Michael VanOverbeek

An aspiring game developer.

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Getting through school with RP

As some of you may know, namely those who have been following The Peacenet and Bit Phoenix Software since the beginning (even before the rename), I am legally blind. I have a degenerative eye disability called Retinitis-Pigmentosa….and good God, I am so glad there’s an official acronym for it - RP. That’s what I’ll refer to it as for the rest of this article. I just wanted to make sure people know what I’m talking about when I say it, and that I suffer from it.

Today I realized a few things that I felt like talking about. Mainly things that do and will help me get through school without wanting to pull my eyes out of their sockets. So I figured I’d write about those things and hopefully give other people some advice on how to advocate for themselves and how to get through it.

First, something philosophical.

Just a few hours ago I was having a conversation about my eyes with one of my teachers. To explain a feeling I was having, I asked her a very philosophical question. Actually, I borrowed it from a Vsauce video.

The question asked in the video is “Is your red the same as my red?” The video’s thumbnail featured a red strawberry next to a blue one. The video explains that one simply cannot interact with someone and ever realize that what they see as red is not the same as what you see. There is no way you can explain the color “Red” to that person and cause them to see it differently.

You could say “Well, red is a warm color.” Well, as far as they’re concerned, they see “warm colors” the same way you see cold colors. So how do you explain what a warm color is? It’s not hot to the touch, it doesn’t burn you, it won’t cook your dinner. You could say “Fires are warm, they can be red,” but then how do you know that the person doesn’t see “red fires” as “blue fires” while thinking they’re red because that’s how they were taught from birth?

Okay, I’m rambling, but it’ll make a lot of sense very soon. Because my first piece of advice is this:

Teachers, other students, etc., will never understand how you see.

You’ll find that there are many things you can still do, even if a little slower than others, that you can do without anyone ever knowing you are blind. For example, I’m writing this article on a computer with nano, a command-line text editor. Yes, my colors are very high-contrast, but it’s a command-line. People expect that. So if someone were to peek at my screen and see me writing this, without knowing what I’m writing about… they will never understand just how differently I see the world compared to them.

So, when someone does know you are blind and they ask you about it, try your best to help them picture what it’s like if they ask you what it’s like. But do realize they’ll never be able to fully imagine and understand it, that’s just the nature of reality.

This also means that you will have to be very careful when explaining to a teacher what you need to be able to work as efficiently as possible. Because, my next tip is:

Learn to self-advocate.

If you know what you need, ask for it. Do not assume others know. IF you need large print, make damn sure you get large print. If you need to take a break from a math test because your eyes feel like they’re fire-y stones, take the break. These sorts of things aren’t about what you WANT to have, they’re what you need to have. It’s not like you just want to take a break because you want to think, you need to take a break because your eyes are in physical pain from being strained. Your health, therefore, is far more important than that math test.

And if you’ve self-advocated, and your teacher(s) still give you hassle, they are in the wrong. This is even more true if you have an individual education plan, (which if at all possible you really should have), because that is official documentation about your condition and what needs to be done to accomodate you. If your teacher(s) aren’t even following that, they’re seriously in the wrong.

This will even help if you’re in a similar situation to me where I’m acing college assignments in a dual credit course but getting 60% marks in my Grade 11 Math. It’s not that I don’t understand the work, it’s that my eyes are making it hard for me to read it. You should never be penalized for your condition getting in the way. Especially if you’re excelling in other areas that cover similar (or more advanced) material. Logic and common sense will overpower the grade your teacher gave you.

Learn computers, and learn to code.

If you’re in the early stages of RP or your eyes are still capable enough to not need a lot of support, computers and code are your best friend. Get yourself familiar with their inner-workings. Learn Linux. Learn Windows. Learn how to work in a text-based environment. Learn how to navigate without a mouse. Learn all the keyboard shortcuts/hotkeys for common things you do.

Learn a programming language. Learn how to quickly write command-line and graphical programs. Learn various image processing algorithms. Learn as much as you can while you still can, and get comfortable with it all. It’ll be really handy.

Because, when you get to the stage I’m at where severe eyestrain is a huge issue, you’ll be able to be EXTREMELY efficient doing your work if you can do it all on a computer and have all the important hotkeys memorized. If you can memorize your operating system’s accessibility tools and their hotkeys like I have, even better. If you can set your own and be comfortable with them, even better.

Not only that, but if you can think in code and write it, then that’s a pretty freakin’ easy way to prove your understanding of a concept, for example, in math. If you can write a program that parses and factors out polynomials for you, then you’ve proved multiple things.

  1. You can work a computer.
  2. You understand how to factor a polynomial expression (computers are only as powerful as their users).
  3. You can apply that knowledge into something else.
  4. You can effectively communicate that knowledge, even if not in a spoken language. You effectively taught a computer how to do it, and if you can do that, you can teach a human.
  5. Granted there’s no bugs, you have a VERY effective answer-checking tool. Not only that, but you’ll have something cool to brag about.

At the end of the day, your teachers are NOT grading you on your ability to read (except for English.) They are grading you on your ability to:

  1. know and understand the material
  2. be able to apply it to the real world
  3. be able to think about how to achieve a task using the concept
  4. be able to communicate what you know/understand, and what you’re thinking, as you answer a question.

If you can write code to help you get through the work more efficiently, awesome. If you can write a program to do the work for you, you’ve effectively covered at least 3 out of those 4 things.

