Visually-impaired student facing challenges of new school and city

Cory Hurley
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Brandon O’Keefe is photographed Thursday, Oct. 3 in Corner Brook.

CORNER BROOK  Brandon O’Keefe has been overcoming obstacles all his life, but perhaps none are more daunting than facing city life and post-secondary education for the first time.

It’s a move that countless young men and women make in rural Newfoundland and Labrador every year: a small-town person heading to college or university.

But O’Keefe is not the typical 18-year-old. On paper, perhaps he is.

An honours student from Bishop’s Falls enrolled in the computer systems and networking program at the College of the North Atlantic in Corner Brook.

A closer look at the young man though, and you quickly realize how much of an accomplishment that truly is. A close look is a concept O’Keefe knows all too well.

He was born with ocular albinism — an inherited condition in which the eyes lack melanin pigment. His visual acuity is significantly reduced, affecting his ability to see detail at a distance.

Even reaching this step in his academic career is a major accomplishment. In a classroom setting, he can’t read a chalkboard on his own and has trouble seeing fine-print text such as on assignments and tests. Brightly lit rooms cause havoc on his sensitive eyes.

Outside the classroom setting, it’s difficult for him to read street signs, see traffic lights, distant vehicles, read restaurant menus and pick out clothing or food price tags. Sunny days enhance that difficulty.

With all kinds of excuses available to him, O’Keefe chooses to use none of them.

“I always knew if I tried hard enough, I would make it to college,” he said. “I knew I could face it. I wasn’t going to let a disability get in the way.”

That’s been O’Keefe’s attitude all his life. From learning to ride a bicycle to going to school for the first time, it was all about learning to adapt. He grew up with the support of his community, various organizations and his mom — who raised him no differently than she would anyone else.

When faced with applying to post-secondary schools last year, the teenager had his sights set on attending college in nearby Grand Falls-Windsor, but his top priority was finding a program he felt strongly about. The closest place to offer that was in Corner Brook.

He had visited Corner Brook a couple times in his life, so he had some concerns based on his recollection of the city. Coming from Bishop’s Falls, he thought getting around in the larger community would be a challenge. On top of that, he said Corner Brook has a confusing layout, especially with so many one-way streets.

After a month away from the comforts of his small-town home, O’Keefe said the challenges he expected have certainly come to fruition. He lives on Westmount Road, just a short distance from the O’Connell Drive campus. He walks every evening, trying to get more familiar with his surroundings.

Although not afraid to adapt to his surroundings, he said getting the support of the community would make things a lot easier for him and others with visual impairments or blindness.

There is only one audible crosswalk signal in the city at intersection of Cpl. Pinksen Memorial Drive and Grenfell Drive. He said more would be an asset in the city, especially during bright days when he can’t see the light at the other side. He also recommends larger text or bigger street signs.

O’Keefe said there is a challenge for people with visual disabilities that others may not realize. He said reading a menu is near impossible, for example, and suggests larger print or perhaps the use of a tablet where one could zoom in or receive an audible list of food options. Right now, he avoids going to restaurants because of this and when he does go, he often just orders something he knows is on the menu.

As a student, he has adapted for the most part to the larger school life because of the support from the College of the North Atlantic staff. Throughout his school years, he received equipment provided by the Atlantic Provinces Special Education Authority.

While he sits in the front of the class, he still had to use a distance viewer. The authority does not provide equipment beyond high school, said O’Keefe, so he had to be approved for a federal grant to get one himself. Through the first month, he had yet to receive the funding he was approved for, but the College of the North Atlantic loaned him a distance viewer in the meantime.

“I find the school has done an excellent job so far,” he said. “Coming in, being a student with a disability who is away from home and by themselves, not used to their new environment, not having any of their equipment — to be able to get the support they need for their accommodations and have equipment to loan them, is really great.”

He has also been to the local Canadian National Institute for the Blind and is receiving support through the organization.

However, O’Keefe was raised not to be different, and he is approaching college and his new life the same way.

It’s easy to see: he is not going to sit back and wait for things to improve. He will adapt.

Organizations: College of the North Atlantic, Atlantic Provinces Special Education Authority, Canadian National Institute for the Blind

Geographic location: Corner Brook, Newfoundland and Labrador, Grand Falls-Windsor Westmount Road

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