This is extremely long and heavily colored by my faith background. I am crossposting it for the benefit of those who are not following my seminary journal. The situation I'm describing here came as a complete shock to me, although I probably should not be so surprised. It's all part of the process that happens when a student with a disability breaks new ground at a seminary; and this happens to many blind students in many fields all over the country.
I have long had an interest in studying Hebrew... I am of the conviction that learning to read in Hebrew and learning about Hebrew culture will help me to better understand the Old Testament and the roots of the New Testament. Many years ago, I received an email from someone who was graduating from seminary and was giving away a Hebrew Bible in braille, and I asked for it. It is in excellent shape and is worth several hundred dollars. I have moved it with me everywhere I went, always intending that someday I would learn to read it.
A couple of years ago, I ran across a web site that had Hebrew-English dictionaries in electronic format that could be sent to a braille embosser. The concept of braille-format files is difficult to explain... Since braille has characters that stand for groups of letters, it doesn't work to simply send a regular print file to an embosser. There are programs that translate various characters into the appropriate braille symbols. Since there are a limited number of braille characters, the program can be changed to a different language set and will translate the characters differently according to the rules of the other language. In the case of the Hebrew-English dictionary, codes in the file tell the translator when to use Hebrew rules and when to use English rules. The results can be sent to the printer directly or stored in a file with a .brf extention--.brf symbolizes braille format.
I downloaded the braille format files, thinking that I would add them to my collection of useful resources. As I became more serious about seminary, I began to look for additional resources available in braille that I might purchase or borrow. I learned that there were two biblical hebrew textbooks available for loan from the Jewish Braille Institute's collection, which is now handled by the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. Upon talking with Dr. Ross, I learned that one of these was formerly a course textbook.
Greek is another matter. I would like to learn Greek, and in fact I have found that many doctoral programs require facility in both languages in order to gain entrance. However, there are no braille format Greek resources available for download, and there is nothing available for loan through any source. This means that I will need to spend several hundred dollars in order to equip myself to study Greek. Because materials take time to arrive, I will likely need to begin equipping myself a year in advance before beginning my study. I'm not prepared to spend this money now in order to begin studying Greek in the fall. I would have to put off taking Greek until the fall of 2008.
I was very satisfied with this--I wanted to take Hebrew first and had been having conversations with Dr. Ross about possible ways that we could make it happen. We had settled on an arranged class so that we could meet for tutoring sessions, and he had said that he was feeling very enthusiastic about it. However, this afternoon he emailed me and said that the dean wanted to meet with me first "to discuss all of my options regarding meeting my language requirements."
I knew what it meant. ... I was right. There was a problem: AU seems to book their professors' schedule very tightly and the question was whether I could take Hebrew elsewhere, whether there were specialized courses somewhere. Would I consider taking Greek since we have more Greek professors?
After doing so much research and advocacy, I didn't take this well emotionally; and I was very glad not to be a 20-year-old undergraduate student. At least I have some emotional maturity and life experience to help me with this. But it set me back a lot emotionally. I have had no significant complaints about my seminary experience as a student with special needs thus far, and Dr. Ross' openness played a major role in this positive experience. I suddenly felt that I was a "problem"; and even though I knew that no hurt was intended, I felt a great deal of pain.
A big part of my reaction is driven by cultural issues that underlie this problem, and no one is even aware of these things. There are a number of reasons that there are no specialized Hebrew programs for people who are blind. One obvious one is that it would be segregative. For that reason alone, blind people fight against specialized programs, even when they might seem like a reasonable solution. We want "the opportunity to be equal but the right to be different," as it has been expressed in some places. It isn't just a matter of avoiding segregation. Once segregation begins in education, it creeps into other areas of society because people perceive that we need or want other things specialized as well. What is intended to be helpful destroys community.
Another reason for the lack of language programs (as well as other programs of advanced study) is the fact that society in general has low expectations of blind people. Some of this comes about because some blind people have additional disabilities which really do cause them to experience learning difficulties. The result of this, unfortunately, is that the rest of us are perceived according to these standards. Wherever we go, we either have to fight against the stereotypic blind people images, or we have to fight against the idea that without vision nothing can be learned adequately. Anywhere else where I would go to take a language course, I would have to fight an uphill battle; and it would be fought in an environment where I didn't know the faculty and staff and they had no reason to care about me emotionally. I'm not part of their community. I'm not a degree-seeking student at their university. It would increase the aloneness factor a thousand fold. Part of what has made this experience positive so far is the fact that I have been accommodated because I am a person with unique needs and not because the law says so. I think that the fact that I'm here every day plays a significant role in that process.
This has huge implications, just like a number of other things at AU have huge implications. Blind people don't come to study at AU, and there are good reasons why--reasons like this. They go where their needs are accommodated. I didn't. I went where I was at home, and I'm trying to ask my "family" to do the right thing. I don't understand why AU is like this. This reminds me of going to the elementary ed department 16 years ago and having them tell me they thought there would be problems with me student teaching. So I changed my major--to accommodate them. I've spent my life going elsewhere, doing other things, so that people wouldn't have to be bothered with me. That's really the crux of how this feels: "Could you do something different so that you don't impose on us?" What if I was a 20-year-old undergrad? What if there were three of them? There should be! But they don't come here because we don't welcome them. Does anybody feel their absence? I do. I wish that this school was going far out of their way to recruit students with disabilities, not just doing things to make the experience positive for me. I don't want to seem ungrateful for what they are doing--I am more grateful than I can put into words. But I love this school so much, and I want other people to have the opportunity to love it too--people who may not have the emotional fortitude that I have built over my lifetime. No one should have to push so hard in order to do what God has called them to do!
