by Melissa Sprouse
Melissa Sprouse is not my real name. I chose it a few years ago in order to make a fresh start in life. I chose the name Melissa because my real name, whenever someone uses it, brings forth unpleasant memories of yelling teachers at school, of a lonely girl who no one would talk to because of her disability, and a society that believed that because I’m blind I can’t do anything and should never be let out of sight. Going by a new name is my first step toward independence.
I am from Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE). For those who might not know, the United Arab Emirates is a country in the Middle East. I was born and raised in the UAE. According to my family, I was born and spent some of my earliest years in Dubai. I don’t remember that at all. What I do remember is growing up in Abu Dhabi. It was all right, I guess. I just remember being bored. My parents worked long hours, and my older sister went to school. Because my parents worked, they hired different kinds of nannies for us, mainly to look after me and make sure I didn’t get hurt and to give me whatever I wanted. I remember there being many nannies in my life.
Although some of my life did consist of school, the majority of it was at home with different nannies and doing whatever I could to pass the time. I had no idea there was such a thing as audio description, but luckily there were some cartoons I could understood without seeing them, like Dora the Explorer and High Five. I would watch cartoons and eat snacks. Then when my mom came home from work, she would sometimes play board games with me or read me stories, which I absolutely adored. Time passed like this for about a decade or so, then we moved to Dubai in hopes of finding something more for me in life. It still hasn’t come to fruition, but at least I’ve got a computer, a screen reader, and the Internet to connect with the world beyond.
The UAE isn’t like America. There are no schools for the blind, resource teachers who know how to work with a blind person, or other accessibility options. This means there wasn’t anyone to teach me how to use a screen reader. It’s kind of funny how I taught myself to start navigating websites and use JAWS, because at the time I wasn’t interested in trying out new things. We’d been living in Dubai for a year or so, and I had moved from watching TV all day and eating snacks to listening to the radio and stories and shows my mother found for me on YouTube. I’d also been going to a school at the time, and it was at that school where a teacher, who happened to know about the JAWS screen reader, suggested to my parents that if they bought a laptop for me, the school could install a screen reader for me to use.
So, at the time I got introduced to a screen reader I wasn’t really interested in trying it out. I had been content listening to shows and stories on YouTube and the radio, and thought that was all I needed. The adults in my life didn’t particularly encourage me to start using it, either. The teachers in my school just told my parents about it and installed it on my computer. I don’t think they actually knew how to use it, or perhaps they didn’t have time to teach me. I didn’t start using JAWS until several months after I’d gotten it.
I can’t quite recall what finally made me start using JAWS. When I first got the screen reader, I treated it as if it wasn’t even there. I still asked my mom to find stories on YouTube, and there was a show I’d been watching at the time. I would turn JAWS on for less than five minutes, trying to figure it out, getting familiar with its voice and typing out a few letters then turning it off and ignoring it once again. I don’t know what made me go on the Internet, how I did it or when (I’m pretty sure my mom had something to do with that), but what I do remember is when I finally realized that using a computer with a screen reader really wasn’t that hard. I only had to press one button (the down arrow key) and new information would be presented to me. I was so surprised by the simplicity of it that I suddenly stopped pretending that JAWS didn’t exist and began spending a lot more time with it.
I’d always been attracted to fairy tales and stories with simple narration, and I’d quickly found websites full of them. Spelling words and navigating the web was still beyond my capabilities, so I’d ask my mom or one of my teachers if they could find websites where I could read stories (which they had no problem doing), and I’d take it from there. I think my mom told me pressing the enter key on something would take me to the page I wanted and ALT-F4 would get rid of it, but learning the rest of the keys on the keyboard was a total accident. I really hadn’t intended to learn them or particularly cared about what they were used for. Somewhere while reading about all sorts of wonderful, magical fairy tales and other short stories, I’d somehow also learned how to navigate the web. I think my memory would be clearer about this had I learned using the Internet from someone else, but thinking about it now, all I can recall is just how many stories I was able to discover and how wonderful they were.
Typing is still a work in progress. I’m far better at it than I was when I first started getting on the Internet, but I’ve still got a ways to go. For instance, I don’t type in the conventional way (the way where you place four fingers of your right and left hand on the home row keys, with your thumbs on the spacebar) because there wasn’t anyone to tell me that’s how you do it. I also taught myself to type haltingly (because I had to continue finding more and more stories to read), and as a result my fingers are all over the place when I type. I’m not particularly bothered about that because I wasn’t a fan of it in the first place. I was far more enchanted by my screen reader reading to me. You’d think my interest in typing would grow if I’d been using a computer long enough, but it did improve over the seven or so years since I earnestly started using a computer. Two things helped with that: socializing and school (in that order). Using punctuation in a way others would understand and putting words in the correct order to make a sentence came from my love of reading, while spelling words was mainly learned from asking others and Google.
School was pretty good for the first couple years. I went to one where they taught me how to read and write in braille, and I also remember doing basic math and science. There was also PE, art, and music, all of which were blind-friendly. There were also plenty of field trips throughout the year, which I enjoyed immensely. However, all those things stopped after second grade, where my parents were informed that the school was closing down, and then my education was all over the place. I spent the majority of my childhood at home passing the time as best I could while being intermittently bounced from one school to another, so as a result my days in school would see me sitting in class just listening to the teacher and not doing much else. How could I participate and learn when everything was visual? No one knew what to do with me or how to teach me, so I was just left to sit somewhere while my peers gained knowledge, made friends and had fun. I wasn’t bullied for my disability, however.
Things continued in that fashion until 2019, where I had been enrolled in yet another school and failed to assimilate with my peers, unable to understand the visual ways in which most subjects were being taught. I had had enough. I dropped out after completing my first semester of junior year and was on the hunt for an online school. Yet another year passed at home while I tried to convince my parents to give this kind of education a chance. They were reluctant because they’d never heard of it. But they also hated seeing me so unhappy, so they kept me at home while they deliberated. Last year, my father found a school that was not only fully virtual, but they also took me in senior year, so I only had to attend classes for about seven months, then I would finally be done with high school forever!
I am incredibly glad to note that I will be receiving my diploma in July. I do have plans of going to college, but before I do that, I need to learn how to become an independent adult, live my own life and make my own decisions, because where I’m at right now really wouldn’t help me in college without another adult who would be responsible for looking after me and holding my hand like my parents have been doing all these years. I don’t want that anymore. So I will be looking into some training centers outside of Dubai, because so many negative things have happened to me here. It’s high time I left all these unpleasant memories behind to find a more positive future. It’s the only way I can move on and finally be happy.