The meandering walkways and rise and fall of topography on the Weatherford College campus creates a pleasing appearance to the eye, but do little to assist visually impaired students like Michael Browne.
While Browne described his first visit to WC as disastrous, he and his fellow Phi Theta Kappa honor society members are working on a project to improve the campus experience for others with visual impairments.
The students started a project in the fall to create large print and braille maps of the college. Once completed later this semester, maps will be available for visitors or new students learning their way around campus. Additional maps will be located inside each building entrance which will provide detailed information from the person’s current location.
So far, the students have produced a prototype map of the bottom floor of the Technology Building with maps of other buildings to come. Each tactile map will go into detail about which entry a person has entered, where storm shelter rooms are located, what classrooms are on what side of the hallway and if there are any stationary objects to be wary of like benches lining the hallway.
Phi Theta Kappa member and close friend of Browne’s, Weston Decker, said this campus project was chosen in order to provide a more independent experience for those with visual impairments.
“Our decision for this project was to recognize and address issues for those who are far too often overlooked in society,” Decker said. “As a sighted person it's hard for me and the others to go about our day realizing what it’s like to not see. That's where Michael played the ultimate role in this project’s success. He has shown every single one of us how to see the world as if we were to never see it again.”
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Browne, now 24, lost his sight during his sophomore year at Weatherford High School following a head injury. And although he has needed to redirect his life’s path, he approaches life with a robust sense of humor.
One of the first stories Browne will share with new friends is how he was a licensed and insured driver for a full year after he lost his sight since his first driver’s license arrived in the mail following his injury.
“Why do you think they have braille on the drive-through ATM,” he laughed.
Joking aside, braille and a walking cane have become integral parts of his life.
“When you lose your eyesight (at a young age) they teach you visual impairment skills for living in elementary through high school,” Browne said. “You also take O&M, orientation and mobility, and that teaches you to travel with a cane. So you are taught through all of those years. But I lost my eyesight my sophomore year in high school, so I only had about two-and-a-half years to learn all of those skills.”
During his senior year of high school his O&M teacher brought him to the WC campus several times but told Browne he needed more time to learn the campus layout.
Since coming to WC in 2011, Browne has had to be creative in navigating the campus. While he can continue to receive O&M services from the State of Texas, to do so he must maintain a full-time course load which he said is difficult due to the extra study time required when using braille books and re-listening to audio recordings of lectures.
“Every time I went full time my GPA dropped,” Browne said. “Many people can’t understand the time it takes a sighted person to study, for a visually impaired person it takes double or triple that time.”
Fortunately, the WC campus community stepped in to help Browne navigate campus. A variety of people, including the Office of Disabilities, the Campus Police Department and random students and staff have helped guide him from place to place. Lighthouse for the Blind, a non-profit that serves the visually impaired, is assisting him as well.
In addition to his studies, Browne is also a work-study student for Dean Michael Endy who said his office will work with Browne to extend this project to all WC campuses.
“Obviously, providing tools to increase independence for our visually impaired constituents improves the college for those individuals,” Endy said. “To me, the greater gain is in the investment of the students in the college, for the benefit of the college as a community. While the majority of our students will never need those tools and many will never know any more about them than that they exist, the fact that they perceived this need and chose to act to meet the need speaks volumes about these students and our institution. This is an immediate, real-world application of higher education in action.”
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