Ryan Henders ’14 utilizes Irby, his black lab and canine roommate, to navigate campus and just about everything else. A guide dog, Irby arrived at North Central College when Henders transferred to pursue his dream of studying broadcasting at a smaller campus.
Nearly blind, Henders was diagnosed with bilateral retinoblastoma, a rare type of eye cancer in both eyes, when he was 9 months old. “I can see certain things like the figure of a person, but I have no depth perception or ability to see how close someone or something is,” says Henders.
While Irby helps with navigation, Henders uses other tools to help him in and out of the classroom and to train for a career in radio. A broadcast communication and organizational communication double major, he learned braille at a young age and relies on it to read and deliver news on air and co-host a weekly show, “Local Chaos,” on North Central’s WONC-FM 89.1. For reporting on traffic and weather and all his coursework, he uses his laptop with a computer screen reader program called Jaws (Job Access With Speech). Jaws reads aloud what’s on his laptop screen and provides intelligent tools for navigating screen content.
In the classroom, Henders takes notes in MS Word on his standard laptop and is skilled at using keystrokes to navigate his software and the Internet. To review his notes and do online research, he dons earphones to listen to content on his screen. For on-air broadcasting, Henders has his own cue cards with braille on them and utilizes a technology called Focus 40 Blue Wireless Braille Display, which enables him to read documents, spreadsheets, email and surf the Web.
At WONC, his dog Irby is considered a member of the staff. “He’s hilarious and loves to play,” says general manager John Madormo, assistant professor of broadcast communication. “He knows his way around the station and waits outside my office to get treats he knows I keep in my pocket.”
Madormo and Jenny Pippen, who works with students who have disabilities as assistant director of academic support services, characterize Henders as “very independent. If someone tells him it can’t be done, he finds a way. He crushes the myth that people with his disability can’t do everything.”
Pippen started preparing accommodations for Henders before he transferred to campus, working with admission, residence life, campus safety and dining services. North Central provides equal opportunity and meaningful access for all its students with physical, psychological, attentional or learning-based disabilities in compliance with federal law.
“Many places tell you they offer accommodations and will help you, but your experience is very different,” says Henders. “North Central backed up their words with action.”
One accommodation for Henders involves converting print textbooks to documents he can read using his laptop. The print shop scans textbooks page by page into a pdf document, then Pippen’s office personnel copy the content to a document in Word, which is compatible with Jaws.
“Having people with disabilities in classrooms and on campus makes us all better,” says Pippen, who views all disabilities as another form of diversity. “It’s an opportunity and a privilege to teach, serve and help differently.”
Henders confesses there are limitations in his life, like not being able to drive, but says those limitations don’t stop him from having fun. “I have common interests like everyone else and my disability shouldn’t be a reason for people not to connect with me. And, nobody should be afraid to ask if they think I need help. I try to help others because I know I need help and wish people would help me.”