Baylor grad sees positives in her blindness

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Posted: Thursday, June 27, 2013 12:01 am

Brooke Jostad is back in her native Colorado after graduating from Baylor University in May with a bachel0r’s degree in social work.

She didn’t return because she missed the natural beauty of her home state. In fact, she’s never seen it.

Jostad was born blind. She became acquainted with Baylor and Waco through its sounds and smells, and by touch.

To her, blindness has never been a hindrance; merely something that made her different.

“I love my life,” the 22-year-old said. “I see the world differently and that’s cool.”

When she was little, Jostad tried to trick physicians and their assistants into thinking she could see during eye tests. She could hear when the lights were on, and told them that she could see, but she doesn’t remember actually ever seeing light.

Her blindness certainly doesn’tt slow her down.

Jostad’s guide dog, Mattie, a 6-year-old German shepherd, helps get her from place to place. The two could frequently be seen around Baylor’s campus together, often moving as efficiently as those who can see.

Alex Parker, director of jazz studies at Baylor, was impressed with how well Jostad got around campus as one of his students.

“Seeing her walk around campus and get from place to place is just amazing,” Parker said. “Her dog Mattie — it’s just amazing seeing them work together. There doesn’t seem to be anything she can’t do.”

Jostad said her decision to attend Baylor, so far away from her hometown of Fort Collins, Colo., wasn’t as preconceived as one might think.

She learned that she could apply to the school without having to write an essay, and after visiting the campus she thought the Christian environment would be a good fit. She also wanted a warmer climate — and definitely got that.

Adjusting to life in Waco wasn’t hard, she said. A volunteer showed her around Baylor initially, but she didn’t really need any other special accommodations.

Her professors taught class as they normally would, though she would occasionally ask questions later if she missed something or if a lecture was particularly visual.

Jostad said her parents were excited about her leaving home to attend college. Her mom believed it would be good for her. Dad was a little more hesitant.

She said she will miss Baylor and Waco now that she is pursuing her master’s degree in social work at Colorado State University.

“I’m going to miss the people I know here,” she said. “Part of me is going to feel weird living closer to home. I had a lot of fun with my friends. I had fun just being completely separate from my family. I’m excited to move back, but I had a lot of fun while I was here,” she said.

That included her time with Baylor’s jazz program.

“I really love jazz,” she said.

Jostad has played the saxophone for six years, clarinet for nine years and piano since age 4.

Parker said Jostad can memorize music quickly and has a very good ear. He said she is good at picking out counter lines (the musical lines that complement the main melody) and has to internalize the music more than others, which gives her an advantage when it comes to improvisation.

Jostad had used Braille to learn music, which took some effort to master, she said. Louis Braille, a musician himself, expanded his system of communication in the late 1820s to include musical notation.

She learns music mostly by ear, and having perfect pitch helps. Perfect pitch is the ability only some people have to identify a pitch without the aid of a reference.

Jostad plans to keep up with music as much as possible.

During rehearsals at Baylor, her dog rarely made a sound. Musicians might have even forgotten that Mattie was there.

Somewhat to Jostad’s dismay, Mattie often attracted attention around campus. People would often try to pet her, ignoring the sign on her harness that specifically says not to do that.

“It’s always funny when people know my dog’s name and not mine,” she said.

Jostad got Mattie four years ago from Seeing Eye Inc. in New Jersey.

“I told them I needed a dog that could deal with loud music,” Jostad said.

Before Mattie, Jostad used a cane exclusively. “With a cane you can tap people’s legs accidentally,” she said of its disadvantage.

She uses the cane occasionally. Recently, she and Mattie were apart while Mattie was treated for a flea problem and Jostad tried to rid her apartment of the pests.

Having a dog allows her to get around quicker, Jostad said, because Mattie guides her around obstacles. Mattie also slows down before steps and stops before dropoffs. Jostad said Mattie also is supposed to slow down to alert her to low-hanging tree branches, but isn’t always good at that.

“We get around really well,” Jostad said. “We work really well as a team, so I’m glad I did it.”

People are less nervous to approach Jostad when she’s with Mattie than when she’s using her cane, she added.

Jostad also has her own ways of getting around. She relies on echolocation heavily. She can usually sense where walls are by the sounds bouncing off of them. A lack of echoes indicates an open space. She can also usually detect those low-hanging tree branches Mattie fails to alert her to, but not always.

She identifies her surroundings using nonvisual characteristics. Each building on campus has its own scent, she said, although she doesn’t have a favorite or least-favorite smelling building. She remembers where things are in relation to each other. She sometimes resorts to counting steps, but rarely. People often think she’s lost when she’s actually just listening for things, she said.

Jostad admitted that getting around parts of Waco wasn’t easy.

A lot of areas have cracked sidewalks or no sidewalks at all, she said. Many times she ended up walking through parking lots, which she said are hard to navigate because there’s no grassline to follow and she has to avoid getting hit by cars. There were some issues using Waco Transit, the city’s public transportation system. It wasn’t uncommon for miscommunications between her and the drivers to leave her waiting for more than an hour.

But getting from place to place is part of her daily routine. She has her own methods for completing other everyday tasks.

Jostad uses safety pins to mark her clothing. Two safety pins indicate dark-colored clothing, for example. While pouring a drink, she places her finger at the top of the glass to avoid spilling.

She can put on her makeup by feel, remembering how many strokes of mascara are needed. She uses patterns when cleaning to make sure not to miss an area. She folds bill denominations differently and puts them in specific parts of her wallet to distinguish between them.

She listens to the frying pan to determine if the food’s done. Her phone and computer convert text to audio so she can communicate.

She said she’s a lot more hands-on with everything and relies heavily on memory.

She also relies on trial and error, so if something doesn’t work, she’ll try a new method, she said.

Jostad said dealing with people’s perceptions can be challenging. She wants people to identify her as Brooke, not the blind girl.

But being blind can have its advantages, too, she said.

“You can read in the dark,” Jostad said. “You can take a dog everywhere. If you don’t know where something is, it’s a logic problem (to figure it out).”

She said she’s met great people that she wouldn’t have if she weren’t blind. She pays more attention to her other senses.

Jostad said it can be easy for blind people to decide they can’t do something or to feel discouraged socially, but she’s found that’s often baseless. She’s constantly trying to get better at things.

She enjoys running (usually on a treadmill or with someone else acting as her guide), reading, spending time with friends and family and eating dark chocolate.

She’s also passionate about getting involved in the community, which she did during her time in Waco. She helped translate Spanish to English and vice versa. She helped raise funds for charity groups, participated in clothes and food drives and counseled students at local schools.

Poverty in Waco distresses her, but she is optimistic that things will improve.

But, it’s fair to say that coming to Waco was a life-changing decision for Jostad. She made friends that she thinks will be lifelong. It’s also where she met her fiancé, Dean Bisogno.

Jostad said she has never been discouraged by her blindness.

“I don’t think it’s tough,” she said. “I think it’s a process. It can be tough if there aren’t good sidewalks.”

Garland native Connor Yearsley is scheduled to graduate from Baylor in August with a business journalism degree. He wrote this story for his magazine and feature writing class. Additions and changes were made for publication in Waco Today.

 
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