First comes hardship, then comes confidence

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Paxton stands outside wearing glasses, a brown suede jacket and a white t-shirt.Periodically, we share a transition student’s story of success. In this profile, meet Paxton Franke from Fargo. He attended NDVS/SB’s short-term programs as an elementary and high school student and graduated from Fargo’s Davies High School in 2016. Read his story and find out what advice he has for students and TVIs.

Paxton Franke has some advice for teachers of the visually impaired. “As students mature, I think TVIs should do as little as possible to help their students,” he says. This statement, he admits, is a bit controversial, but “learning to be independent is crucial for success. A student must learn to advocate, navigate, and acclimate for and within their new position in life. This lesson is a difficult one, and, in real life, can have substantial consequences, so it is best learned early and within a forgiving environment such as school. Increasing the amount of these tasks until the student is fully independent is excellent practice and will prepare them well for life.” 

Paxton, 23, has practiced what he preaches. His own TVI, Julie Anderson of Fargo, started teaching him how to advocate for himself as soon as she met him, when he was in second grade. Like any good teacher, Julie doesn’t tell her students what they need to ask for or know, she helps them figure it out on their own. “It may start by role playing with them about how to raise their hand and ask a question,” she explains. “When my students are small, I talk with them about what they need, and why they need it. I help them notice the things that make learning a bit easier, like being able to read better when the teacher writes on the board in black marker instead of green. As they feel ready, I have them ask the teacher, while I stand outside the room. Soon I don’t need to be involved, and they are taking care of their needs.” This gradual growth into independence teaches the student what they need as well as how to ask for it. By the time he graduated from high school, Paxton says, “I realized no one knew what I needed better than myself.” 

In 2nd grade, Paxton, who loved to read, started having trouble seeing the words on a page and catching balls in phy ed class. Soon, he was diagnosed with Stargardt Disease, which is a genetic condition that affects a person’s central vision. Julie knew right away that she needed to show Paxton how accommodations could help him do the things he no longer could do. 

Paxton had been in the middle of reading the Harry Potter series when he received his diagnosis, so Julie requested the large print books from the Vision Resource Center at North Dakota Vision Services/School for the Blind. “I will never forget the moment I handed him this book,” Julie says. “He looked at the title, opened the book and held it close to his eyes and exclaimed ‘I can read again!’ He held the book close to his chest and wouldn’t put it down.” That moment proved to Paxton that he could do anything his classmates could do, anything he could imagine. He just might need to do things a little differently.

Paxton has never been afraid to use the technology or accommodations that Julie or other teachers have shown him because he knows that they are simply the tools that allow him to do what he needs to do. Soon after Julie started working with him, she had him observe an older boy who used technology to access what the teacher was writing on the board, something she knew Paxton was having trouble doing. By doing this, Julie was not only showing Paxton that it was possible to see the board again, but that there were other students who needed help seeing the board as well. 

Throughout her years working with him, she had him try out all sorts of different high- and low-tech items so he would know what was available and what is possible. Paxton realizes that it’s a privilege to live during this time, when technology is so widely available and accessible to those with low vision or blindness. In college, his MacBook Pro gave him access to PDF versions of his textbooks and copies of lectures from his professors. His phone has built-in magnification and text to speech audio output. At his current job, he uses ZoomText to magnify his computer screen. All these tools have enabled him to learn, work, and play on equal footing with his classmates and colleagues. 

Paxton has also discovered the different agencies that he can ask for assistance and support. When Paxton got a job at a grocery store in high school, NDAssistive loaned him equipment that enabled him to see the numbers on the till. Also in high school, he met with Vocational Rehabilitation to find out how they work with both the student and potential employer to ensure the student is successful on the job. Support from Vocational Rehabilitation is available to any working age adult with a disability, but they are especially helpful during the transition years when a student is first figuring out their path in life. In college, the disability support services office at NDSU ensured that Paxton had equal access to the curriculum through his digital textbooks. But ultimately, it’s up to the student to know what to ask for and from whom. These agencies help people who have all types of disabilities, but Paxton himself “was uniquely informed of my specific needs,” he says, which meant he was the one who had to know what to ask for and when.

Paxton has been determined to prove to himself and to the world all that he is capable of. He graduated summa cum laude from NDSU in 2021 and is currently waiting to hear if he has been accepted to the University of North Dakota’s Medical School. While he waits, he is working as an assistant project coordinator at Aldevron, a biomanufacturing institute in Fargo. He sometimes gets questions about why his screen is so large or why his face is so close to the screen, but, thankfully, has never faced any doubt from his co-workers. And while he’s never had any employers deny his accommodations, he has experienced some skepticism about his ability. “It is easy to fall into thinking someone with a disability is less able to accomplish a task, but this bias will, of course, be amended after witnessing the hard work and success of the individual,” Paxton says. 

Paxton’s hard work has certainly turned into success and will no doubt lead to a bright future. As he looks back on his transition years, Paxton agrees that that time period was incredibly stressful, figuring out not only what he was going to do with his life but who he was going to be. His own journey, however, has given him confidence and a sense of purpose. “I believe the hardships I faced were integral to the development of my character and resilience. I am proud of my transition and the self-awareness it constructed,” he says. 

Julie witnessed that journey, sometimes a bit uncomfortably. Paxton, Julie says, “doesn’t let things stop him. He was involved in theatre while attending Davies High School. He wasn’t an actor in the play. No, he built sets and was the one who took off his shoes so he could quietly walk above the crowd in the nearly pitch-black catwalks to run the spotlight or work with special effects. He scared me to death, but if he puts his mind toward doing something, chances are very good that he will find a way to do it.” No doubt, with confidence and success.
 

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