English instructor Andy Cooper lectures his English 201 class Friday. Cooper lost his eyesight at age 31 due to Type 1 diabetes. Now 52, he’s been teaching at George Mason University for 24 years. Photo By Gregory Connolly.

English instructor Andy Cooper lectures his English 201 class Friday. Cooper lost his eyesight at age 31 due to Type 1 diabetes. Now 52, he’s been teaching at George Mason University for 24 years. Photo By Gregory Connolly

Upon reaching the front of the classroom, he feels for the wall with his white cane, then lays it at the edge of the floor. He finds the corner of his table and sets down his backpack. A few seconds later, he pulls up the sleeve of his striped flannel shirt and presses a button on his watch. “Two twenty-nine p.m.,” a female voice speaks.

“All right, it’s probably about time to get started,” he says to his class, as a few more students settle into their seats in Room 1007 of the West Building.

It is Friday, and Andy Cooper’s English 201 class is beginning their unit on poetry.

“How poetry sounds is very important,” he tells his class. “Much more important than how it looks.”

Cooper has been teaching for 27 years, all but three of which have been at George Mason University. Now 52, he lost his eyesight at age 31 due to Type 1 diabetes.

“You’re supposed to have your retinas examined when you have diabetes, and I did,” Cooper said. “And the doctors told me, ‘We’ll keep an eye on this,’ so I tended not to worry about it. Then one day, I’m in for a retinal exam, and they say, ‘Wow, you have retinopathy.’”

This meant that Cooper’s retinas were becoming damaged and he needed laser treatments. When he went in for the first one, he found that the doctor used poor technique and was not very experienced, making the procedure almost unbearable.

“[He] would focus the laser very carefully and fire a blast, and I’d see this bright flash. Then he’d take a number of seconds to do it again. It was like torture,” Cooper said.

One night, he was having severe pain in his left eye and was admitted to the emergency room at George Washington University Hospital.
By the time he was seen by a doctor, he was vomiting due to the intensity of the pain. The normal internal pressure of an eye is about 15 millimeters of mercury, but the pressure in Cooper’s eye had reached 80.

“My eye was like a rock,” he said.

Cooper was diagnosed with neovascular glaucoma, a condition in which the growth of new blood vessels hinders the flow of fluid to the front of the eye. In the morning, he underwent an emergency trabeculectomy, having part of his iris removed to allow fluid to drain from the eye. The surgery was unsuccessful.

Over the next couple years, Cooper lost vision in both eyes. He has since undergone several eye surgeries.

“That’s the short version of the story – to say that I’ve had over a dozen surgeries on my eyes. One after another, sometimes. Pretty bad stuff. I’ve had a lot of pain, I’ll tell you. I’ve had a lot of pain.”

“It’s not supposed to be read off the page,” Cooper continues about poetry. “It’s meant to be heard.”

As he speaks, he traces his way around the table and sits down on it, facing the class. A few moments later, a gust of autumn wind blows through the window near his table, rattling the blinds. Cooper pauses, looks in the direction of the window, then resumes his lecture.

Several minutes later, it happens again.

“Can someone please close that window?” Cooper asks with a smile. “It’s kind of distracting to the speaker.”

A student in the front row walks over and closes the window.

“Thanks,” Cooper says.

Prior to losing his eyesight, Cooper was already teaching English as an adjunct at Mason. He thought his teaching career had come to an end, but after just one semester away, then-chairman of the English department Chris Thaiss called Cooper and asked if he would like to resume teaching.

“I said yes, I want to come back!” Cooper said. “I was really surprised they offered. It wasn’t like I had to ask them and fight [for it].”

Though he had Thaiss’s support, Cooper found that he had to work much harder than before. For about two semesters, volunteers including Cooper’s parents and neighbors read him essays and put in corrections that he requested verbally.

Cooper knew that he had to find a way to become more independent. It was too tedious for volunteers to read him everything.

But the transition to self-sufficiency was not easy. Cooper had to tussle with the university to get Job Access With Speech, a screen-reading program designed for the visually impaired. At first, Mason only agreed to install JAWS at a school computer.

“I said no, that’s not good enough. Everybody else can grade papers at home. Why not me? You’re going to make me work at school for eight hours a day and take up a computer, too? That’s not cool.”

The school finally installed JAWS on Cooper’s home computer, but that was the first and last time they did so.

“I haven’t asked them for it since, because I hated that fight so much. I just spend the money myself now. Sometimes you get sick of fighting. After a certain expenditure of energy and frustration, you pick your battles really carefully.”

Learning JAWS was another struggle for Cooper. The Virginia Department for the Blind and Visually Impaired refused to provide the training they initially promised, so he had to learn it on his own alongside a busy teaching schedule. It took him about a year to become proficient.

“It is not that big a deal to learn it on your own, as long as you are not getting used to mobility and other methods of living and working all at the same time,” he said.

Though the software is not a complete solution, it has become a bigger aide to Cooper than Braille and audio recordings, which have to be specially printed or recorded. JAWS allows him to read and write documents, calculate grades in Excel and browse the Internet.

“I wouldn’t say I could look up things as easily as a sighted person … [but] having good instincts and training helps make up for the deficiencies that you suffer because you can’t operate the graphics or find the icon.”

His third semester back, Cooper started developing a marking system for grading papers that students submit via e-mail. It began with the use of French braces, but now consists of three symbols: French braces for comments or suggestions, square brackets for omission and angle brackets for corrections or recommended changes.

“It doesn’t take long to develop shortcuts when you’re walking the long way around,” he said. “You start looking for a shortcut immediately. That’s the way life is.”

The marking system was initially difficult for students to understand, but after some adjustments, Cooper said it has become easy to follow.

“I went to the Garden of Love, And saw what I never had seen; A Chapel was built in the midst, Where I used to play on the green. …” Cooper is reciting William Blake’s “The Garden of Love.”

Afterward, he asks his students to identify themes in the poem, trying to spark a discussion.

“We’re sort of here to analyze [the poem], and you know, we don’t want to kill it. We don’t want to say … ‘Here’s what you’re supposed to know about this poem.’ I don’t want to do that,” he says with a chuckle. “I want it to still be a good poem by the time we finish with it.”

This semester, Cooper is teaching two sections of English 201. The English department requires him to have a student aide for his classes.

Tera Reid, a graduate student in English literature, is Cooper’s aide in his 2:30 p.m. class. Her responsibilities include attending class, keeping track of student participation and grading quizzes via phone conferences with Cooper.

By working with Cooper this semester, Reid said she has learned that there is no significant difference between blind and sighted instructors.
“I walk with Professor Cooper to class or to the Finley Building for his ride, but those are the only differences,” Reid said. “And even then, who hasn’t walked with a professor to discuss a class or a particular lesson plan from time to time?”

Cooper has had to fight for accommodations at Mason, but he said it probably would have been the same had he worked elsewhere.
“All blind people have to struggle to keep themselves employed and to get their rights and privileges,” he said.

For Cooper, having the support of the English department has helped ease some of the hardship, and being able to engage students in discussions about literature makes all the troubles worthwhile.

“You can show them all sorts of cool things about literature and how it works,” he said. “Show them that they can understand it. It’s a thrill. It really is.”