Future Reflections January 1982, Vol. 1 No. 2
(back) (contents) (next)
by Mary Ellen Halverson
(Editors Note: Mrs. Halverson graduated from the University of Iowa
with a major in Spanish. She has taught Spanish in the elementary
schools and is now a full-time wife and mother and an active volunteer in the NFB and in her children's school.
Husband, Raymond, is the Executive Assistant to the Director at the
Idaho Commission for the Blind. They have two children; Mathew,
age 10 and Holly, age 6.)
When I look back on my high school years and consider all of the negative ideas I absorbed about blindness, I really wonder how I survived with any self respect left at all. I'm sure one reason I did is that I had a very positive, supportive family who believed in me and expected me to do well in school and other activities. Fortunately, in my first year of college I met several young active blind students who began the process of teaching me a whole new attitude about blindness.
I began loosing my sight in junior high due to a disease in the retina. When I had long reading assignments, my parents would read them to me in the evening. Many times I had difficulty in reading the blackboard or tests, but I struggled along. I can remember worrying about tests--not about the subject matter to be tested, but about the quality of the mimeographed pages of the test. I knew that frequently the print was faded or blurry and I was reluctant to use a magnifying glass in front of my fellow junior high students. Some teachers were very helpful, but others seemed not to notice or not be especially concerned. I preferred as little discussion on the matter as possible. Neither my parents nor I realized that by eighth or ninth grade I was definitely legally blind. We told ourselves and others that I just had a "sight problem."
By the time I entered high school, I had lost a little more sight and was enrolled in the Sight Saving program in our school district. My parents and I were quite relieved since this program provided books on tape for me, and a lot of material in large print. There were different types of magnifiers available, and such things as large print dictionaries. However, the only skill I was actually taught by one of the sight saving teachers was typing; which is a valuable skill to have. I attended my regular high school classes in the morning and then went to a resource room for the afternoon. At first, this room was in an elementary school which I found rather embarrassing. I traveled there every day with several other students by cab. Eventually the resource room was moved into the high school which was an improvement.
I remember the first day I met the sight saving teacher, who was a very kind, well-meaning person. Right away she told my family and me that "we never use the word 'blind', we say, 'partially sighted'." This suited us quite well since the word "blind" conjured up terrible and frightening visions in our minds. She further reassured us that I would not have to learn Braille, but could use large print books. I should tell you right here that in order for me to read even the large print, I had to put my face right down on the page and even then, I could only read several letters at a time. I can remember spending three hours trying to read a chemistry chapter in a large print book one evening. I imagine my fellow students read and studied the chapter in thirty minutes. Although we didn't realize it at the time, Braille would have been much more efficient and faster for me to use. Braille is not an inferior reading svstem, and can be easily learned.
Another area which caused me some anguish was traveling about both in the school building and outside. It was especially hard to see the down stairs, and I could not read the room numbers. When I approached the stairs I just slowed down and probably looked rather awkward. I developed my own techniques for finding the right room, such as the second room past the drinking fountain or the room next to the main front door. I did not attend many school or social activities at night because I could not see after dark. My excuse to people was usually that I had to study. Therefore, I missed out on dances, dates, and sports events; all of which are an important part of high school life. Now I know that this area of travel could have been solved so easily with some training in the use of the long white cane. However, this would not have been successful without some changes in my attitude first. It would have been essential for me to believe that it was respectable to use a white cane. I'm absolutely sure that the resource teachers would have frowned on such ideas. They felt it was best to use one's remaining eyesight as much as possible, even though it was often far less efficient and more painful than alternatives such as Braille and cane travel.
I am now convinced that the key to being an independent, successful, and happy blind person is your attitude about yourself. Along with attitude, but secondary, you must also learn some skills like typing, Braille, cane travel and other techniques that will work for you. During my high school years I had neither the positive attitude about myself nor the skills. I suppose the sad part is that there was no one to teach them to me. My classroom teachers were sympathetic for the most part, but they could offer no real encouragement or worthwhile advice concerning blindness. In some of my classes I felt that I was a nuisance to the teacher. I was very apologetic when I had to ask to have something read from the blackboard or from a test. You can imagine what this did for my self esteem! It was also embarrassing to me to read and write in the classroom because I had to get so close to the paper. A student in one class made a remark I have always remembered. I was writing answers to a quiz and he said, "Now, that's the direct approach." Another blow to one's self-respect! Until this writing, I have never told anyone about that painful comment.
By now I'm sure you can understand how all of these experiences can cause a young person to feel very inferior to her peers. Even though my grades were high my self-respect was low. Of course, I did not realize this at the time. I should add here that my high school experience was not totally gloomy. I did have a good group of friends, some very cooperative teachers, and a terrific family. I graduated high in my class of 528 classmates and went on to the University. I entered college prepared to struggle on as before, but the unexpected happened.
