The Blind in the Teaching Profession by Cheralyn Braithwaite ********** From the Editor: The first item on the Thursday morning agenda at the 1998 National Convention was a presentation by Cheralyn Braithwaite, a special education teacher from Bountiful, Utah. Her story was familiar, but she told it with compelling honesty and heart-warming enthusiasm. This is what she said: ********** I was born to a family of ten children. When I was one year old, my mom noticed that I held books close to my face and that I watched TV with my chin on the TV table--there are still teeth marks on the edge of it to prove it. My dad and some of my brothers and sisters dismissed it as a bad habit. None of them wanted me to visit an optometrist for fear we'd find out I was going to be different, need glasses, and be made fun of. As well intended as my family was, they were afraid of my vision or the lack of it.
I fell into that fear by pretending I was no different from anyone else. We found out that I had "extreme myopia, a lazy eye, and astigmatism." I got glasses when I was almost two and contact lenses at four. They helped, but just hid the problem. When asked if I could see a deer at the side of the road, I pretended I could. I endured backyard vision screenings, playing catch with a brother who was convinced that the harder he threw the softball, the more likely I'd be to see it. When watching a movie or play, I laughed on the cue of the rest of the audience, pretending I knew the punch line without admitting I needed an explanation. It goes on and on.
My scheming worked for years--or so I thought. In school I pretended to read as all the other students did in class. I pretended I could take the quiz written on the chalkboard or overhead projector. Although I was a relatively hard-working student, I allowed my grades to slide and allowed myself to accept being less than I am.
One experience I had during this period of pretending to be normal still haunts me. I had just proved my ability to perform in an advanced English class in the seventh grade. The transfer was made, and soon I was involved in a group presentation on The Red Badge of Courage. My turn to present came. It was accompanied by an all too familiar anxiety attack. I looked at my notes and then at my peers and decided it just wasn't worth the humiliation of holding the paper at the necessary reading distance, the end of my nose. Instead, I chose an alternate route to humiliation. I attempted to read my notes at the normal distance. The student next to me (as well as the teacher and the rest of the class, I'm sure) sensed my difficulty. This student began whispering my notes to me like a parent to a timid child performing for an audience. I dismissed my frustration with a laugh here and there between my disjointed prompts. Finally it ended. I hoped I could now put the experience behind me. But that wasn't possible. The adolescent devastation was there to stay. My teacher didn't let it go either. She called my parents to find out if I was able to read. She thought I wasn't intelligent enough for her class. Dad made the necessary excuses, and I was able to remain in the class. Unfortunately the memory also remained. Trying to be normal wasn't worth the pain.
This faking continued until my vision decreased significantly in my eighth-grade year. The issue could no longer be ignored. I saw a specialist and was finally given a label. "I have cone dystrophy," and soon thereafter I was able to say, "I am visually impaired." The second label came after being introduced to special education and a dear friend named Carol. She helped me face my fears of admitting there was a problem and helped me to make adaptations. This was a huge step in my life. I no longer allowed anything to keep me from getting straight A's.
I still had a lot of learning to do by way of admitting to myself that I couldn't do things the same way as others around me. I even got a driver's license. (I guess legally I could drive, but realistically I was crazy to try--especially when I cheated on one of the vision tests.) Driving lasted for only a few years until I'd put myself and others in danger too many times. Giving it up, as much as I needed to, was devastating. I remember other periods of devastation, sitting in classes and other situations with tearful eyes, wondering why I was so stupid and why couldn't I do things the same way as the students or friends around me could. All of this in an attempt to be normal. It too wasn't worth the pain.
College wasn't a huge adjustment. I entered Brigham Young University as a special education major with two scholarships and the same old insecurities. I learned quickly that I couldn't depend on Support Services for Students with Disabilities. Classes weren't easy, so I had to start developing my own adaptive techniques. With each semester I learned techniques that would make the next one even easier. I got my own readers; I learned to rely on descriptions while using binoculars to distinguish objects in slides or on the board. I figured out that I can read print on certain colors more easily than on others, so I began using colored transparency sheets to lay over the page I was reading. Through this I gained confidence, but I still avoided computers at all costs.
This confidence greatly increased when I came in contact with Norman Gardner, Ray Martin, and their wives. They introduced me to the National Federation of the Blind just over two years ago. They came at just the right time. Relationships, my choice of major, and other serious decisions in my life left me doubting myself as I never had before. I was dragged to Anaheim, California, by Norm and Ray for the 1996 National Convention of the National Federation of the Blind.
It really was quite an ordeal getting me there. I was very scared. I had never traveled alone; I never did anything alone. (I went out of my way to plan for family members or friends to be with me wherever I went. I couldn't even walk into church alone for fear I wouldn't find the pew where my family sat.) Now this! Flying alone, navigating an airport alone, claiming baggage alone, coping with possible transfers alone. My dad never really liked the idea of my going places alone, and I knew I hated the idea myself. But I finally consented because there would be other people whom I had met once before on the same flight, and they were willing to help me.
