American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections
       Special Issue: Early Childhood      EDUCATION

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Blind Students Are Normal Students

by John E. Harrison

John E. HarrisonFrom the Editor: John E. Harrison is a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. He is majoring in English, creative writing, and psychology. In 2018 he received an NFB national scholarship.

I have always believed that education is immensely important; it is an equalizer that enables people to become the best of themselves. Because education enables people to rise up and improve themselves, it is dearly needed by those classes of citizens that are held down, not by their own limitations, but by society's view of them. The blind community is no exception. Education is a key to our success. I believe that my story clearly shows how an education—and even more importantly, those dedicated teachers who strive to enable students to learn—can shape the way a person's life unfolds. My story shows not only the importance of teaching blindness-related skills to blind students, but also the tremendous value of general education in the classroom. As I said before, education is an equalizer, and my public schooling enabled me to live the life I want.

I became blind halfway through my junior year in high school, suddenly and with little warning. When I first lost my vision, I tried my best to keep my spirits up, but deep down I was miserable. I thought that my loss of sight meant the loss of any chance that I could have a normal life. I knew that somehow I could get a job and live on my own, but I really did not believe that I would actually be able to do anything meaningful. I felt as though I was doomed to a life that would never be what I truly wanted it to be.

Fortunately I returned to school soon after my vision loss occurred. Despite the changes that had taken place in my life, not much really changed for me at school. I dropped a few classes that I did not need in order to make room in my schedule to begin learning the blindness-related skills that I needed very much. Other than that, my schooling stayed relatively the same, and I learned a great deal because of it.

I learned my first real lesson about my blindness not from my teacher of the blind, but from my English teacher. When I returned to school, I was afraid that I had lost my ability to participate in the classroom. But my English teacher had a different idea. My AP English language class was starting a unit on The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. My English teacher did not ask me whether I would read the book and learn about it along with my classmates; she only asked me how I would read. She expected as much from me as she did from every other student. She held me responsible for every quiz, paper, and reading assignment, just as she did for everyone else.

My teacher's attitude really struck me as important. I saw that she did not care that I was blind. Even though I thought I was incapable of learning, she did not. She held me responsible and treated me the same as any other student. Because this teacher decided to treat me as a student who just happened to be blind, and not as a blind student, I began to realize that my blindness did not limit me.

At the end of my junior year I learned another lesson. I decided to take Academic Decathlon, (AcaDec) during my senior year. AcaDec is an intense nationwide program in which teams of students compete over a wide range of subjects, and practices started during the summer. The material for this class consisted of literally thousands of pages that were only available in print or PDF format. Most of my friends took AcaDec, and three of my favorite teachers were the coaches. Inspired by the lesson I had learned from my AP English Language teacher, I decided to take the course without thinking about whether I would be able to read the material.

It very quickly became apparent that the material for the course was completely inaccessible. There was no easy way for me to read any of the stuff I needed for the class. It was a daunting situation, but not once did any of the teachers suggest that the class might not be for me. Not once did any of them say that maybe I should pick a different class, one for which I would be able to access the materials. Not once! In fact, their reaction was quite the opposite. The teachers fought their hardest to make sure I could participate. One even offered to type up the thousands of pages of reading into a Word document so my screen reader would work. My teachers did not see me as a blind student who could not read any of the material, but as a student who deserved to be in AcaDec no matter what—and that really struck a chord with me. I realized that it did not matter that I was blind; what mattered was that I was a talented student who would do great in AcaDec.

When my teachers fought for me, they truly inspired me to know that it did not, does not, and will not matter that I am blind. I can do anything. In the end we found an app that converted the PDFs into speech. I made the AcaDec team, beating out a dozen of my sighted peers.

My teachers showed me that I am capable of anything. They did not treat me any differently than they treated their other students, and because of their attitude I stopped thinking of myself as different. I stopped believing that my blindness limited me and realized that I am capable of anything. I would like to thank all of my teachers who have taught me this lesson and so much more over the years. I would also like to send a message to teachers who are currently teaching students who are blind. Do not treat them as blind students; treat them as students first, students who just happen to be blind. Hold them to the same high standards to which you hold your other students. Show them, as my teachers showed me, that their blindness does not limit them in school or in life.

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