After learning to think in code, learn braille ASAP.

If you have a degenerative eye disease like RP, one of two things are going to happen. Your condition will either stay the way it is, or it’ll get worse. It won’t magically get better. Such is life, but we can still prepare for it to get worse. Since you can think in code, you can very easily learn braille.

In braille, much like Unicode, ASCII, or The Peacenet’s terminal, you have codes for the various letters for the alphabet. Unlike the aforementioned digital encodings, though, braille is physical. You don’t read it, you feel it. And there’s a limited number of combinations of dots they are able to use to construct letters, numbers, etc.

So what they’ve done, is they’ve created certain “control characters.” In braille, you have all your usual alphabet codes, then you have control characters that say things like:

If you can think in code then you’ll be able to intuitively be able to memorize both the regular alphabet codes and the control characters and you’ll learn to fluently read braille very quickly. If you think about it, they structure it the same way as something like ANSI - some characters and sequences are really just instructions for the computer - but they have a lot less “bits” to work with. Just think of braille as a really weird form of binary where one byte is 6 bits (8 bits if computer-braille, that’s something else) and one bit is a dot in a specific dot, if you feel that dot, that bit is on. Then it becomes easy to memorize all the different combinations of “bits.”

Okay, but I’m still a little upset about my condition.

That’s inevitable, we all have those days where we just hate the way we were born and wish we either weren’t born at all or weren’t born with the condition. Congrats, you’re a human being.

But that’s okay. Instead of feeling sorry for yourself or feeling hatred to your condition, and letting it make your day shitty, do these things if you can:

  1. Realize your strengths and remember nothing can take those away from you.
  2. Talk to someone you trust and tell them exactly how you feel.
  3. Do something that occupies your mind and helps you forget about your condition.
  4. If you feel this way while you’re in the middle of an assignment, put that assignment away and take a breather. It’s not worth the extra stress. If it comes to it, ask your teacher if you can use the washroom even if you don’t need to. Get yourself out of that stressful environment, even if just for a few minutes. Your grades and your mental state will thank you later.
  5. Put those feelings into an article like this one. Or even just keep a personal diary.

The important thing to do is to have trust in someone so you have the ability to tell them how you feel, instead of internally breaking down and feeling like you have no options. If you can find trust in a principal, teacher, guidance counselor, learning resource coach, or even your best friend, you have a chance of having more options than you think.

Find a hobby and obsess over it.

If you can find something you absolutely love doing, and you can obsess over it, and it’s something healthy, then you’ve always got something to help get your mind off everything.

In my case, that would be programming. And that’s good, because if you can become really passionate about something that is seen as a legitimate career, you are set for life no matter what anyone says.

Use that hobby to get you into a dual-credit course.

If you have a college nearby, and they have dual-credit openings, try to get into one that aligns with your hobby and passion. This will give you a feel for what college is like, it will let you learn even more about that hobby, and you’ll get both a highschool and college credit out of it. Doing really well in that course means that, as long as you finish highschool with passing grades, that college is going to look at your dual credits as proof of skill rather than your highschool marks.

Universities aren’t as friendly, they’re really anal about your marks and your skills. But a college will use common sense and logic. If you’re getting poor marks in grade 11 math but you’re getting consistent 100%’s in a dual credit college programming course, and the college knows about your condition, they’re going to look at it this way:

“How the hell are you acing this programming course but with a shitty math mark? Oh, your highschool wasn’t accomodating you as well as they could’ve. Fuck ‘em, you’re in.”

So basically, doing dual credits makes highschool easier to get through and makes college easier to get into.

If you get through one dual credit, take another.

Whether it be the next part of the course you just took, or a completely different course, take as many dual credits as you can. You’ll need a general elective, so you can get that out of your way in the dual credit program. Not only that, but the more you can get done in the DC program, the less you have to do in the real college program, and thus the more time you have to give your eyes a rest during college. That’s a win-win-win for you.

If you can at all avoid it, avoid phys-ed.

If you enjoy it, then, fine, enjoy it. But if you’re getting sick of getting balls hurled at your face, get out of there. I’m not sure about other schoolboards, but in mine, you are able to be exempt from at most three mandatory courses. If you can, make sure phys-ed is one of them. You can either take another course in its place, or you can do what I did and take a learning resource period and have extra time to rest your eyes or finish up assignments.

Study periods are your best friend.

You casn study at any time, but if your eyes are bugging you, don’t. Use that time to rest them. Put music in, put your head down, etc. Just let the time fly by.

Have a headset and smartphone at the ready.

If you have a headset with you, then you can use a screen reader without interrupting the class. If you’ve got a phone, quietly sit it on your desk and have it record the lesson. Then you have full audio recordings of everything you need to know for the course, and you can have assignments read to you.

Also, if your eyes physically shake like mine do, it’s always fun to listen to drum-and-bass music while you work and notice that your eyes are shaking in perfect sync with the music.

Finally, don’t let your highschool grades matter.

As long as you can prove an understanding of the material, you don’t need to be a straight-A student in the grand scheme of things. That only truly matters if you go into university. Furthermore, sometimes, your grades will suffer if your teacher just plain doesn’t understand you can’t read half of the work. That’s their issue, not yours. A proof of knowledge is all you truly need.

In conclusion…

That’s a long one, but, at least all my thoughts are out. To be honest I’m not entirely sure if that’ll help many people or not, they’re just things that personally help me.