to get a Ph.D.--necessary for tenure at SJSU--but she does want to continue learning.
"I loved being at San Jose State. Because of its size and where it's located, it's like being in an international seaport," Schulter recalls. "I was going to say I miss that diversity here, but now that I've been here a while, I'm starting to find it. It's here, but you have to look harder to find it."
Schulter also says she enjoys the size of the campus--not so small that she feels cloistered, but small enough so she can really get to know both her students and her colleagues.
The process she followed to familiarize herself and Kelsey with SJSU is the same process she went through at West Valley with her current canine companion, an energetic, almost-3-year-old black lab named Jonca, whose joie de vivre matches that of her owner.
When Schulter knew she would be working at West Valley, she had the Peninsula Center for the Blind send one of its "orientation mobility specialists" to walk the campus with her and Jonca. OMSes are sighted people trained to look at a blind person's environment the way the blind person would most likely experience it. That includes taking into account the obstacles between point A and point B that most sighted people wouldn't think twice about.
After Schulter shared her class schedule and a map of the college with the OMS, the two traversed the campus; Schulter held onto the OMS's elbow while jotting down mental notes of her surroundings. Then Schulter and Jonca took walks together while the OMS watched. In case either dog or owner went the wrong way, the OMS corrected them so that the correction, rather than the mistake, became ingrained in their memories. Soon Schulter knew her way around the campus well enough to take Jonca on her own.
"For a while, you're counting every move or every step, but then there's a point when you're not thinking about that anymore --that's when you know you've learned the route," Schulter explains.
"The main advantage with dog travel is that you have the dog's intelligent mind. The dog takes care of the little details so you can take in the bigger picture. My dogs have both been very quick studies. Sometimes it takes me a bit longer," she adds with a chuckle. The compliment goes unnoticed by the snoozing Jonca.
Jonca also likes to snooze during class, but that's fine with Schulter, who's busy giving lectures, seminars or answering questions. She prepares lecture notes on a computer hooked up to a small electronic device called a Braille Lite. The device stores many pages' worth of text, which Schulter reads in class. The Braille Lite "feeds" her fingers lines of text by raising and lowering a row of tiny plastic pins, which form Braille letters and numbers.
Schulter also has a flatbed scanner connected to her regular computer that scans whole pages of text, recognizes letters and numbers and can convert them either to Braille or into spoken words. For this reason, Schulter can read students' papers without outside help. With every new batch of students, Schulter says, she uses honesty and empathy to help them overcome any discomforts they may have about her blindness.
"One of the things I like to stress with people regarding disabilities is that we all tend to shrink or expand our universe depending on how we feel that day. I like to focus on the ways we're similar; I feel that raises the comfort level," she says.
Children, she adds, often have a forthright curiosity that prevents discomfort. For example, she's giggled over questions such as "How do you go to the bathroom?" "How do you make sure your clothes match?" and simply "How do you eat?" She always keeps her sense of humor and answers their questions in kind.
One common fear among adults, she explains, is they feel they have to censor their speech to accommodate her lack of sight. However, anyone who spends time with Schulter soon notices she uses verbs such as "see" and "look" and talks about things being attractive just like anyone else. Sometimes it's because she uses her other senses to examine things; other times, she uses sight words simply because they come naturally.
"We speak a visual language; we talk of having insight or we say 'do you see what I mean?' or we call people blind to things. I don't want anyone to feel he or she has to adjust what they say to me," she says.
When not at school, Schulter enjoys spending time in her San Jose home along with Kelsey (now retired) and Jonca, a cockatoo, a cockatiel and "a lot of fish and a lot of plants."
"There are a few things in my life that I have to have that make my life rewarding and spiritual: my animals, watering my garden, walking my dogs, writing poetry, being with my poetry group, listening to jazz, playing my flute and singing," Schulter says. "These things are spiritually satisfying and keep me focused on the 'now'--as opposed to things like lesson plans or household finances, which make me have to think ahead or behind."
Whether looking to her future, reflecting on her past or enjoying the present, Schulter feels the key to enjoying life--for her or anyone else--is celebrating people's differences as well as their similarities, keeping a sense of humor and making the most out of what life offers. "I don't feel I'm deprived of sight because I've never had it, so I don't miss it. I think living is about finding options that work for you and making the most of it. I think it's kind of amazing how we all make our way through life," she says, smiling and stroking Jonca's shiny fur.
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