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Courage on Campus

Michelle McQuigge has never let her blindness interfere with her abilities

Michelle McQuigge has never let her blindness interfere with her abilities.

Michelle McQuigge said she would meet me at the Museum subway station. I am to recognize her by her burgundy coat. But wait – how does she know what burgundy is?

I am interviewing McQuigge, a fourth-year English student at Victoria College, to find out what life is like for a young blind student today. I’m nervous. I even put on a little mascara for the occasion, but now I realize she won’t even notice, or care.

I see her at the bottom of the stairs. Her brown hair is glossy and her complexion is clear. Her face is round, warm and appealing and, yes, she’s wearing burgundy.

“Inside, McClure,” instructs McQuigge. The golden retriever guides her gently to the door of Tim Hortons, on Bay Street just south of Bloor. She opens the door with confidence and McClure leads her to the nearest till, where McQuigge orders a sandwich, soup, doughnut and French vanilla cappuccino. “I’m going to be bad today,” she says. She takes my arm, and I lead her to a table.

“Down, McClure,” she says. He lies at her feet, his chocolate nose resting on her bag. She loosens the brown leather harness and sits on the end of his leash. McClure closes his eyes for a rest.

McQuigge explores her tray. Her fingers find the soup, then flutter around for a while. “Do me a favour,” she says. “Could you find the cutlery for me?” I find her spoon and hand it to her; it was hidden in some napkins. McQuigge scoops a spoonful of soup along the side of the bowl and lifts it slowly to her mouth.

I have a million questions I want to ask and she has an English lecture in an hour. I want to know if she has been blind her whole life, how she knows what colours are, if she has a boyfriend, if people take advantage of her, how she follows along during class…

A woman sits down next to us and stares at McClure. Many eyes are drawn to his feathery coat and baby-seal eyes. He is the colour of burnt caramel. When the woman begins to pet McClure, he sits up. McQuigge senses his movement. “I’m sorry,” she tells the woman, “he is working right now.” Many people don’t notice the letters burned into the leather harness. They explain that McClure is a working guide dog, and that while he is harnessed, he is not to be petted. He is McQuigge’s link to the sighted world.

I settle into my questions as McQuigge blows on her soup. I tell her that her eyes are beautiful. She thanks me and tells me they’re plastic. McQuigge was diagnosed with retinoblastoma (cancer of the retina) at nine months. Her eyes were surgically removed the next day to eliminate tumours. A month after her surgery, Michelle’s mother posed for ocularist Michael Webb. He painted Michelle’s new eyes brown, the same colour as her mother’s.

McQuigge’s eyes cost $1,200 for the pair and last up to 10 years. She takes them out for regular cleaning, and gets them polished once a year. She says people get “whacked out” when she tells them she has an eye-polishing appointment. One time, she jumped into the lake at her cottage and one of her eyes popped out. Her dad retrieved it, saying it was hard to miss an eye looking up at him from the bottom of the lake.

I know McQuigge is blind, but she carries herself like a sighted person. She doesn’t rock back and forth and doesn’t stoop when she walks – mannerisms often developed by blind people who haven’t been taught to be aware of appearances. She looks at me when I talk to her, and uses facial expressions appropriately. She says her mother, Helene, an educational psychologist, worked hard to cure her of any “blindisms.” She would poke Michelle’s side when she slouched, and push up her chin when it dipped. McQuigge says she’s grateful that her parents integrated her into the sighted world when she was too young to know the difference.

But McQuigge, who is 22, wishes she were more comfortable in her movements. Sometimes she bumps into things, and her dad, Don, tells her to watch where she’s going. She misses not being able to drive, bike or rollerblade.

McQuigge says that she would play around more with her image if she could see. She wears safe, conservative clothes, and shops at stores like The Gap. She says she knows never to put a pink vest over a red tank top, that mixing plaid and stripes is a bad idea, and that beige clashes with her skin colour. McQuigge says such fashion faux pas had to be explained to her at a young age. She knows her wardrobe by the fabrics and features of each piece: necklines, buttons or zippers. This enables her to pick outfits that match in both colour and style. She can apply her own concealer, but friends help her with any makeup extras. She shows me a photo and jokes about her thinner days.

Still wondering about how she perceives colours, I ask her to describe burgundy. She turns the question around and asks me to do it. I’m stumped; I can no more describe burgundy than she can. McQuigge can’t verbalize what burgundy means to her, but she knows what it goes with. “My impressions of colour can never be either validated or discredited,” she says. “They work for me.”

Although her handwriting is the shaky block lettering of a Grade 2 student, McQuigge can sign for her credit cards and has worked for the Bank of Montreal for four years. She’s part of BMO’s external recruitment team. McClure spends the workday under McQuigge’s desk while she scans resumés using special computer software and conducts telephone interviews. The job started as part of a co-op program in high school and continued when she joined a university internship program. McQuigge says BMO is excellent at accommodating people with special needs. Everyone on McQuigge’s team shares the same duties and job description.

“Michelle is extraordinary,” says Rosemary Carroll, director of public affairs at The Seeing Eye, the agency in Morristown, N.J., that trains and supplies Seeing Eye dogs (see story below). “She is a standout in any category: college student, young woman, blind person.” Carroll notes proudly that McQuigge has never let her blindness interfere with her natural abilities.

