Story and photos by Mitch Ryals, RyalsM@missouri.edu
March 3, 2014
“Oh my gosh if you say ‘say’ instead of ‘suh’ one more time I’m going to scream,” says Professor Ann Harrell from the piano bench in her office.
“It’s pronounced ‘suh’?” Julie McGinnity asks, smiling.
“Yes. Try again.”
McGinnity, 23, runs her fingers over a white music sheet, and Harrell begins playing from where she left off. McGinnity had been pronouncing the French word “se” incorrectly. This time, she gets it right.
About five feet two inches tall with blond-ash hair that hangs past her waist in a ponytail, the soprano is neither soft-spoken nor tender footed. Rather, she walks and talks with poise and self-confidence.
Harrell coached McGinnity during the 2013 fall semester to prepare six songs for a jury performance — the final grade for a voice lesson class, a requirement for a master’s in vocal performance.
Harrell continues to play the bare bones melody of Air Champetre, one of the songs from Air Chantes by Francis Poulenc, at a slower pace than the composer intended. It’s a tough one, McGinnity admits, especially when you don’t speak French. With Harrell’s direction McGinnity pronounces the word correctly, but the song isn’t quite performance ready yet. At her final performance during finals week last December, the jury graded her based on musical accuracy, physical performance such as posture, tone quality and pronunciation of the language being sung.
Professor Harrell is no nonsense. When McGinnity tilts her chin back and scrunches her shoulders up toward her neck while she sings, Harrell firmly reminds her to relax. When McGinnity overuses the muscles in her stomach, the muscles that control her breath, Harrell sighs.
“Breathe with an open throat. Relax your tongue,” she says. She places her hand on McGinnity’s stomach while she sings to remind her. Sustain your breath. Breathe for the phrase, she tells McGinnity. Tension is bad. Singing should be effortless, or at least appear effortless.
Professor Harrell is honest in her critiques and blunt in her delivery of them. That’s important to McGinnity. She doesn't want her vision loss to determine how she's treated. To someone without vision impairment, any loss of sight might seem an impossible hurdle. Simple tasks such as crossing the street, preparing dinner and doing homework are unfathomable without fully functioning eyes. McGinnity is used to this notion. She was born with glaucoma, a genetic disease that causes pressure and swelling in the eyes and can limit vision along a continuum of a little to completely. McGinnity has some vision in her right eye but none in her left. She can see colors and faces if they’re close enough but can’t really make out facial features. Bright light helps, too.
In addition to graduate classes, homework and her job at the Adaptive Computing and Technology Center, McGinnity sings periodically at Bethel Church and holds so many positions with the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) that her email signature spans nine lines (including one Bible verse). NFB, the largest and oldest blind membership organization, advocates for the civil rights of blind Americans and works to develop educational tools and programs to help the blind and those with limited vision become successful.
“Because like, I’m not amazing. I just do my homework and go to class and hang out with my friends.”
In mid-February, she and other NFB members traveled to Jefferson City, Mo. to present a legislative agenda that, among other changes, would amend the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) to require voting locations to provide nonvisual accessible voting booths at federal, state and local elections. Currently, HAVA only provides nonvisual accessible voting booths at federal elections. Her overall goal in working with the NFB is to erase ignorance and oppression of the blind.
At a crosswalk, for example, she might feel the tug of an unexpected arm against her own. “It’s one thing to ask because I can always say no,” she says. “But when a stranger pulls me across the street without asking first, that’s not OK.”
After she earned her undergraduate degree, an article about her academic achievements (magna cum laude and degrees in vocal performance and German just to name a few) framed them (and her) as “extraordinary” because of her blindness.
“Everyone who knows me probably just read it and shook their heads,” McGinnity says. “Because like, I’m not amazing. I just do my homework and go to class and hang out with my friends.”
One of the most upsetting examples of discrimination she encountered, though, happened before her undergraduate graduation from a different university. Every year, the big performance for vocal performance majors is an opera scene. Her freshman through junior years, McGinnity was given a part in the chorus or other minor parts, which was disappointing but understandable. She was just learning to read Braille music, and her stage experience wasn’t great. Senior year, the students performed a scene from a Russian opera called Iolanta by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. McGinnity was elated to be cast as the title character until she got home. Iolanta is a blind princess who is unaware of her blindness through out most of the opera.
When she asked why she was typecast, a professor said it was necessary to cast her as Iolanta because they didn’t have time to work with her, and they wanted to put on a good performance for the university. McGinnity felt as though she didn’t belong in the world of vocal performance, couldn’t pursue her dream lest her blindness be accommodated for. Nevertheless, the performance went smoothly, and McGinnity used the experience as a reminder of why her work with the NFB is so important.
As the voice lesson continues in Harrell’s office, Brie promptly plops herself down in the middle of the room and falls asleep with her head resting on McGinnity’s feet as she sings. She starts to snore. Brie (like the cheese) has been McGinnity’s guide dog since she was a senior at Lindbergh High School in St. Louis five and a half years ago. Now she’s entering her second semester as a master’s student studying vocal performance.
After the lesson, McGinnity and Brie head for the Fine Arts Annex. She has some questions about an upcoming music theory assignment.
As she steps out of Harrell’s office, she taps the middle of her iPhone twice. It reads her a comment a friend left on her Facebook status. She taps it again, and it tells her the time.
“Good, I’m not late,” she says.
