Legally blind student uses memorization to navigate campus
Brandon Hahs will tell you getting knocked down is a part of life, but getting back up is all that matters.
Hahs is a sophomore at Southeast double majoring in history and English writing, and he has been affected by vision loss for most of his life.
He had full vision as a small child, but then things changed. The pressure of excess brain fluid would require a surgically inserted medical device at 9 months old. The device was successful at redirecting brain fluid for several years, but then it failed when he was 5.
“One day I came home from preschool, and I couldn’t see the couch,” he said.
Hahs said the medical device had been compromised. The resulting pressure damaged the nerves that transmit imagery from the eye to the brain. He said he can see about three feet in front of him on a good day, but it is almost impossible to read print without using massive font.
He learned the Braille alphabet in kindergarten and the 186 Braille contractions after that. He mastered the Braille codes for reading music, Spanish and two types of mathematics before graduating high school. He is currently learning German.
Two of the primary tools he uses everyday are a cane and a BrailleNote — a computer for people with visual impairment that costs anywhere from $4,000 to $6,000.
“If you want blind technology, it’s going to cost you,” he said. “They’re selling to a small market; the more accessible it is, the more expensive it gets,” he said.
“Becoming blind helped me a lot,” he said. “At first, the question you ask is ‘why.’ After that, you can get over it. Once you get over it, you can go on with your life, and you strive to be better.”
Hahs said he has found both Southeast and the Counseling and Disability Services to be highly accessible.
“The professors are really helpful,” he said. “I have to get my stuff in Braille so they send it to my paraprofessional, who gets it embossed a week early. They’re almost always on time.”
He said he sometimes calls his paraprofessional his “second mom.” The university hired her from Jackson High School when Hahs started classes last fall, but the two have been together for nearly 14 years.
Hahs said he will be visiting Germany this winter on a university-sponsored trip, Disability Services is paying for a sighted guide to accompany him.
Hahs called memorization a key to being successful: it is useful for routes to class or grabbing a drink from the coolers at Rowdy’s, but also necessary for things like playing chart music on his clarinet. His only trouble in navigating campus, he said, is silent cars.
“Bad things are going to happen,” Hahs said. “Whenever you get knocked down you’re going to stay down for a bit. You’re going to be afraid or you might pity yourself, but you have to overcome it or it’s going to ruin your life.”
Hahs’ goal is to become a college-level English professor.
“I like the creativity of writing. I also like reading what others come up with and critiquing it,” he said. “It would be pretty cool to help others hone their skills in writing.”
He said his latest work of fiction is a space exploration story featuring a protagonist who is legally blind.
“You guys like to focus on visual things, but that’s not as important to me,” he said. “I focus more on hearing and feeling, so it's sort of a different take.”