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Psychology students learn empathy from campus blind walk

February 10, 2015
KOKOMO, Ind. — On a cold winter morning, a line of students shuffles through the quad, each person with eyes closed, a hat pulled down over the face, or looking straight up into the cloudy sky.

The line creeps like a caterpillar into Alumni Hall, slowing almost to a stop to navigate the stairs by the Library. Students follow one another by keeping hands on each other’s shoulders.

In the lead, senior Mandy Bagwell calls encouragement to the 20 students following her.

“It’s like dancing,” she says. “You mimic the motions of the person in front of you.”

She enters unfamiliar territory as they pass Kresge Auditorium and walk outside, but notes that she can tell from the sounds of cars that there is a parking lot.

She anticipates the curb to step down, and gives advice.

“Slide your feet up to find it, and then step down,” she calls behind her.

The walk gives students just a glimpse into Bagwell’s daily life, as she lost her vision as a young child. Each day, the psychology major navigates the Indiana University Kokomo campus assisted by her guide dog, Roscoe.

She’s pleased with the willing participation of the students, who are in Jeffrey Batis’ freshman learning community Introduction to Psychology class.

“They were more open than I thought they would be,” she said. “This experience will help them be more open minded, and maybe not be afraid to talk to someone with a disability, or ask questions.”
Converse resident Gerritt Taylor called the experience “a perspective changer,” and said he gained a new appreciation for Bagwell’s ability to navigate.

“I never realized how hard it would be, until I hit five door frames in a row,” he said.

Changing perspectives was one of Batis’ goals when he asked Bagwell, from Kokomo, to lead this activity.

“My purposes for the blind walk were to help students understand and appreciate individual differences, and to encourage them to think about the concepts they are learning from the perspective of those around them,” he said. “My personal belief is that everyone is struggling with something. If students can appreciate that the viewpoints of others are just as relevant or important as their own, I will feel successful as their teacher.”

Alexus Edwards admitted she “started to freak out a little bit” when they started moving. It’s easier to understand the struggles others face when you get a glimpse into them, she said.

“You can hear about a problem, but after experiencing it, you’re going to treat them with more respect,” said Edwards, who is from Palatka, Florida. “It’s easier to understand their challenges.”

Batis, assistant professor of psychology, said Bagwell sets an example of how not to let obstacles stand in the way of achievement. She was recently accepted to law school, and received a scholarship.

“In spite of her disability, she’s doing things some of us will never do,” he said. “She is doing some amazing things.”

Bagwell lost her vision because of a connective tissue disorder. She gets around with her dog, or with a cane, and has learned to use her other senses.

Students were surprised to learn she uses echolocation, snapping her fingers or jingling Roscoe’s leash, and listening for the sound to bounce off walls, to orient herself.

She hopes the blind walk helps students learn that people with disabilities are still people, and they should be treated like anyone else. She gets frustrated by those who talk to her in a loud voice, like she is also deaf, and joked that sometimes she will talk loudly back, asking if they have a disability too.

Nicole Smart has never met someone who is blind before, but said she understand the challenges disabled people face, because of her brother who has Down syndrome.

“It’s a new experience, to have a different way of getting around places,” the Delphi resident said. “I wasn’t comfortable at all.”

Indiana University Kokomo serves north central Indiana.

Last updated: 02/10/2015