I could do what the dean wanted: go through the hoops and take Greek instead. I would have the same needs and spend a lot of money, and it would end up being just as stressful for me. In the end, it likely wouldn't solve the problem anyway because I should probably take both languages . And if I didn't need both, I would always have this burning desire to read those pages on my shelves. It would eat away at me until it got solved. I would have to find a way somehow...
I did a good bit of advocacy, including sharing all this history and my various feelings and concerns with the dean, my advisor, and another professor. Eventually the issue was settled. I have one opportunity to take Hebrew: over the summer. I will be taught by a different professor. It's ok, although it makes me a little nervous. If for some reason I mess this up, then what do I do? I'm trying not to think about it. I got my chance, and I should allow myself the opportunity to jump in and do it with abandon. I'm working on getting rid of the old childhood message that I'm imposing on the AU faculty. I'm their student, and I'm capable of doing this if only I have the opportunity and the resources--and I already have most of the resources. The rest will be here in the next few weeks.
I shared my woes with my advisor. His perspective has been valuable to me--he grew up attending segregated schools in Houston in the 1950s and 1960s, and he teaches ethics and theology. I have not yet had the privilege of taking one of his classes; and had he not been my advisor, I likely never would have taken the opportunity to talk with him--I'm much too timid, and it takes being forced into a relationship or having a strong desire to form one to make me approach someone. He said to me: "We need your prayers as much as you think you need ours."
That stopped me dead in my tracks. On Wednesday morning, I sat here, writing in my journal, wondering how I am to pray about a situation like this. I thought back to a situation in my undergraduate days in which someone excluded me from an activity and I knew that I needed to forgive. But I was wounded, and all the forgiveness in the world didn't change that. In fact, the theology which I had learned growing up was that Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners: offenders, perpetrators of wrongs. In that moment, I felt cast aside. Even though he also went out of his way to minister to the lowly and people who had been abused, I felt that he would have abandoned me in that moment in order to minister forgiveness, that I simply had to "be the better person." But I desperately needed the ministry of his love and mercy. I needed to be included. I wasn't acting like the prodigal son's brother. I wanted a place at the table. How do the wounded and the offender come to the same table and find fellowship with the same Jesus? More to the point, how do they find fellowship with each other? What can break the power of the thing that separates them? And just what is it that separates them in the first place? The sin? The impact of the sin?
Sin begets sin... Once someone excludes me, I tend to react with my own sins: fury, reactionary exclusion, selfishness... And my sins bring about other people's reactionary sins. The cycle really never stops without an intervention. It was a humbling thing for me to realize that I wanted to pray that they would see things my way--and to admit that behind this prayer may be nothing but selfish motives. Perhaps my prayer could only be a prayer of confession. I would only know by submitting my heart to the searching action of God. It's not an easy thing to do; but not doing it doesn't change the truth. And none of it changes the fact that I still need to study Hebrew. Somehow God knows about every bit of this and is able to sort it all out. Hallelujah!
I was very weighed down by the Hebrew issue on Tuesday. I had been crying off and on, and I was very worried about getting through my long day and maintaining my composure. God is very good and filled my day with bright spots to help me along the way.
One amusing thing happened in class, and it probably helped me keep some composure. Dr. F. was talking about something, and someone asked a question that he wasn’t ready to answer yet. He said, “I’ll answer that in a few minutes. I’m just giving you a little carrot right now.”
Someone behind me said, “I don’t like carrots.” I found this funny all by itself. But then Dr. F. did something that made me almost laugh out loud because I thought of C.
He said, “Do you like beans? You can think of this as a bean…” Then, when he talked about it later, he said, “Here’s a little bit of the bean.”
I kept thinking of C saying things like, “You talked about beans in class??? I do not like any kind of bean!!!”
When chapel was starting, a lady tapped me on the shoulder from behind and said my name excitedly. It was Sylvia Grubbs. Her husband used to teach pastoral care courses at AU, and prior to this they attended the church where I grew up and were friends of my grandparents. I lighted up… I never knew them well personally, but I now understand the value of my grandparents’ friends’ love, and it felt very affirming to hear it in Sylvia’s voice. I said something about wanting to come and see them. She said, “I wish you would!” And she sounded like she meant it! She would probably enjoy hearing stories about my family and about how I came to be here. Perhaps this is one of those missing links to my early years that I have been longing for…
The prelude started the waterworks: “He Knows My Name” followed by “His Name is Wonderful.” What a concept: that the wonderful God would know me… It was something that I needed to remember on that day. There was a third song, but I can’t remember what it was…
We sang a chorus, “We Wait On You,” and a hymn, “Jesus What a Friend for Sinners.” I am still experiencing amazing things with the Braille hymnal, and I probably will be for a long time. There are days when I can sing with great joy because I finally know the words and can truly appreciate their meaning instead of having to put all of my energy into listening and trying to store a few of them away. There are many days when I lose my singing ability because I am busy weeping over the words that I have been too busy retrieving to truly meditate over or understand. Yesterday I wept for a good portion of the hymn. When we “exchanged words and signs of peace,” Dwight Grubbs gave me a hug and I wondered if he wondered what I was thinking as I turned my tear-streaked face to him.
We had a guest speaker in for chapel. She made a point to tell us that she would have chosen a different text if she could have. I think I’m glad that she couldn’t. I needed something from her presentation: one little piece of truth. Whatever God calls you to do, He will equip you for it. That’s not exactly how she said it, but that is the message that I got and that is the message I needed. If I needed Hebrew in order to serve Him, then it would be done. There is a difference between petitioning and begging—a vast difference.
After chapel, I was going out with Melanie when someone called my name. I was disoriented because of the crowd. It was Greg, the friend who was at General Assembly during the week when I made my decision to finish my application. I was blessed with an opportunity to have coffee and chat with him in the afternoon; and this lifted my spirits like nothing had in quite a while.