The 24 year old FAU Grad Student who proved everyone wrong

Ryan Cortes

Elaine Bedard was one trimester into her pregnancy when doctors suggested an abortion.

The first-time mother had the flu and heard news that floored her. Doctors said she had something called cytomegalovirus, found in 1 percent of pregnancies. It could damage her unborn child and doctors warned against proceeding with the pregnancy.

No, she said.

Bedard went into labor soon after with a daughter born 20 weeks early, the edge of viability as doctors call it. Then Ann Marie Bedard came out, four and a half months premature and covered in embryonic fluid and doubt.

“They told me she would never walk, never talk and have severe mental retardation,” Bedard says.

The doctors were wrong.

Little Ann Marie would be in the hospital the next four months fighting for life. At two months old she was two pounds. “I could fit her in the palm of my hands,” her mom says. Her life on the line, surgery was needed for detached retinas in both eyes.

Doctors transported her to another hospital in an ambulance. There were no clothes small enough to fit, so mom raced to Toys “R” Us and bought doll clothes to keep her warm.

Her left eye went completely blind. The right eye was salvaged — with 20/400 vision, her eyesight so ravaged, one word at a time can be seen with a powerful magnifying glass.

It would be enough. More than enough.

Ann Marie Bedard can’t stop smiling.

It’ a cloudy day out, and a rainstorm awaits. With cuts to summer schedules and the natural extinction of a senior class, campus looks and feels empty. Sad. Lonely.

But Bedard? She has another world to show me.

“Just follow me back here,” she beams. I’m in the Office of Students with Disabilities (the OSD office) and I don’t know my way around.

Up ahead, Bedard is putting her bag in a cubby hole, her’s the one on the top right, and she starts to make her way toward the computer lab.

“Oh, I can show you how I use the scanner!” she says.

It’s your standard computer lab from afar — there are rows of desktops, printers here, scanners there, students seated haphazardly — but it’s not. The lab has 13 computers, a machine called a Kurzweil 300, a software that reads entire books out loud. It can cost up to $1,395 and it’s free at OSD.

Bedard’s off and moving again, her cane guiding her to a 52’’ computer monitor where she sits down and hammers the keyboard. A computer generated voice is spitting words back at us — too fast for me to even understand — and up on the screen pops the login page to MyFAU.

How can you understand the voice? I ask her.

“I can understand it pretty well,” she says. “I’m, like, used to it.”

For the last decade, Bedard’s been using a program called JAWS, which reads aloud any site or screen put in front of it. It allows her to sign in, send emails and create Word documents and —

Hold on.

The voice is talking again and I can’t understand. How fast is that voice? What’s the fastest she can comprehend it on?

She tells me the voice reader goes from 1-100. She starts it on 1, showing the painful and tedious process that is listening to a computer generated Boca grandmother. And then she cranks it up — to 90.

It is hard to understand the computer generated Boca auctioneer. It is the pace she’s most comfortable with.

Bedard shows me her document for class — it’s a long document, pages and pages long — and she furiously punches keys until she gets to number 26, the next question needing an answer. She stops, listens, thinks. And starts hammering away again. Answered.

The two stages which apply to babies and toddlers are trust vs. mistrust and autonomy vs. shame and guilt.

She looks up.

“I’m just gonna run the spell check real quick,” Bedard says.

It’s perfect. There’s no need.

***

Outside the OSD office, the pesky rain has made its presence known. It’s bothersome to Bedard, but she laughs at the notion the blind have a supernatural ability to predict rainfall because of heightened senses.

“I don’t know if it’s going to clear up or what outside,” she says smiling.

The rain’s starting to come down harder and so the steps are quicker, the importance of reaching cover more important.

If, hypothetically, you had to get to the gym right now, I ask her, how would you know where to go?

“I know I would go straight that way, and then at the Breezeway I would turn left and I would keep going straight and I could hear the music and the gym would be on my right and —”

Bedard cuts herself off after bumping into a blood drive sign in front of the Student Union.

“I don’t like it when these things are here!” she says. “I can easily bump into it and it’s always somewhere else.”

She’s been a student at FAU since 2006, having already completed a degree in social work, now trying for her master’s in the same subject. She’s even a face of the university, calling her proudest moment of life graduating from FAU, President Mary Jane Saunders mentioning her for all to hear: “If you ever see a young woman walking through campus with a cane,” President Saunders said, “that’s Ann Marie.” Despite that, she is often demonized by the dubious.

“Some people when they see me,” she says, “think I can’t do anything for myself.”

Among some of the oddest questions and comments she’s received:

“The other day in the SO building, this guy came up and said, ‘It’s incredible. I have to give you credit for getting around here.’”

“One time I was at the [FAU Bank Atlantic] bank with my friend, and the teller goes and asks my friend ‘Does she know her Social Security number?’ Like I can’t even speak.”

“One of the workers at the cafeteria, she said, ‘Oh, can you get ready and take a shower? Who helps you shower?’”

She deals with the spectacle daily, someone new asking something old, over and over again.

And yet, once again, Ann Marie Bedard can’t stop smiling.

***

“Last week, my roommate moved the sponge and it freaked me out,” Bedard says. “I couldn’t find it for almost an hour.”

