Blind students seeks new laptop

Staff writer, CT Post

Article Launched: 10/04/2008 05:32:59 PM EDT

BRIDGEPORT -- Housatonic Community College Professor Simmie Nichols dances around the front of the class and waves his arms trying to get the high school students in front of him to understand the algebraic formula he's written on the board.

There is a discussion of what the brackets, symbols and numbers all mean. It is a visual lesson.

Sitting in the front row, her feet barely reaching the floor, Zuleika Martinez faces forward and occasionally leans in to whisper to Ivette Velez, the paraprofessional assigned to her since freshmen year.

At one point, Martinez chimes in with the answer when another student asks where to find an example in the book. Mostly she listens, as Velez jots down notes in a pad and occasionally leans in to explain to Martinez what the instructor is doing or writing that the 17 year old can't see.

"I was listening pretty good. I imagined what it looked like in my head," Martinez said, after class, her hand digging into her stuffed book bag for a tube of cherry chap-stick.

Later, Martinez said she would go over the notes Velez took with her tutor, John Wargo, who has worked with her since kindergarten.

"When it comes to fractions and graphics, my tutor is the best one to explain it to me," she added.

Without sight since she was a toddler, Martinez has also been planning to go to college since she knew what college was. A senior at Central High School, she, along with 50 other college-bound students from the city's three high schools, travel daily to Housatonic to get reading and math skills through a "Middle College" program that hopefully help her avoid remedial classes that face so many college freshmen today.

"I always try new things. If you don't, you don't know if you will learn it," said Martinez. "This will prepare me for when I take the next step forward ."

Martinez used to think that step would be Housatonic. Lately, she's been thinking it might be a four-year college instead. In addition to learning what she needs to make in college, Martinez is discovering there is equipment she needs, and just doesn't have, to make it in college as well.

A laptop with software that reads what is on the screen, Internet access to do online research and a scanner that can read notes, books, and perhaps even a college acceptance letter, would be nice, she said.

Right now, she has a laptop provided to her by the Board of Education Services for the Blind, (BESB) a state agency. When its keys don't stick, that computer can be used as a word processor but does not have Internet access due to an agency policy that prohibits inappropriate Web surfing.

Martinez is one of 42 students in the district who receive BESB services. She has a computer at home, but it is not equipped with the screen reading software that works. A scanner is something she said her family simply can't afford. There is also no one at home to help her with her homework.

"When my tutor is not there, there's no one. Sometimes at school they give out free paperback books. But then I need someone to read it to me," she said. Martinez can read Braille, but finds it slow and cumbersome. Wargo can find Braille versions of what Martines needs to read, but sometimes it takes time.

"This is a person who is going to be successful if she has the right equipment," said John Esteves, a mentor who works with 31 Bridgeport middle and high school students with mobility and vision disabilities.

Esteves, a disabled adult who runs a Disabilities Resource Center, was at Housatonic last week, trying to help find a way to get Martinez her own laptop that she can use in the classroom and home, with Internet access and screen-reading software. She will need one for college. He hopes to get a fundraiser for one or have one donated.

Cheryl Shain, coordinator of middle college program at Housatonic, said the college has adaptive computer equipment, but not portable units. Martinez needs something she can use in class to take notes.

Esteves said Martinez's needs are also greater in a college-level program than in high school. In college, it's not enough to do 10 questions when 35 were assigned and expect a passing grade. If middle college is part of her educational plan, the school system should make it happen, he added.

Wargo, who spends two hours a day with Martinez on her homework, said Martinez has so far been able to keep up with the college math homework, mainly, because she had no other assignments that day.

Pam Gelder, an English teacher at Central who team teaches the classes at Housatonic, has only known Martinez a couple of months but describes a student who has mind like a steel trap.

"She remembers everything," said Gelder, describing how, by her second day at the college, Martinez was better able than sighted classmates at finding her way to the class, based on how many steps she remembers walking before taking a left. In elevators, she knows what buttons to push. "Tell her once and she remembers," said Gelder. "I tell her she should become a court stenographer."

Martinez would rather become an interpreter. She can converse in English, Spanish and knows some French, and Portuguese. "Ever since I was young, I heard all these different languages around me. I always had a curiosity about what people were saying and how these languages came to be. My intention was to learn them. To understand other people. Language is very important to me."

The petite senior -- several inches shy of five feet tall -- lives with her mom and has an older brother and two younger siblings. Her mom works as a certified nursing assistant, when jobs are available, Martinez said. Money is usually not in hand, she added.

Throughout school, Martinez said she's always managed good grades and is not afraid to speak up in class or before the state legislature. Last year, she was part of a delegation that went to Hartford to speak on behalf of a bill for people with disabilities who wanted to live on their own, and not nursing homes.

At Central, a school she said she knows head to toe, Martinez, has worked in the office, answering phones. To do so, she has to memorize incoming messages until someone else can write them down.

This summer, Martinez participated in a four-day Governor's Youth Leadership Forum at the University of Connecticut and so impressed staff, she was asked back next year as a counselor, said Esteves. She has also worked part-time at the federal courthouse downtown. Most of the time she worked in the coffee shop. A couple of times, to her delight, she was asked to go up to the courtrooms to help interpret.

"I always try my best. I never give up. Being blind doesn't stop me from being what I want to be or do what I want to do. If they think I'm going to lay back and work at Subway or Dunkin' Donuts, it's not happening. It's not me," she said.