SRU deafblind student makes successful transition to campus life
Despite being deaf and blind, Julia Murray is succeeding as a Slippery Rock University student thanks to support from the University’s Office of Disability Services.
March 17, 2023
SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. — The adjustment to college life presents challenges for every student. Whether it's managing their schedules, paying bills or buying their own groceries, every student has to adjust to living on their own.
They may arrive on campus with different backgrounds, needs and expectations, but they're all trying to develop themselves and earn a degree. Then there are students like Julia Murray, a Slippery Rock University exercise science major from Pittsburgh, who have challenges that go beyond the typical college student. She's deaf and blind. That hasn't stopped her from embracing all that's different about what she's experiencing and the opportunities to succeed.
"I love it here," said Murray, now in her second semester at SRU. "I really enjoy all the different experiences I've gotten here, the different people that I've met, as well as the many different opportunities on campus with clubs and organizations. I've been able to discover new activities that I've never done previously."
"Different" is a label that's been applied to Murray her entire life. As an infant, she was diagnosed with cone-rod dystrophy and bilateral sensorineural hearing loss. She has limited peripheral and central vision -- her eye acuity is 20/400 in both eyes. Thanks to cochlear implant surgery when she was 2 years old, she is able to hear now.
Murray has benefited from therapies and other forms of support since she was 6 months old. When she was a toddler, Murray attended DePaul School for Hearing and Speech. She later transitioned to public school for first grade at an elementary school in the Baldwin-Whitehall School District where her mother teaches. Even at 5 years old she was aspiring for more, telling her parents that she wanted to attend college.
When she was 9 years old, Murray attended a sports camp at SRU for visually impaired children . The program, now called ENVISION Blind Sports, is a nonprofit organization founded by Wendy Fagan, an SRU instructor of physical and health education.
"I became really familiar with the campus," Murray said. "A lot of people from that program end up coming here because we know the blind services at SRU are really good. I came here because I knew that I would be provided those accommodations."
SRU's Office of Disability Services helps enhance the campus experience for students with all types of disabilities by creating equal access inside the classroom setting. The office, including a staff member dedicated to blind services, provides accommodations for more than 20 SRU students who are blind or visually impaired. The office assists visually impaired students with everything from navigating campus to retrieving information that professors write on classroom whiteboards. They can even create braille on site.
"Students with visual impairments have needs that are unique," said Jenny Senko, coordinator of blind services. "The services we provide are highly individualized based on the student. We can facilitate discussions with professors and help provide accommodations to remove any barriers."
Examples of these accommodations include enlarged text on classroom materials and a lab assistant, assigned by the ODS, who accompanied Murray in her physics class to make sure she was able to follow along with the lab exercises. Murray also goes to the ODS to have extra time to take exams.
Murray came to SRU having already earned college credits in high school and graduating from Baldwin-Whitehall with a 4.3 weighted GPA. However, just like thousands of other college-bound students, she didn't know exactly what to expect when she arrived on campus.
"At the beginning I was a little bit concerned, but knowing how the Office of Disability Services works, I knew they would be there for me," Murray said. "They kept in touch to make sure I had all the accommodations in place before I even stepped on campus. For my transition here, it was definitely a smooth process."
Murray is now considered a first-semester sophomore because of her extra credits. She is active with campus organizations, including the University Program Board, a student-run organization that brings a variety of entertainment and educational programs to campus.
Her career goal is to work with people who are blind or visually impaired, teaching them occupational or life skills.
Murray is also active in sports. A former member of the Pittsburgh Rhinos blind hockey team, Murray still finds time for activities through ENVISION Blind Sports. She went skiing in Vermont during spring break thanks to the help of a guide who skied behind her and communicated with her through a portable FM system with a microphone and earpiece.
She also uses an FM system to occasionally communicate with classmates. One of the biggest differences between high school and college is Murray's comfort level when it comes to self-advocacy.
"I've learned a lot about myself and other people," Murray said. "I'm more aware of how important it is to advocate for myself. Back in high school, I would be fearful to advocate for my needs toward my peers because I was always worried about how they would respond and if they'd accept me. Here in college, I've put myself out there and I do what I need to make sure that I'm getting what I need."
Being an advocate goes beyond advocating for her own needs - it includes spreading awareness to others who might interact with people with disabilities.
"I'm always a representation of the (disabled) community," Murray said. "If a person (who I've interacted with) comes across someone else who is visually impaired, I would hope that they would be more open to others because they've met me."
Murray's message to people is all about appreciating people for their differences.
"Every person with a disability is different, just like people without disabilities are different," Murray said. "Even within a certain disability, there is such a spectrum. No person with a visual impairment has the same condition. No person with deafblindness has the same hearing and vision. It's all very different."
More information about disability services at SRU is available on the ODS webpage.
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