Future Reflections         Special Issue: The Teen Years

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Slates, Readers, and Determination

by Grace D. Napier, MA, MA, EdD

From the Editor: Grace Napier holds an MA in supervision and administration from New York University and an MA in elementary education from Temple University. She also earned an EdD in communications from Temple. She taught blind and visually impaired children at a residential school in Pennsylvania and served as an itinerant teacher in New Jersey for twelve years. She trained teachers at summer sessions at Syracuse University and at the University of Nebraska, and she taught full-time at the University of Northern Colorado for twenty years. In retirement she turned her hand to writing, publishing two novels, a memoir, and a nonfiction book about guide dogs.  Dr. Napier's achievements are all the more impressive in view of the obstacles she faced as a blind student in the 1930s and 1940s.

I entered college in September 1940. Times were very different for blind students then. I would like to share some of my experiences for the benefit of high school and college students today.

When I was in first grade I attended the same school as my brother. My parents knew nothing about special education, and no help was offered to me. The principal and teacher did not want me there, thinking that I was mentally retarded; that was the term used back then. They assumed that blindness and mental retardation went together. The teacher made no attempt to determine what I knew or what I could learn. I sat at my desk and no one interacted with me all day!

One day the principal entered the room to announce the names of children being promoted to second grade. He did not mention my name as he read the list. "What do we do about Grace?" the teacher asked him.

The principal said, "Promote her until we are rid of her!"

While I was in "second grade," my parents learned about special education for children who are blind. At that time most blind children who received an education went to residential schools. However, I lived in New Jersey, a state that did not have a residential program. Some blind students in New Jersey attended resource rooms and some went to residential schools out of state.

My parents took me to visit a class for blind pupils in the adjacent city of Paterson. Immediately I fell in love with the teacher, Miss Katharine Taylor. On the day of my visit she taught me to read the Braille letters a, b, and c. I was thrilled to discover a great teacher who knew how to teach me to read! In my mind, bells rang, horns blew, and lights turned on!

I began as a student in the day program the following Monday. I spent part of each day in classes with normally sighted children, and part of the day in Miss Taylor's room. I stayed with Miss Taylor until I graduated from eighth grade.

After graduation I attended high school in Clifton, my own city. It was a large school and I was the only blind student. My home room teacher was my reader. I graduated from high school with honors.

I was determined to go on to college, but I found it very difficult to get accepted. In fact, at times it seemed impossible. After reviewing my application, the board of one college rejected me with the rationale, "What's the point of educating a blind person?" After that rejection I applied to a local college, planning to commute. I was rejected there, also, despite my strong academic record. According to the dean, a blind person could not be a teacher. After I received his rejection, I wrote back and explained that I did not expect him to find me a teaching position; that was my responsibility. All I requested was the opportunity to earn my bachelor's degree. In his next letter, the dean repeated, "A person who is blind cannot be a teacher!"

Happily, the third college where I applied had had blind students before, and they had shown that they could handle the demands of college studies. I was accepted at New Jersey College for Women (today called Douglas College). I graduated from that school and pursued graduate studies, earning two master's degrees and a doctorate.

Another hurdle facing me as I applied to college was my mother. She was an uneducated woman who had never known anyone who was a college graduate. Every time I mentioned college, she blasted me with, "Knock that crazy idea out of your head! You are not going to college. Don't forget that you are blind!" When I was awarded scholarships, my mother thought the money was charity and refused to accept it. One of my high school teachers finally got her to understand that scholarships are not charity, but honors.

I had a dog guide when I began my freshman year. She was the the first dog guide on that campus. My dog set high standards in performance for later dog guides at the college to follow.

Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic, with its enormous store of recorded college textbooks, had not yet been founded. I did not have the luxury of reading independently whenever it was convenient or necessary. A few textbooks were hand-transcribed into Braille for me by volunteers, and they were a valuable resource. The transcriber sent the book to me section by section as it was completed. However, if the instructor had the students skip a chapter, I might be out of luck. If we were told to skip ahead from chapter 3 to chapter 5, I might not yet have chapter 5 available because the transcriber was still working on chapter 4.

How did I complete my reading assignments? Certain students were assigned to read aloud to me and were paid by the New Jersey Commission for the Blind, the agency that sponsored me during college. Usually reading sessions lasted an hour, and frequently we did not have time to complete the assignment. One assignment could take at least two sessions with a reader. I had to schedule sessions at my readers' convenience. I could not ask a reader to come to my dormitory room at ten o'clock in the evening to complete the work before class next day. As a result, I was not always able to finish my reading on time. By listening carefully to lectures and class discussion, I learned some of the information contained in the material that I did not have a chance to read.

In class I took notes with a slate and stylus. Why did I not use a Perkins Brailler or an electronic or audio device to take notes? Those machines simply had not yet been invented. I used a typewriter when I did assignments that had to be submitted to my instructors. Why did I not use a computer? Computers were not yet available. Typing worked very well for me, but I had no way to review and proofread my work.

When a test was scheduled, I brought my portable typewriter and met with a reader in a room near the classroom. Most of our exams were essay tests. My reader read the questions one at a time and I typed each answer. We rarely had a multiple-choice test. When such a test was given, my reader read the questions to me and marked A, B, C, or D on the answer sheet according to my responses.

Shortly before commencement, one of my classmates said, "It must be great to be graduating from college without ever having taken a test!"

Surprised by her question, I asked, "What do you mean?"

"Every day when we have a test you are absent!" she answered. I clarified that on test days I was in another room, taking the test with my reader.

While I was an undergraduate, I learned about a blind student on campus who told her professor of English that she could not do a library research term paper because of her blindness. That semester, while I was in an English class with a different faculty member, I completed a library research paper. That same blind student sometimes would not turn in assignments, claiming, "My typewriter needs a new ribbon, and I can't change a ribbon. I had to wait for someone else to do it for me." Meanwhile, I was changing my own typewriter ribbons.

Some students then and even now capitalize on their blindness to avoid doing what other students are required to do. They feel no embarrassment about admitting that they cannot do this or that. When they are later employed, will they expect their employer to accept their whining and complaining about being blind?

A member of our graduating class later wrote me a letter telling of a vacancy in the school where she was teaching. I was hired.

I must admit that I do not sympathize with whiners among blind college students. Today students have many advantages that blind students in my generation never had. Besides computers for word processing, they have the Internet with access to books available for download. They have small electronic equipment for audio or Braille record keeping, and of course Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic. Some colleges even have rooms with specialized equipment to enable blind students and students with other disabilities to succeed.

The attitude toward blind students was quite different when I was in school. At one university, my reader and I were at the card index searching for a book appropriate for my assignment. I whispered to my reader author names, topics, and specific titles for her to search for. The librarian came to us and, speaking more loudly than we had been talking, let us know that she wanted silence. When I asked where my reader and I could work without disturbing anyone, she answered, "That's your problem, not mine; but don't take the book outside this building." My reader and I ended up sitting on a staircase with students going up and down beside us. Experiences like that developed my ability to concentrate!

Another time, at a university medical library, the librarian evicted another student from his curtained carrel for me to have a place whenever I came. This sort of behavior is unfair to sighted students. One day, a male student fell in stride with me to ask, "Are you a med student?" I explained that I was not, but that I was doing research on retrolental fibroplasia (the condition known as retinopathy of prematurity, or ROP, today).

"Were you ever evicted because of me?" I asked. Yes, he had been, several times. He graciously exempted me from blame by saying, "That librarian is a bear in her management of a library."

I would enjoy being an undergraduate nowadays! Count your blessings today, students! Those of you who whine and complain, stop it!

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