If I am being honest, I’m surprised I’ve gone back to school. I never in a million years thought I would have the time, funds, or inclination to do so. Truthfully, I’m not sure I really have the funds and time – school can be expensive, and I work, train for races, and volunteer in my community, so time is at a premium – but I have the willingness to learn and finally found something I wanted to study, so… why not?
What Took you So Long?
When I graduated from high school, I thought I wanted to be a translator. I had taken several languages in high school, including French immersion, and thought I would excel interpreting for people or translating documents. I looked at the university courses required, and thought “no thanks!” I was interested in the history of language, and all of the practical courses, but I remember looking at most of the other required courses and getting a headache thinking about them. How in the world could I manage four years of school when more than two thirds of the classes were either impractical or uninteresting to me – why would I need three science courses for a languages degree? Even looking at other areas of study for a degree, I could not find anything that could hold my interest and that I thought would be worth the financial investment and time commitment required. An Arts degree had a bunch of tangential and irrelevant requirements, I did not want to pursue sciences, I’d burned out on math classes and concepts in high school, social work or similar disciplines would be too emotionally taxing for me. The idea of a degree felt both daunting and out of reach, so I walked away from that life path.
I also had practical concerns. Many blind young adults I had known as a teenager had degrees from Bachelor to Masters to Doctorates, and still struggled to find employment. I did not want to slog through four or six or eight years of school, get into massive amounts of debt, and still not be able to afford to keep a roof over my head. In addition, even if I had wanted to walk the path of a four-year degree, in the early ’00s, accessibility of course materials was a real concern. Electronic materials were not always guaranteed to be accessible, braille books were big and clunky and took up a ton of space, and audio records of course materials might not always be appropriate for the course at hand. Both the journey and the destination were not going to be uncomplicated, and could not offer a great return on investment. So, I thought, what was the point in a degree?
Choosing a Different Path
I decided to grab an opportunity for a one-year certificate program in emergency communications. I was trained to answer emergency calls and dispatch emergency vehicles, such as police, fire departments, or ambulances. The course was all practical and useful, and would in some ways tie in to what we would be doing on the job. I faced an unrealistic and discriminatory requirement – put into place by the disability services office, no less – that if I could not find a practicum placement before starting the course, I could not start in September. My classmates could wait until January to find a placement, but I could not; the rationale was that it would be hard to find a placement for me, as it would be to find work, so if I couldn’t find a practicum, there was no point in starting. Thankfully, I had connections in the industry and had written commitments from all over Canada and the United States for emergency services agencies who said they would be willing to accept me for my practicum. So I started that course and (found out later) had the most hands-on practicum of any of my classmates.
I never did get my foot in the door, working full- or part-time with any emergency service. Many fire departments and ambulance services still used paper cue cards at the time, and technology was not yet at the point to be fully integrated to come up with accessible alternatives. One police agency, on multiple occasions, had no qualms about telling me that my vision impairment meant that I could not interpret my colleague’s body language, so could not identify an emerging situation non-visually, and I would not even be granted an opportunity to test for a position I had trained for, was good at, and for which they were regularly advertising. It wasn’t until many years later that I realized I would have burned out on the emotional toll the job would demand of me. It took me over a decade to feel gratitude that my life went in another different direction, but I am grateful every day that I took that emergency communications course, and also grateful that I never did work in that field – even if the reasons I never did were flat-out discriminatory. The fact that the disability services office at the school was right – that finding employment would be difficult or impossible – that was hardly the point; I should never have had to face that barrier by a department that was supposed to decrease barriers to my education.
Then what Happened?
Over the next few years, I worked in multiple industries. I’ve worked for non-profits, governments, and private sector businesses. Even when I was laid off by a company in the oil and gas industry during the downturn in 2015, the idea of expanding my education never had any appeal. I didn’t have the inclination, I certainly didn’t have the funds, and – even if I had both of those things going for me – I had no idea what I would study that would both hold my interest and enhance my skill set. I saw no point in going to school just because… reasons – even though I’ve had many conversations over the years with people who’ve been surprised at my lack of formal education.
Then, I had a conversation that created a bit of a monster, and sent me back to the classroom.
Join me tomorrow. I won’t promise I’ll name names, but I will tell you what I’m studying, and why.