And with that, Bedard is off to show me her dorm room.

While we’re walking, she notices something off with her feet. Her right foot feels sticky when it hits the ground, not her left, and she knows why.

“Oh my god,” she says, “The bottom of my shoe came off.”

Her right foot has just a thin layer of support under it now, but she smiles and keeps walking. Bedard admits she walks fast — she gets told it often enough — but the missing heel is enough to slow her down. Some.

“Hey Ann Marie, how are you doing darling?” FAU police Lieutenant Larry Ervin calls out.

“Hi!” Bedard says. “I’m doing wonderful!”

It took her until nearly the end of high school to accept her disabilities, arms spread wide, smile spread larger. She remembers having to take the FCAT as a child and passing the math section with flying colors. No problem. She also remembers failing the reading section.

Mainly because she answered precious few questions.

If she squints hard enough, she can use a powerful magnifying glass and hold it up to a screen or a book and read one oversized word at a time. Because of this, by the time she’d read enough to answer questions, time was up on the FCAT. So she cried and considered herself a failure.

She takes 15 more steps.

“Ann Marie, how are you?” another student calls out.

“Oh, I’m great!” she says. “How is everything with you?”

Her mom, who was an ESE specialist at Pines Charter High, talked the school into a compromise, and it came to be that Bedard took both the ACT and SAT, and passed both, to make up for a flawed system that failed her for a reading test. “Sometimes,” she says, “it takes me awhile to read something. But it doesn’t mean I can’t understand it.”

We reach the front of IVA, and Bedard pulls out her Owl Card and begins swiping the air furiously. After each miss, she moves her left hand just slightly over. She knows she’s close.

The third swipe hits the card reading machine and a clicking noise is made. “I know it’s ready to open once it makes that sound,” Bedard says before yanking on the big metal handle.

She walks toward the end of the hallway, stops at the door for the stairs and pushes through. There will be no use of elevators here.

***

I’m in Room 239 of IVA North and the apartment is uncommonly neat. There is no TV in the living room, no clothes on the floor, no dirt, no dust.

“Oh my gosh,” Bedard says. “I’m sorry about the dishes. My roommate must have left them.” There are two empty cups laying turned over on the sink.

The bathroom counter has one cup sitting on it — a red and white coffee mug plastered with hearts — and in that sits nothing but a blue and grey toothbrush with a tube of Colgate. Her closet has two shirts hung up on it and three pairs of shoes waiting to be walked in.

“Come look at my TV!” she says. “Let me show you.”

She keeps the entire apartment in meticulous order. One drawer with a brush, conditioner and deodorant. Another with a handful of perfumes.

Every morning Bedard wakes up at 7:00 and listens to Good Morning America on her black Sanyo monitor. “I like Criminal Minds and CSI too,” she says. “But I’m, like, never here.” That is because she’s out by 8:00 every morning, on her way to the OSD office until she has class.

“This is the tea that I make,” she says. “And I throw the tea bags in here and make it.”

Up above sits a microwave. Three green stickers are on it, one each affixed to the 1, 0 and Start buttons. It allows her to feel for the correct button — she has a lot to heat up.

“My mom, she’s so cute,” Bedard says. “She cooks food for me and freezes it every week.”

Bedard’s mother put her through early intervention programs. She refused to let disabilities damage a day.

“This came out of nowhere,” Bedard says. “Before I went to sleep last night, I listened to this song and had a dream I met Enya. She’s an artist, like really peaceful music. Actually, I can play one for you.”

Bedard pulls out a white, fourth generation iPod and feels her way with it until she hits her boombox, sitting it on the dock. She presses the forward button and goes through 15, 20 songs until she finds the one she wants.

“Oh, here’s Enya!” she says.

Bedard’s swaying in her chair, mesmerized by melodies. Her iPod has over 500 songs on it, and without an easy way to separate her music (“I can’t really see the screen,” she jokes), Bedard literally clicks through song after song until she finds the one she wants.

Throughout the conversation Bedard is always looking in the right direction while answering. Finally, I ask her how. What does she see?

“I can see shadows, and I can tell you’re there,” she says. “I think you have a dark shirt on, maybe black, but I can’t tell if you’re fat or skinny, or what you really look like. It’s hard.”

Our photographer is standing maybe three feet away.

“Oh, I can’t see her,” Bedard says. “What kind of hair does she have? Can I feel it?”

And with that, Bedard is giggling and grabbing.

“Oh wow,” she says. “It’s thick. Thicker than my hair.”

***

On top of her big drawer, next to the black Sanyo, is a little grey box. It’s a sleep sound machine and it makes noises — like heavy rain falling, beach waves, rainforests — and she uses it every night. Her preferred sounds to fall asleep to? Crickets and birds.

It’s not that time, though. Bedard has to make her way back to the OSD office — she has class tomorrow and needs to print out her paper in advance.

“If I don’t get an A or B then I freak,” she says.

And so, with her departure near, she’s asked about her big plans. The one thing on her bucket list — above making A’s and completing her masters — she absolutely needs to accomplish.

“I want to learn how to drive,” she says. “Before I die.”

Bedard may never fulfill that dream in the way she wants, but this, this is inarguable.

She’s driven.