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Meet Jose Agueros, a deaf-blind student at DePaul University

Now in his senior year in the Bachelor of Science program in Health and Human Services, he plans to go to graduate school, and become a vocational counselor for deaf and blind people
BY Uma Asher |   16-06-2017

Jose Agueros
Jose Agueros

DePaul University, a century-old private Catholic institution in Chicago, is the 13th largest private university in the US in terms of enrolment, with more than 15,000 undergraduate and 7,700 graduate students. Some 90% of these students commute or live off campus. Among the commuters is Jose Agueros, a senior in the Bachelor of Science program in Health and Human Services.

Living in America’s third largest city, Chicagoans have more transport options than people in most other US towns. But not Agueros. He told BrainGain Magazine in an online chat recently, “Getting to and from college is a challenge. Rides are late, buses are late, and taxi cabs cost too much.” Unlike students who simply drive or cycle to class, Agueros is deaf-blind.

He thoughtfully explains why he types in all caps – an online behavior that is generally interpreted as the equivalent of shouting. He says, “I will type in large caps, so I can see and hear what I am typing. This is one use of my technology.” He explains that his assistive technology includes a laptop, magnifiers, glasses, and hearing aids.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 requires US educational institutions to ensure that students with special needs enjoy the same services, facilities, and accommodations as anyone else. For example, if a university fails to remove architectural barriers to wheelchair access, or to accommodate the needs of a blind student taking an exam, it would be violating the rights of students with disabilities.

Thus DePaul University’s Center for Students with Disabilities arranges for resources, services, technologies and accommodations for students with disabilities. Some examples of accommodations are: extended time on exams, exam readers, exam transcribers, real-time captioning, materials in alternative formats such as enlarged print or braille, text-to-speech technology, and sign language interpreting. Scholarships for students with disabilities and chronic illnesses are also available.

The deaf-blind community is quite diverse – levels and combinations of needs can vary, so the same solutions cannot be uniformly applied in every case. For example, rather than text-to-speech technology, some deaf-blind people may prefer using a refreshable braille display. Also known as a braille terminal, this electro-mechanical device converts text output into braille characters using round-tipped pins raised through holes in a flat surface.

“Most, if not all, US colleges have a disability department to try to help as best as they can,” says Agueros. “Professors in the classroom also contribute to accommodating the student.” But sometimes gaps remain. He says, “Universities are not sure how to accommodate a blind and deaf student. There are not many of us that make it this far in academics.”

Haben Girma, the first deaf-blind student to graduate (2013) from Harvard Law School, tells the story of how, as an undergraduate student at Lewis & Clark College, she successfully advocated for her right to choose meals from the cafeteria menu. In this 2013 interview, she says, “Eventually, I told the [cafeteria] managers that under the Americans with Disabilities Act, they were required to make reasonable accommodations, and easily emailing a menu is a very reasonable accommodation. And reminding them about the law really made a huge difference. It changed their attitude from ‘this is a favor we can do when we have a spare time’ to ‘this is actually an important thing we need to do’.”

Student center at DePaul University
Student center at DePaul University (photo by Chris Gallagher, used under CC license)

Agueros says the government supports his education, but often rules are complicated and make it difficult to get funding. Under the circumstances, commuting can become an additional financial hurdle for students with limited means, he points out.

Dealing with disabilities can take up a considerable amount of any family’s financial and other resources, and Agueros’ family has its hands full, as his wife is in college, and their son has cerebral palsy. “My family is a special needs family,” he says.

Regarding his future plans, he says, “My career choice is vocational rehab counselor for the blind, deaf, and deaf-blind communities.” He adds that he plans to do a master’s degree in vocational rehabilitation services. “There is really no way, no choice for disabled people to make a good living without a college education/masters,” he says. “There are no jobs for us. Non-disabled people beat us to it. So master’s it is.” He adds, tongue in cheek, “So we can be their boss.”

Agueros’ inspiration is Helen Keller (1880-1968), author, political activist, lecturer, and the first deaf-blind person to complete a Bachelor of Arts degree. “She is my mentor, and trailblazer for me to follow,” he says. “I plan to go to the Helen Keller school when I am finished with my masters in New York, to get my certificate in deaf-blind teaching.”

He says, “I am not any different than any other disabled people who want to live, not just survive life.” And his advice to others? “Only you know how important your dreams are, not other people!” Coming from someone so determined and focused, they are powerful words indeed.

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