by Donna W. Hill
Reprinted from Tutorspree Blog.
(Editor's Note: Donna W. Hill is a songwriter, recording artist, journalist and avid knitter. Learn about her novel, "The Heart of Applebutter Hill," and how she's using it to promote braille literacy at www.DonnaWHill.com.)
Blind Or Sighted?
In 1955, I became the first legally blind student in Pennsylvania's Easton Area School District. My brother and I were born with retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative retinal disease. RP starts with night blindness and tunnel vision and leads to total blindness. At the time, people with disabilities were discouraged from participating in society. At best, we were good-deed opportunities. At worst, we were exploited without fear of repercussions.
Compared to other disabilities, blindness is relatively rare. People fear the unfamiliar. Families were advised to place their blind children in residential schools; keeping them at home would destroy the family. Aware of these realities, my mother refused to admit that we were legally blind. We just had "bad eyes."
My parents believed we were just as good as anyone else, deserved to live at home and attend school with our peers. The schools, however, weren't prepared for us. They didn't understand the nuances of vision loss. You were either blind or sighted. If you could see anything, you should "use your eyes." In other words, we were to read print and get around as best as we could. Braille, the white cane, and special needs tutors were never discussed. My parents, like many others, assumed the professionals knew best.
Out of Left Field
Initially, my remaining vision and the minimal demands of early elementary school allowed me to fake my way through. At the end of second grade, however, my teacher could no longer stand watching me struggle. When I walked into walls, fell down steps or stumbled over things that were below my line of sight, I could hold back the tears. But when Mrs. Rose took away my workbook, I was inconsolable.
The full impact of her actions wouldn't hit home until I started third grade. I was to report to an out-of-the-way first-floor classroom by the nurse's office. This alarmed me; the third-grade classrooms were on the second floor. When my classmates reported that they were in every grade but third, I got really scared. Gradually, I learned that we were in "special class" — a dozen students with sensory, social and developmental deficits, one teacher and a huge play area.
The large-print book I received was a slap in the face. It was the text I had in first grade. Larger print, to the puzzlement of the adults, didn't help. With a severely restricted visual field and damage to my central vision, I could barely see one word at a time in regular print. Large print was worse. The other problems — needing to be right on top of the page and losing my place when clouds passed over — went unchanged.
Well, I'd just apply myself and finish the first-grade book. She'd have to give me the next one, and soon I'd have the third-grade text. But each day, when I finished my assignment and asked for another, the teacher said the same thing: "You may go and play with the blocks if you wish." I didn't wish, but she insisted.
Frustration soon morphed into despair.
Someone to Stand Up for Me
An eye-doctor appointment in Philadelphia that October brought things to a head. Dr. Spaeth knew I loved school and had done well despite my vision. When he asked how third grade was going and received a less than enthusiastic response, he questioned my parents.
"They've placed her in special class," said my father.
"She doesn't like it," my mother added.
"Special class?" he bellowed. "This child doesn't have a problem with her mind; she has a problem with her eyes."
He ordered my parents to go to the school and insist that I be placed in a regular class. He concluded, "If they don't remove her from that class, I'll come up there and remove her myself."
Compromises and Consequences
The buoyant relief I felt in the presence of Dr. Spaeth's support was short-lived. My new teacher wasn't pleased to have a student with bad eyes in her class. She yelled at the girl behind me for reading the test questions from the blackboard to me, and she laughed with the bullies.
As the years passed, no other teacher treated me that badly, but my vision worsened and the homework increased. Friends were friends only when no one else was around. I escaped through writing and playing piano. After five years of lessons, however, I could no longer see the music well enough to memorize it. With no other options, I quit.
Junior high brought an increase in the bullying. When I finally snapped, I landed in the principal's office. As the workload grew and my vision deteriorated, I had to prioritize; English and science were in; history and math fell by the wayside. Despite these compromises, I had massive headaches at night and started each morning in the girls' room sick to my stomach.
Me vs. the Naysayers
So, how did I survive? Hope? No, hopes get dashed. Willpower? Willpower falters. Both are too easily influenced by external realities.
Teachers, students and even total strangers regularly felt the need to inform me of the bleak prospects for my future. I would never be able to go to college, live away from my parents, bake a cake or hold down a job. Even love was pre-ordained to be beyond my capabilities — all because I didn't gather visual information like "normal" people.
Simply put, I didn't want these prognosticators to be right. I often thought that they probably were right, but I didn't want them to be. There's a difference. The outside world couldn't change that fact. I couldn't change it either, and I couldn't pretend that I didn't know it.
Too many people think that overcoming obstacles is something only accomplished by the folks who always believe in themselves and never fall victim to despair. Most of us slip, fall and pick ourselves up time and time again. Little by little, in fits and starts, I took steps toward independence.
Small Breaks in the Clouds
At 14, I asked for and received a guitar. I taught myself to play based on those piano lessons. My poetry turned into song lyrics, and I wrote my way through my tangled feelings.
At the end of my freshman year in college, the state rehabilitation counselor finally recommended recorded books at the end of my freshman year. Could it have been my terrible grades that tipped him off? Still, nothing was said about braille. Without reinforcement, my spelling deteriorated.
After college graduation, I applied for my first guide dog, against the recommendations of my counselor. He told the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind (GDF), "Girls shouldn't be out alone at night," and insisted that I was getting around well enough in the daytime. He was, of course, not there when I fell into the construction pit on my way to class.
Fortunately, GDF ignored him. I was one of the first people they trained who had some usable vision. I had to learn to stop looking, and it was liberating. A classmate taught me the basics of braille. I'm terrible at it, but it, along with my guitar and songwriting skills, allowed me to live independently for many years before Rich and I married.
The Challenge Nowadays
The problem is not that any of this happened to me. It's that this is still happening to legally blind and visually impaired children. In fact, braille literacy as of 2009 was only 10 percent among the legally blind (far lower than in the 1950s), despite proof that it is a major indicator of success. Braille is simply not taught to visually impaired kids, many of whom have degenerative conditions like RP. My favorite excuse is, "It makes them look blind."
Nowadays, we have the digital tools to make information available to people with vision loss almost instantaneously. Still, only 5 percent of books and magazines are available in accessible formats. The Internet, so vital to modern life, is 80 percent inaccessible according to a 2011 study. At the heart of these issues is a central reality, common to all civil rights struggles. For equality to truly exist, the public has to believe in it. Do you?