House intern backs visual agenda

Visually impaired student fights for legislation to help get texts for college courses

General Assembly

March 06, 2007|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,sun reporter

When Steve Fowler registers for classes at the University of Maryland, College Park, the partially blind student requests reading lists weeks in advance and waits for workers at the campus' disability center to dictate the books onto CDs.

After Fowler had to drop four courses when audio books didn't arrive before midterms, he applied for an internship with Del. Henry B. Heller, a Montgomery County Democrat, who also is legally blind.

Fowler's aim: Win passage of a Heller bill that would improve access to textbooks for visually impaired college students. Today, Fowler and Heller will testify before a House of Delegates committee in support of the bill.

"My counselor told me that this problem could really only be solved in Annapolis," said Fowler, 21, who grew up in Mount Airy. "So here I am."

Under Heller's bill, when a visually impaired student requests a book, publishers would be required to submit a digital copy to the Maryland Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. The requirement would apply only to new texts copyrighted after July 1, 2007. The cost would be $200,000 a year.

"If I had to wait three to four weeks after other students to receive my textbooks, I'd be more than hostile - I'd be throwing things," said Heller, who suffers from macular degeneration related to diabetes and whose eyesight is worse than Fowler's.

Fowler personally convinced about one-third of the 78 delegates who signed on as co-sponsors of the House bill, which would relieve the University of Maryland from providing the service on its own.

"For disabled students, there's not a lot of hand-holding going on after high school," said Stephen Roy, a state Division of Rehabilitation Services counselor who worked with Fowler after he lost his eyesight in high school. "We try to teach people like Steven to speak out and identify their needs because no one else is going to do it for them."

Fowler has frequently turned to Dr. Leigh Ryan, director of the university's writing center, for help. During his junior year, Fowler set out to write a paper on the hijab, a head covering commonly worn by Muslim women.

"It's not like he can walk into a bookstore and find the research he needs on Muslim women in the books-on-tape section," Ryan said. "At one point, I just started typing paragraphs and passages [in large type] from books I had at home."

However, Fowler had to drop a 17th-century British literature course two weeks before the first 10-page paper was due. His professor had selected a more than 1,000-page anthology as the textbook, but not indicated what sections were required.

"Asking Disability Services to start reading from page 1 of an anthology, when the first reading I need might be on page 353 - it just isn't feasible," Fowler said.

Fowler is a second-generation sufferer of Axenfeld-Rieger syndrome, which weakens the bone structure in the mouth and causes glaucoma. His symptoms didn't appear until he lost his eyesight during the second semester of his junior year of high school.

The syndrome dashed his dreams of studying chemistry at the U.S. Naval Academy. He also is unable to drive. Fowler said he finished his junior year with the help of an Urbana High School librarian, who had a connection at the Library of Congress, which has a small service for the blind and handicapped.

"A teenager's life is rough enough without losing your eyesight," said Leslie Fowler, Steve's mother, who also suffers from Axenfeld-Rieger syndrome and is a teacher's assistant at Gaithersburg High School. "And the nature of the disease is that sometimes he can see fairly well, and sometimes he can't. Teachers had a hard time understanding that."

Doctors have performed 18 surgeries on Steve Fowler's eyes. With each one, he would wear patches for several months and emerge with better vision, but then have a setback.

Given that Fowler already had enough credits to graduate from high school when he first lost his eyesight, he spent most of his senior year receiving mobility, Braille and computer training.

Fowler can see, but he must pull papers close to his face to read. His laptop has software that enlarges digital materials. Fowler also uses Heller's magnification system, which is similar to a microfilm machine, to read memos and bills.

The system's most important feature is that it converts printed words from black to white and the background paper from white to black.

To get to the State House, Fowler is picked up at 7 a.m. each day at his Adelphi apartment by Jennifer Ausden, a longtime friend and fellow intern.

Fowler already has prepared rebuttals to the bill's opponents.

"People keep calling this `the blind bill,'" he said. "Electronic and audio texts help students with dyslexia, learning disabilities and a whole host of other diseases that weaken eyesight. ... Coining this a Braille textbook bill narrows the scope and the population that it would help, and is a good strategy to try and kill it."

As for the cost, Fowler said that a centralized system would save state-run colleges money.

And to concerns among publishers that students would circulate pirated copies of the electronic texts, Fowler says that the digital copies could be password-protected and contain anti-piracy software.

Leslie Fowler said that her son gets his outspoken and driven personality from her. Heller, whose nickname is "The Hammer," even had to tone down Fowler's prepared testimony.

Heller said of his intern: "The textbook situation has caused him an unimaginable amount of frustration."

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