“To the stairs, please.” No one moves. “Brie, to the stairs,” she says. Brie obeys somewhat begrudgingly and stops at the top of three flights of stairs. McGinnity stops, too.
“Forward, please.” Brie moves slowly down the stairs with McGinnity. They go through the same routine at the top of each flight, though the two have been together so long, like an old married couple, commands aren’t entirely necessary.
Brie is now 7 ½ years old, and she’s been guiding McGinnity for almost six. Recently, her guiding has been slipping. Her pace has slowed down considerably; she’s often tired and sometimes needs to be told twice.
“She’s a diva,” McGinnity says fittingly of a dog that sometimes accompanies her on stage. As the duo leave the Fine Arts Building to get to the Fine Arts Annex by way of Hitt Street, Brie pulls them both left to a stone wall outside.
“I used to sit here and eat lunch sometimes when it was warm,” McGinnity says. Whenever they pass it, she wants to sit down — another sign she’s nearing the end of her career. McGinnity pulls Brie toward the crosswalk, and Brie obliges.
“Heel,” McGinnity commands with loving sternness. Heel means Brie is at her left side and facing the way she’s facing. Brie obeys.
“To the curb,” she says. “Brieby, to the curb, please,” she repeats. Again, Brie obeys. Slowly she brings them both to where Lowry Mall’s red bricks meet the black pavement and stops. “Forward.” Once in the crosswalk, Brie picks up her normal meandering pace to a slight trot. McGinnity feels the harness pull and increases her pace as well. “Good girl, Brie,” she says.
Safely across the street, Brie continues walking toward Memorial Union. “Left, left, leeeft,” McGinnity sings pulling Brie’s harness.
Inside the Fine Arts Annex, she fires questions at her music theory professor, Dr. William Lackey. Again, Brie promptly falls asleep. Soon McGinnity realizes she’s missing some assigned reading material necessary for the upcoming final exam, which is unusual. “Mizzou is really good about getting me materials in Braille,” she says. “As long as I submit the request a week or so in advance.” McGinnity also has an embosser in her apartment, which is basically a Braille printer.
When McGinnity was first accepted to MU, she contacted the Office of Disability Center right away to begin setting up a plan for getting access to her course materials. There are 28 students with a vision impairment enrolled in the 2014 spring semester. Each one meets with Disability Center to set up an individual plan for gaining access to course materials.
Disability Center works closely with MU's Adaptive Computing Technology (ACT) Center to provide access for McGinnity and other students with vision impairments. The ACT Center does individual assessments with students to determine their needs for screen reading programs, text magnification software, larger monitors and any other adaptive needs a student might have.
“It’s on a case-by-case basis,” says Cate Cooper, access advisor for Disability Center. Each student meets with the offices several times to make plans for access to course materials. But, she adds, the earlier the student contacts her the better. Sometimes it can take months to get materials transcribed and converted.
Life without Brie
At the start of the 2014 spring semester, for the first time since high school, McGinnity is dogless. Brie’s slower pace meant it was finally time to retire after five and a half years. The biggest change to McGinnity’s life, though, is not navigating Columbia. It’s her routine. She no longer packs a Ziploc bag full of brown dog food and a bowl every morning for Brie’s lunch. Regular bathroom breaks outside are no longer necessary, and when she kicks a dog toy across the floor in her apartment the yellow dog that normally pounces on it isn’t there.
As she approaches the stairs, her cane runs into the bottom step. She then taps it on the second step to gauge the steepness.
Her trips to and from campus and between classes are a little quicker now, but she has to adjust to different cues. As she leaves her final class one frigid February afternoon, her cane taps against the tile floor and on each side of the door frame as she walks through. As she approaches the stairs, her cane runs into the bottom step. She then taps it on the second step to gauge the steepness. Outside, McGinnity scrapes her cane across the concrete sidewalk. It moves from just outside her left foot to just outside her right.
Crossing a street isn’t much different without Brie either. A common misconception is that guide dogs tell their owners when to cross. That’s incorrect.
“You have to know when to cross the street,” McGinnity says. “You cross with parallel traffic. The only difference is if there was a car turning in front of me, Brie would see it and slow down.”
Retirement looks good on Brie. She spends her days napping and chasing cats around McGinnity’s mom’s house in St. Louis. McGinnity calls about every other day to check on her, and in June she will travel to Yorktown Heights, N.Y. to train with a new dog. During the training, McGinnity and her new guide will navigate through rural, suburban and urban settings, including some time in New York City on subways and busy streets before returning to Columbia.
Until she trains with a new dog, McGinnity will use a cane to get around Columbia — a skill she hasn’t used regularly since high school. Connie Pack, COMS-Mobility Instructor for Rehabilitation Services for the Blind, helped her get used to the transition from dog cues to cane cues and identify landmarks that will her orient herself.
“Landmarks are objects or a configuration of objects that are fixed, identifiable visually, aurally or tactilely and unique to the area,” Pack says. “For example if a person with limited or no vision needs to locate a certain room (and knows it’s next to an elevator) he or she might be able to feel for the elevator with their long cane or hear the sounds of the doors opening and closing.”
If you were to ask McGinnity what she wants to do after school, she might sigh and groan a little bit. She knows she wants to educate the public and erase destructive stereotypes of blind people. She knows she wants to sing, and she knows she wants to teach at a university. Maybe she’ll get a Ph.D., go on a couple auditions, travel a little bit, but for now she’s happy being just Julie.