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Legally Blind U. Illinois Student Helps Disabled People with Internet
April 26, 2001

By Angie Leventis
Daily Illini
U. Illinois

(U-WIRE) CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Co-workers often are surprised when they enter University of Illinois graduate student Keith Wessel's office at the Digital Computer lab -- they usually find him typing on a computer with a darkened monitor in a pitch-black office. Keith admitted he often forgets to turn on his computer screen or office lights when he is working alone.

"It freaks out some of my colleagues so much that they have to turn on the monitor," Keith said. "They say that it's just too weird."

Keith has found computer monitors and office lights unnecessary ever since his eyesight deterioration stabilized at the age of 13. Although legally blind, Keith is pursuing a master's degree in computer science at the University. He continues to use his computer talents to design diagnostic tools that help people with disabilities access the web.

GRADUALLY LOSING SIGHT

Keith said he credits many of his achievements to his supportive parents who raised him and continue to live in Urbana. Verle Wessel lost both of his eyes to cancer and his wife, Linda, is blind as well. However, neither thought they would give birth to a blind son.

Doctors have not yet determined the exact cause of Keith and Linda's blindness, but the disease is closely related to retinitis pigmentosis, a deterioration of the retina. Doctors assumed the handicap would not be passed on to Linda's child.

Verle said it "came as kind of a shock" when his baby did not follow the light pediatricians shined into his eyes.

"When Keith was first born, we didn't think too much of it," Linda said. "But when he was 5 months old, when I would hand something to him, he wouldn't always take it. It was pretty disappointing."

Keith could read normal text when he was in the first grade, but had to switch to larger print by the time he was 8 years old. When Keith was in third grade, Linda and Verle bought him a device that magnifies print. His parents taught him to read Braille shortly after.

Linda said the family did the same things most families do. She would take Keith grocery shopping as a child, often served as a room mother and taught him how to swim.

"I consider being visually impaired more of a nuisance than a disability," Linda said.

By the time Keith was in the eighth grade, his vision deterioration stabilized.

In some ways, Verle and Linda said they think their disabilities gave them an advantage when they were raising Keith.

"Keith never had to worry about us being hesitant," Verle said. "We encouraged him to take some chances along the way. He was really interested in the sciences and computers at an early age, and there's not a whole lot in that field that's accessible. Someone else might have encouraged him to do something simpler, more do-able."

Verle said he never considered the sciences an option for himself.

"As a vision-impaired person myself, what (Keith) has accomplished is amazing to me," Linda said.

Mona Heath, Keith's former boss at the Computing and Communications Service Office, finds his work amazing as well. She said he can "see" the mechanics of a computer with his hands better than she can with her eyes.

"Keith is way ahead of me in so many ways," Heath said. "He knows things by feel that most people can't see."

Technology for the visually impaired has been indispensible to Keith's career. In his office, Keith expertly stretches his fingers across the computer's keyboard. He ignores, what for him, is a useless monitor, and instead directs his attention to the black strip in front of his keyboard. The device is a refreshable Braille display. He runs his fingers across the strip as 684 different pins pop up and down, translating what most see on the screen into a language he can touch.

On the middle of his desk, as if at center stage, sits a plaque awarded to Keith at the University's recent Engineering Open House. The four years he spent as facilities director, coordinating space and equipment for the event's 200 or so exhibits, won Wessel the first Engineering Open House Lifetime Achievement Award.

"I cried when they gave me the award," he said.

'SEEING' WITHOUT EYES

Keith currently uses a white cane and his guide dog, Apollo, to help see for him.

"With a cane, you're worried about where you are," he said. "With a dog, you're worried about where you're going. The dog knows where you are."

Although Apollo may look like an ordinary German shepherd, he's very serious about his job and refuses to be distracted by petting or games. And he knows the campus better than most students, according to Keith.

To find the Digital Computer Lab, Keith only needs to say, "Let's go to work, Apollo." When Wessel calls out names of familiar campus buildings, his guide dog will take him to its entrance.

"Sometimes he knocks my socks off," Keith said. "I had to meet a friend for dinner at (Gregory Hall). It had probably been about two years since I asked Apollo to take me there, and he found it, no problem."

Keith said his daily routine is similar to those with sight. Getting dressed, however, is a little harder.

"The trick here is everything goes with blue jeans," he said.

For formal wear, he has a separate section in his closet for sport coats, pants and dress shirts. He said he can determine an article of clothing by the material's texture. He can tell the difference between a white and blue dress shirt by different tags on the back.

"But I don't get too drawn in by looks," Keith said. "That's a blessing of the shortcoming -- which makes it less of a shortcoming."

SIGHTS IN THE FUTURE

Keith plans to leave Champaign-Urbana, his home of 25 years, in July. He has accepted a position with a Michigan branch of Ford Motor Company.

"C-U is a nice town to grow up in, but I'm looking for something outside of Urbana," Keith said."I've done a lot of praying, and I'm confident that this is something that God wants me to do."

While Keith doesn't know of any blind employees at Ford, he said the prospect of working without any visually-impaired colleagues doesn't worry him; while he does not reject his disability or attempt to hide it, he also doesn't feel it is central to his character.

"I don't consider my blindness a disability; I consider it a blessing," he said. "I have a picture of the world from the perspective of a 9-year-old. When I see a lawn, I see a perfect lawn that's green and without weeds. When I see a car, it's perfect -- it's not dusty or dirty the way real cars are. I am able to see things in my mind's eye."

(C) 2001 Daily Illini via U-WIRE


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Date last modified August 5, 2001