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December 16, 2003

Blind and deaf, she finds way to her degree

From: Sacramento Bee, CA - Dec 16, 2003

Woman's CSUS graduation Saturday will mark a long-sought milestone.

By Lesli A. Maxwell -- Bee Staff Writer

It's an hour before Lenore Presley's final college assignment, and she really wants to practice a presentation for her social work class.

Presley, who is deaf and blind, will use two interpreters -- one to verbally translate her sign language and another who uses tactile signing to translate questions that classmates and the professor will ask her.

A serious student, Presley is too preoccupied with perfecting her presentation to acknowledge this major moment. After stopping and starting her studies at four colleges over 11 years, Presley will earn her bachelor's degree in social work from California State University, Sacramento, on Saturday.

She is the school's first deaf-blind graduate.

"I don't think I ever felt like giving up," Presley says through two interpreters. "Throughout my life, I've had difficulties. But I've got a thick skin."

When a cross-country move interrupted her studies, Presley started at a new school.

When a two-year degree didn't get her the job she wanted, Presley decided she needed a bachelor's. When she went blind after transferring to CSUS in 1996, Presley left to learn Braille and returned a year later. And when a professor wanted to drop her from the social work program because of an incomplete course, she fought back.

With every campus, professor and class, Presley adapted to new academic demands and new people who weren't accustomed to interacting with someone with her disabilities. Like any college student, she churned out papers, pored over complicated texts and endured sleepless nights cramming for exams.

"Through every chapter of her schooling, she has had to make major adjustments," says Judy Dean, a disability-management counselor at CSUS who has been an advocate for Presley. "To say she's quite persistent is an understatement."

Presley, whose deafness from birth and gradual vision loss were caused by Usher Syndrome, is rare among her deaf-blind peers. There are no solid numbers, but few deaf-blind students graduate with four-year baccalaureate degrees, according to DB-Link, a national organization that collects information on deaf-blind people.

The 29,000-student CSUS campus is diverse in age, race and ethnicity, but only 668 students have registered disabilities, according to the office that provides services to disabled students.

Presley is the only deaf-blind student, a distinction the mother of two teenagers wishes she did not have. "Deaf-blind students have so much potential," she says. "More of them should have access to higher education."

The problem, Presley says, is that services for students like her are intensive, and because the numbers of deaf-blind students are so few, many mainstream campuses may not be equipped to offer the services they need. In her classes, Presley relied on two interpreters and sometimes a note-taker. Readings and paper handouts, as well as notes taken from lectures, were translated into Braille. During exams, she needed interpreters to communicate the questions and relay her answers.

All of that made turning some assignments in by professors' deadlines a challenge, she says.

Meeting other students was often frustrating, Presley says, despite her efforts to get to know them.

"Attitudes toward people with disabilities are still a big problem," she says.

Those attitudes are what Presley studied for her final research project, and she's hopeful her findings could lead to more emphasis on disabled clients in the social work curriculum.

Now, however, Presley is focused on putting her degree to work. She has applied for a job at the state Department of Rehabilitation, where she could counsel deaf and deaf-blind clients.

As for any nostalgia she has about her college days coming to an end, Presley says she has "mixed feelings."

"But my husband is thrilled," she says, laughing. "He tells me I've been a professional student for too long. It's his turn now."

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