I met several well-adjusted, confident blind students who had received training in the skills of blindness and had acquired that all-important attitude I mentioned earlier. They knew without a doubt that they were equal to anyone and they were willing to take on their share of responsibilities both in school and any other area of life. They also had another thing in common--they were members of the National Federation of the Blind and met for monthly meetings. At first I tried to avoid these meetings since I did not wish to admit that I was blind. But on the other hand, I liked these friends personally, and I wanted the same confidence and freedom they posessed.
After a couple years of college I attended an Orientation and Adjustment Center which taught skills and began the long process of improving my attitude toward myself and my blindness. It was, beyond a doubt, the most valuable year of my life. Very few places and very few people can restore a person's self-dignity and respect so effectively.
Sometimes I think about how those teenage years might have been. I also think about the young people who are living my experiences right now, and about their parents who are worried and don't know what to do. If this article reaches you and helps any of you in one small way, those years of worry and embarrassment will have all been worth it! Parents, your children who are partially or totally blind, do have the opportunity to become independent, happy and successful individuals. It is respectable to be blind.
(Editor's Note: Dr. Kenneth Jernigan's, "Blindness: Is History Against Us?", inspired the following article. All of the examples of blind persons in history are drawn from it. You may obtain a copy of Dr. Jernigan's address free of charge by writing to: National Federation of the Blind, 1800 Johnson Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21230.)
Perhaps one of the most common myths about blindness has to do with blind people in history. It is generally believed that until very recently, all blind people were dependent, only able to make a living through such means as begging, the support of relatives or public welfare. History tells us that blind persons "...have been the people things were done to and occasionally, the people things were done for, but never the people who did for themselves." (Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, "Blindness: Is History Against Us?")
Often tied in with this belief about blind people, is the notion that technology
has been the major reason for the increasing independence and self-sufficiency
of the blind within the 20th century. Certainly it is true that 20th century
technology applied to the needs of the blind, such as white canes, Braille, dog
guides, specially trained educators of the blind, tape recorders, etc., is helpful
and in some ways essential to keeping up with the technological advances in the
world today. However, the truth is that throughout the history of mankind, blind
people have demonstrated the ability to live and work competitively within the technology of their own day!
All this is not to deny that life for most blind people (sighted people too!) was often filled with misery and poverty. Begging, rocking chairs and institutions were all too often the lot of a blind person. This is all true, but not the complete truth. The complete truth is that in generation after generation, blind persons have made outstanding contributions to their communities and to humanity.
Of course, the real test must be history itself. If this is so, who were these blind people and what did they do? We cannot write a history here for you, but we can tell you about a few of the most interesting, but often little known, blind persons from history. Below are listed a number of occupations. Just for the fun of it, guess which of these were engaged in by a blind person(s) before the 20th century.
3. Construction Worker
7. Military General
Answer: All. Below are the names and brief descriptions of the men who were successful in these occupations.
1. Lawyer...Dr. Nicholas Bacon...18th century Frenchman...blinded in childhood.
2. Theologian...Didymus of Alexandria...4th century: acknowledged as the greatest teacher of his age.
3. Construction Worker...John Metcalf...18th century Englishman...totally blind from childhood. "Blind Jack", achieved in many areas. In addition to being a builder of roads and bridges, he was a stagecoach driver; bare-knuckle fighter; card-shark; and racehorse driver.
4. Poet...Milton...17th century Englishman. He composed one of his greatest works, "Paradise Lost", after becoming blind.
5. Priest...Prospeo Fagnani...17th century. During his time, he was considered one of the outstanding theorists of the Roman faith and was given a Latin title by his peers which meant, "The blind yet farseeing doctor".
6. Mathematician...Nicholas Saunderson...English...totally blind from infancy. With the recommendation of Sir Isaac Newton, he was appointed to the chair of Mathematics at Cambridge University.
7. Military General... John de Turcznow..."Zisca"...15th century Bohemian. He
twice led the Bohemian armies in victory against the armies of the Emperor
Sigismund. Both victories were achieved after he had been totally blinded.
8. Biologist...John Gough...18th century Englishman. He used his sense of touch in classifying plants and animals.
9. Spy...James Holman, Esquire...18th century Englishman...world traveler and adventurer. He traveled without a companion and was such a close observer of his environment, that he was arrested as a "spy" by the Czar's police while touring Russia, and then expelled from the country!
10. Historian...James Wilson, an Englishman, and William Artman, an American, both of the 19th century. Much of the information about the blind people listed above comes from their works.
(back) (contents) (next)