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Mazen Basrawi Guide Dog, in Miniature Cap and Gown, Will Accompany Graduate During May 20 Final Exercises

Graduate Leaves Public Reminder of Needs Of Those Who Are Visually Impaired

May 7, 2001-- In an odd way, Mazen Basrawi’s life reflects the double major he’s crafted for himself at the University of Virginia. On the verge of earning a degree in environmental sciences and political and social thought, Basrawi has learned some political lessons while enhancing U.Va.’s environment for the visually impaired.

Legally blind since birth with a rare congenital glaucoma, Basrawi experienced difficulty finding classrooms in older University buildings because there are no Braille markings. As a member of the University’s Committee on Disability and Access, he was determined that rooms on the Lawn should have Braille markings to indicate numbers. "Before I came here, I said, ‘you’ve got to start somewhere; let’s put Braille on the Lawn.’"

He discovered that although University buildings built since 1990 have Braille room numbers, in compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act, there is a long list of accessibility needs the University has identified to complete. Placing Braille on Lawn rooms was one of scores of such projects.

So Basrawi literally took matters into his own hand; he used a handheld Braille label maker to put residents’ names and room numbers on each Lawn door. The 3/8-inch black plastic strips with the room numbers will remain after this year’s Lawn residents leave. "Having the Braille numbers permanently on the doors is a public sign that the University cares about making its facilities accessible," he said.

Working to achieve such a visible reminder of a disability would have been unthinkable to Basrawi during his early high school years. His parents, originally from Saudi Arabia, moved to Northern Virginia from Ohio when Basrawi was 11. He underwent three cornea transplants in his left eye as doctors tried to improve his limited vision. But in his freshman year at Thomas Jefferson High School, the cornea failed, and he realized his sight would permanently resemble "looking through a foggy window."

It was hard dealing with the loss of his limited sight. "I didn’t want to label myself blind; I would say I was ‘visually impaired.’ I wouldn’t carry a cane and avoided the physical appearance of being blind by wearing sun glasses," he recalled.

His parents’ divorce and a grandmother’s diagnosis of cancer added to the stress of this period. His grades slumped as he battled depression.

However, during the summer before his junior year he saw a therapist and gradually came to terms with the new realities in his life. His attitude and grades improved. In the summer before entering U.Va., he went to Guide Dogs for the Blind in San Rafael, Calif., to learn how to manage a guide dog, and in the fall of 1997, he and his dog Regan, a Labrador retriever, entered U.Va., where they lived in Brown College for three years.

Basrawi has been active in the University Judiciary Committee, serving as a first-year judge and as a counselor for three years. His role as advocate for the parties that bring cases to UJC has helped solidify his desire to be a lawyer. After graduation he plans to attend law school, where he will combine his interests in political and social thought with environmental science.

Basrawi notes with pride his work with the Jefferson Literary and Debating Society, another student organization he joined his first year. As chairman of its Pen and Ink committee, he started a major fundraising effort and created Style and Content, a magazine showcasing original works by Jefferson Society members. As president, he helped reform the organization’s constitution and encouraged more debates.

"My experience with the Jefferson Society has given me a lot of hope that someone with a disability can be respected and seen as an able leader," said Basrawi, the son of Maha Orkubi in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and Mohammed Basrawi in Beirut, Lebanon.

"Mazen's outlook on life has opened my eyes to the world around me," said fourth-year student Okan Yetik. "His unparalleled caring nature, his deep-rooted intelligence and his passion for justice set him aside from anyone I've come across. Mazen sees more in this world than I ever will, and his vision is clearer than mine can ever be."

Fluent in Arabic, Basrawi is also proud of starting MAJIC, the Muslim and Jewish Interfaith Coalition, which brought students of different backgrounds together.

He’ll graduate from U.Va. with "a distinguished, but not stellar grade-point average. As someone with a disability, I believe if you expect equal treatment from professors, you are expected to show equal work. I tend to procrastinate too much."

He has persevered successfully through his studies with help from the Learning Needs and Evaluation Center, which provided texts on tape and assisted in finding readers. His computer scans texts and converts them into speech, allowing him to read the material and highlight important passages the same way a sighted person would.

Although he confesses to being "a cat person," Basrawi concedes that his guide dog Regan has been a big help to him at U.Va. When Basrawi holds up Regan’s harness, the dog dives into it and takes his responsibilities seriously. Regan has memorized routes that Basrawi takes regularly, freeing him from giving the dog his usual "left" or "right" commands.

In four years at U.Va., including his year on the Lawn, Regan has made many friends. He became the Brown College mascot for three years, and students would often take him for a walk or a talk. "He’s a good listener," Basrawi says with a smile.

Basrawi does not think Regan’s work should go unrewarded. "I’m going to insist that he get some kind of diploma because he’s gone to every class I’ve been to. I have to get him a cap and gown for graduation."

Contact: Ida Lee Wootten, (804) 924-6857

FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: Contact the Office of University Relations at (804) 924-7116. Television reporters should contact the TV News Office at (804) 924-7550.
SOURCE: U.Va. News Services

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