The Art of Fly Catching

The Art of Fly Catching

By Briley O’Connor

(Editor’s Note: Briley O’Connor is the Vice President of the Metro Chapter of the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota. For years she has worked as an advocate for blind students as a teacher, and parent. Here, Briley shares her story and her tips for being successful when communicating with rehab counselors. Just like all of us, all counselors are different, many of them are extremely experienced and passionate advocates for their clients. No matter what your personal situation is, Briley’s tips are useful for any successful counselor-client relationship.

Being a student is hard. Balancing several deadlines, plus figuring out what you want to do with the rest of your life can be stressful. Add to that obtaining accessible textbooks, communicating with professors about accommodations, acquiring assistive technology, and navigating the confusing vocational rehabilitation system to all of that as a blind student, and it can feel like juggling three truck tires while reciting the Declaration of Independence. I have experience with this circus act as a blind college student myself, a blindness rehabilitation professional, and a disability advocate.

One of the most important (and overlooked) allies you have through this process is your vocational rehabilitation counselor.

“But you don’t understand,” you say, “I didn’t get my notetaker on time.”

“I never hear from them.”

“My tuition was paid late and all of my classes were dropped.”

All of those are things that have actually happened to many of my clients, and that last one happened to me after I transferred universities my junior year. I understand that working toward a positive relationship with a counselor where one may not currently exist can feel practically impossible. But my sweet southern grandmother always says, “You’ll catch more flies with honey than vinegar,” and while I never understood why on Earth Meme wanted to catch flies, I have found that advice to be wise. Taking the time to do these few things will go a long way to establishing a good relationship with your counselor, or improving a contentious one.

Initiate Communication

The bedrock of any solid relationship is communication. Sadly, many students have a lot of ideas about what a counselor “should” be doing. While they are often not entirely incorrect in their assumptions, what they are often missing is their end of the bargain. Various states operate differently, but one commonality is that the counselor is the intermediary between you and the people funding your services. When a problem arises, contact your counselor immediately. Do not wait for someone else to do it for you. If there is a gap in payment, the university is not going to call your counselor. The disability resource center is not going to call your counselor. It is your job to call your counselor. Letting a problem sit for an extended period of time before addressing it does not show that you are being proactive. I recognize that when issues arise, it can cause anxiety and you can feel overwhelmed. But try to approach your counselor in that moment as your ally, not your enemy. Even if it was a mistake on their part that led to the problem, approach them as calmly as possible asking for their assistance in coming up with a solution.

If you show the initiative to schedule a phone call or in person meeting every six weeks with them, that goes a long way toward demonstrating that you take your education seriously. You don't have to wait for these meetings to ask questions of your counselor, but it’s a great time to update them on your academic progress, discuss upcoming technology or training needs for the next semester, and touch base about anything you need to know to ensure your success. Take notes at these meetings and recap them in an e-mail afterward to make sure you both are on the same page about what was discussed. If you are invested in your success, the other person in the relationship is a lot more likely to also be invested.

Show Kindness

This one is a lot easier said than done, particularly in contentious situations, but the effort is worth it. Showing kindness is not just about getting what you want or making the other person feel good. It also engenders positive feelings within you about the other person. Sometimes, in high stress situations like these, positive feelings are few and far between.

I was working with one client in Texas who was having a horrible time receiving the technology she was promised. Her counselor was not returning calls, contacting the supervisor was not helping, and the semester was starting in a few short weeks. In the midst of a frustrated call with this student, I asked her, “Hey, when is your counselor’s birthday?” Needless to say, this question was met with icy skepticism to put it mildly, which I understood. But after some convincing, she asked around and found out that the counselor’s birthday happened to be in the next week. I somehow convinced her to send the counselor a birthday card in print and braille, including the counselor’s name in braille on the envelope. My client had the technology she needed before school started, and the door was opened for an improved relationship. Was it perfect because of a birthday card? No. But it helped the student remember that the counselor was a human being, not just someone making her life hard, and it reminded the counselor that this person was more than a number on her incredibly large caseload.

Kindness doesn’t have to be complicated. Send a birthday card, write a thank-you e-mail when things are going smoothly, congratulate them on their professional accomplishments. Even if initially you have to dig deep for nice things to say, do the digging. Counselors are human beings with a lot on their plate just like you. This is not an excuse for not doing the things that they should, but it is a place of understanding and empathy you can operate from when you are feeling angry and frustrated.

Know Your Rights

When people hear this one, they automatically assume that it has a confrontational connotation, but it doesn’t. Knowing your state’s policies and procedures for how technology is procured, how services are determined, and what the appeal process is in the event that a decision is reached with which you disagree only helps you feel equipped. If you know what to expect, what should be on your Individual Plan for Employment, how to justify the things you feel are necessary for your success, you will be able to stay calm when things get difficult. Respect yourself and your counselor enough to know your rights and responsibilities. Discuss these openly with your counselor, ask for them in writing, and ask questions when there’s something you don’t understand. This has the added benefit of equipping you with the knowledge you would need in the unlikely event these tricks do not work and the relationship does not work out.

In all likelihood, if you communicate, show kindness, and learn your rights, you’ll establish a positive working relationship with your vocational rehabilitation counselor that will last you through your search for employment. These skills are transferable outside of this context as well. Knowing how to work with people you don’t necessarily like is valuable, and learning how to like people you previously did not appreciate is the true art of fly catching.