Alicia Verlager rapidly began losing her eyesight at college in upstate New York and dropped out when she could no longer read. A few years ago, Verlager packed up and moved to Dorchester, intent on finishing her degree. She graduated this summer from at UMass-Boston with a GPA of 3.88 and is now one of the first totally blind students in years to enroll in an MIT graduate program. The interview was conducted by Jenn Abelson of the Globe staff.
Q: It seems like MIT would be a really chalkboard sort of culture, a really difficult place to learn for blind people.
A: MIT is aware enough of technology's shortcomings that when I say something isn't accessible, I don't have to argue about it. They just accept it and we move on. That has saved me so much time and energy.
Q: What challenges did you face at college?
A: The lack of awareness on most campuses as to what accommodations blind students need. At UMass-Boston, I had to constantly learn new technologies and refine my ability to talk to professors and administrators who had no idea they even had disabled students on campus.
Q: How do professors deal with you?
A: There was one literature professor who said to me on the first day of class that she didn't think I'd be happy in her course. They won't come out and say, 'I don't want you in this class,' but they will phrase it in certain ways that are politically correct. But there are professors who are amazing and become advocates in representing the needs of disabled students.
Q: Do you take notes in class?
A: As an undergraduate, I used audiotapes. That's really frustrating because there's no way to find a specific part of the lecture, especially for a three-hour class. Now, I actually use my laptop. I love my laptop. I have a PC that runs Windows and a software program called a screen reader. That takes what you see on a monitor and sends it to a buffer, where it's converted into sound.
Q: Why did you get involved in creating reading materials for the blind?
A: One of the main things that blind people crave is access to more information. I started my own webpage called blindbookworm.org and specifically focused on providing useful materials or links to resources for blind readers.
Q: Is it easier to be a blind student at a university today?
A: Blind students used to be able to pay people a wage to read to them. But now those people are getting more money delivering pizzas, and so it's very difficult to find readers. I don't think it should be as hard as it is for a blind student to make it through a day of classes.
Q: Do you think what you do is impressive?
A: Sometimes I overhear people say, 'If you want to learn about accessing materials for the blind, you should check out this person's website or join this mailing list,' and I realize it's mine. And that makes me feel like maybe what I'm doing is significant. But most of the time, I kind of feel like a person running around putting out lots of small fires.