Although overwhelmed, I soon came to know many people who have become some of my best friends and role models--Kristen Cox, Ron Gardner, Robert Olsen, their spouses, and Bruce Gardner. I began to learn that I had potential that I'd never given myself credit for and never let others see. I knew I didn't have to be afraid anymore of who I was. I knew I would be more honest with myself and be able to let others see the real me. All of these feelings culminated at the banquet. I had heard all the incredible plans of the scholarship winners, and I realized I didn't want to live any of the misconceptions that President Maurer referred to. Most of all, I knew my life could never be the same. The pretending and the fear had to end. I went from doubting my identity, my career choice, and even my self-worth, to craving independence that I'd never experienced before.
In fact, I was accepted to go on a study abroad program to London. This is where the craving began. By the end of the program, I was navigating and using the Underground or Tube (the subway system) independently. I loved the freedom of getting from place to place, experiencing the culture, etc., with the group or on my own if I wanted to.
Just one year after Anaheim I had school schedule conflicts that caused me to have to leave a few days late for last year's National Convention in New Orleans. This meant flying alone, transferring alone, claiming baggage alone, and getting to the hotel alone. This time, however, I had a much different experience. I looked at it as an opportunity and adventure to test some of my new travel skills and self-reliance. My friend Norm described it as an example of personal triumph and independence. What a contrast to the previous year. That convention only reinforced and intensified the feelings from the year before.
Back to school now. As required at BYU, I had opportunities to volunteer and later to teach in different classroom settings each semester in the special education program. I encountered frightening, stressful, and even dangerous situations. But, as my mom likes to remind me, a thought hit me one day near the end of my college career. I realized that I was capable of handling any one of these classroom situations. My traveling experience as well as experiences in my education, soon helped me realize that I didn't want to be the average blind person with the average job. . . (I think most of us have heard the quotation). I wanted to be the best! Doing the best job!
Before I found this determination, I had been terrified. I was convinced that I was crazy to think I could be a teacher. I dreaded applying for jobs because I just knew I would be a joke, walking into any interview. I had begun to talk myself into settling for a teacher's assistant position. That way I wouldn't have to be as responsible and could just follow in someone else's footsteps.
But, as I said, my introduction to the NFB came at just the right time. I began using a cane (after leaving my lasting impression in college when I missed the barricades and stepped into fresh cement on campus), and I also began learning how to be up-front about my blindness in professional situations. I absolutely hated the interviewing process, but I kept at it. Suddenly the terror ended when I interviewed with some very open- minded people. I was amazed to find that I wouldn't be turned down because of a disability but instead that I was hired, not only because of my accomplishments, but also because of the determination and sensitivity my blindness has given me. Soon I found myself tearfully saying good-bye to my parents (both natural and in the Federation) to accept a position an hour away in a junior high intellectually disabled unit. Here was the independence I'd longed for.
I am fortunate enough to have a boss who is very sensitive to the needs of his teachers. He knew there was a possibility that I'd need some adaptive technology. So for Christmas he gave me a request form for the things I needed. Now I have a large computer monitor (my jumbo tron), with speech and enlargement software on the way (I can't survive without the one thing I hated and dreaded in school--I'd die without my computer), and I also have a lighting system in my classroom that dims above my desk to make my reading and paper work more bearable.
I am also fortunate to work with amazing teachers who are willing to support and help each other whenever needed. They aren't condescending in their offers to help. But I think they are still learning about me as an individual and about blindness in general. (I really confused them when I won the turkey at the Thanksgiving faculty free throw contest.)
It's hard to believe I ever considered being merely a teacher's assistant. I now have two full-time assistants and one part-time assistant working under me. I also supervise several students who get credit for being peer tutors in my classroom. My assistants understand my limitations (not seeing problem behaviors at the back of the room, etc.) and are able to follow my cues to deal with such situations. They know that I'm in charge, and I'm able to give them unique responsibilities that they might not have in a sighted teacher's classroom. I find that this brings accountability and consistency to my classroom.
I can even recognize ways that my students benefit from my blindness. I'm sensitive to their feelings of inadequacy. I'm able to come up with alternative ways of learning the same thing. The concepts they learn are practiced and reinforced since I have to ask them to read or tell me what they are working on or what their answer is. I'm not afraid to admit, and even laugh, when I make a mistake.
I absolutely love my job! I never expected to enjoy being a professional so much. It wasn't an easy road getting to this point, and I know the journey continues. I know I owe much of this to my involvement in the National Federation of the Blind. It was this organization that helped me gain confidence, self- respect, initiative, and courage to do the things I've mentioned. I was strengthened by the philosophy, the history I learned from reading Walking Alone and Marching Together, the leadership, the political influence I witnessed at Washington Seminar, etc. I will forever be grateful for what I have gained and will continue to gain from the NFB and the people and philosophy that make it what it is. I now hope to bring it to others so that it can dramatically change their lives too. Thank you. **********