At U of T, McQuigge is studying English literature. She feels lucky that her academic preferences have tended toward the arts, which pose fewer accessibility challenges than other courses such as science. Labs, for instance, would pose problems, and getting science textbooks translated into alternative formats is much more difficult than it is for English texts. “Some of the more complex scientific diagrams are very difficult to reproduce accurately,” says McQuigge.

To succeed, McQuigge works closely with Judy Young-Chong, her library contact through Accessibility Services, the office within U of T Student Affairs that looks after the needs of the disabled (see “Everyday Heroes,” sidebar). McQuigge contacts her professors well before her courses start, then gives Young-Chong a list of the books she’ll need. Young-Chong then seeks out copies in media that McQuigge can access. Some books are sent out to be scanned, while others are put on audio cassette or rented from audio-book stores. McQuigge tells me several times how wonderful Young-Chong is to work with.

Exams are facilitated by McQuigge’s test and exam co-ordinator at Accessibility Services. After giving the department 10 days’ notice, she receives a Braille copy of the tests and is put on a computer in a private room in the Robarts Library. She fills in her answers and is timed.

McQuigge says she registered with Accessibility Services mainly for help with exams. Registering means “being assigned to a disability generalist who can serve as a liaison with professors, library staff, et cetera,” she says. But she dislikes using a middleman, preferring to deal with front-line contacts herself. “This way,” she says, “I am the one building the relationship and advocating for myself.”

I’m only halfway through my questions, and McQuigge’s lecture is about to begin. But she makes no motion toward her coat, so I buy her another cappuccino and we keep talking.

McQuigge takes lecture notes using her Braille Lite, a special laptop for visually impaired people. She slips it out of her backpack to show me. It’s a two-kilo rectangular machine with an eight-key Braille keyboard and a 40-cell Braille display screen. She types for a while, then scrolls the saved note backwards across her screen. As her fingers absorb the dots, she reads her work aloud to me.

It makes me wonder: do blind people find that their senses of hearing or touch have evolved to compensate for their sightlessness? McQuigge is dubious; while she pays more attention to those senses than do most people, she says it gives her no real advantage. Still, when I touch the raised dots on the laptop screen, I can barely feel a thing.

With handouts, overheads and other visual media so important in classrooms, how does McQuigge keep up? She says her professors have been great; many e-mail her the materials she needs. (A speech program reads her e-mail out loud.) In other classes, she relies purely on her hearing. I’m curious – has she ever nodded off in a class? “Oh God, yes!” she says. “Lack of visual stimuli.… I’ve totally fallen asleep. It’s embarrassing as all hell.” For the gaps in her notes, she relies on her friends.

On the romance side, McQuigge is currently between boyfriends. She recently broke up with Simon, a friend of a friend whom she met in high school. They kept in touch casually for a few years before they started dating in summer 2001. He took her to Quebec City this past spring for her 22nd birthday, but they parted ways soon after. McQuigge seems regretful, and for a moment I sense vulnerability. She says McClure was also hard hit by the breakup; he knew the route to Simon’s house by heart.

I ask her about other hard times she has faced. She says that middle school was “a sketchy time.” Girls put chalk in her hair and removed the keys from her computer before an exam. She often felt depressed. But things got better when a friend clued her in to the secrets of middle school success. When she learned to roll up her kilt and roll her socks down to her ankles, the bullies backed off.

When Michelle finishes lunch we pack up. I lead her to the door, and McClure takes over. It’s a true partnership. McQuigge can’t just say, “English Lit,” and expect McClure to take her there. She has to know where to go and how to get there. “If you don’t know bloody well what to do,” she says, “you’ll get your dog killed.”

We head north and pass a bus shelter. “I can tell we are at a bus stop,” she says, “because I hear the echo in your voice.” Walking along Bloor, she says, “we just passed Roots.” She recognized the music coming from the store. McClure stops her by gently tucking his head into her body. We’ve reached stoplights, and he awaits directions.

I ask about her post-graduation plans. She calls herself “one of those rudderless fourth-years,” with no concrete career plans. She mentions journalism, or maybe working full-time at the bank. She wants to be involved with people and yet have lots of spare time for her friends and the family she hopes to have. But an open-minded employer is a must. “I will not be unrealistic about what I am capable of,” says McQuigge, “but I will not limit myself to jobs that are easy for blind people to do.”

McQuigge asks me to flag down a cab. I open the door, help her over the curb and give her a hug. McClure curls up on the floor and they’re off. I’m left alone at Bloor and Avenue Road, completely humbled.

Amy Brown-Bowers is a Toronto writer and a journalism student at Ryerson University.

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  1. One Response to “ Courage on Campus ”

  2. Jeffrey says:

    This story is inspiring. I am currently doing some community volunteer work with a 35-year-old gentleman who has lost his vision progressively over the past two years due to glaucoma. He does not have a high school diploma and didn't live the best life for a few years, but is bright and capable of learning. He is receiving support at the CNIB, learning basic life skills as well as computer use, braille, etc. He is determined not to give up. He would like to pursue further education, find part-time work, and eventually, a career. I would be grateful for any guidance or suggestions. I wonder if Michele or other individuals with vision loss who are pursuing educational opportunities might be willing to speak with him. He needs hope, encouragement, and ideas as to how best to proceed from here.