I am in first grade, and it is toward the beginning of the school year. The classroom consists of six short round tables, around which are four tiny plastic chairs. I sit in one of these chairs, and next to me in an adult chair sits Mrs. Zahn, the full-time teacher’s aid that helps me keep up with the class.
“Hi Allison,” my friend Katie says as she takes her place at the table.
“Hi Katie,” I say.
“How does she know it’s me?” Katie asks Mrs. Zahn in amazement.
“I don’t know. Ask her,” Mrs. Zahn says.
So she asks me, and I say, “I can tell by the sound of your voice.”
Later it is time to read a book. As the teacher passes out books to the other students, books which I reach for and stroke in amazement as they look like blank pages to me, Mrs. Zahn places my book in front of me. My version of the same book is on thick cardstock-type 8.5 by 11 pages of raised dots, spiral-bound with plastic binding.
“How does she read that?” another classmate asks, fascinated.
“I don’t know,” says Mrs. Zahn, “Ask her.”
A few days later, Mrs. Becky comes to pull me out of class for Occupational therapy.
“Use your cane,” she gently reminds me as she trails behind me as I make my way to her room. Sometimes, I would walk forgetting to swing my cane properly, resulting in me bumping into doors or tripping over boots left outside lockers.
“It looks like a class of fifth graders is coming our way,” Mrs. Becky said a few minutes into our walk. “Let’s stop and let them pass.”
Sure enough, I hear a cacophony of footsteps and whispered chatter of a class walking single-file behind their teacher on their way to lunch or a “special” class like art or music. As I was taught, I stop and tuck my cane in close to my body so as not to trip anyone, and wait the way a car waits for a train to pass. But instead of walking past quietly as I thought they would, the passing train of students calls out “Hi Allison!” “Hi Allison!” “Hi Allison!” one after the other. I cannot respond to each hi fast enough! When the class has passed, I ask Mrs. Becky in bewilderment, “How did they know who I was? They are not in my class!”
“You’re famous,” she replied with a smile in her tone of voice, “everyone in this school knows about you because you are the first blind person to go to this school.” The following year, a reporter from our local newspaper followed me for the day and wrote an article about me.
It is a Monday morning in October of my third grade year, and over the weekend, the teacher had graded our first Social Studies test which we had taken on Friday. The test covered basic geography concepts like the names of the seven continents and four oceans, the differences between a map and a globe. I got my test back at the same time as the rest of the class, but before handing them back, the teacher showed my grade to Mrs. Zahn, who affixed a little braille sticker in the upper right corner of my answer sheet with the grade on it so I could see it for myself. I had written my answers in Braille, and Mrs. Zahn transcribed them verbatim into print for the teacher. My grade on this first test was a C.
Third grade was the first year of “real school” with letter grades, and this was the first major test of the year. When I saw that C, I didn’t think anything of it. I knew what the letter grades meant and although of course, an A would have been better, a C meant average. I was okay with being average. I had heard my parents yell at my older brothers when they occasionally brought home Ds, but they seemed okay with Cs. So I wasn’t expecting the reaction I got from Mrs. Reich when I saw her later that day. Her reaction resembled the plot of Ms. Nelson Is Missing, one of my favorite children’s books from the previous year.
This perpetually cheerful teacher who rewarded me with M&Ms on Fridays based on how many braille pages I read, who took me on fun field trips to the mall or the grocery store, had suddenly become Ms. Viola Swamp. After an interrogation in which I admitted I had not studied for the test as I was supposed to, with the flimsy excuse that we were celebrating Mom’s birthday that night, and some relatives came to visit, she said, “I don’t care what you have going on at home in the evening, how much fun you are having. I don’t care if the whole house is full of company for a party. You are going to go upstairs and study. School is only going to get tougher in the years ahead, and if you don’t study, you are going to be in trouble.”
It is Monday June 11, 2000, the second-to-last day of fifth grade. My work ethic hadn’t improved much since third grade. Just a couple months earlier, the class was reading Johnny Tremaine. Normally I loved to read, and have been known to stay up late into the night, well aware I would be tired the next day, but unable to put down a good book. But I found Johnny Tremaine excruciatingly long and boring, so one week, I just just couldn’t stand it anymore and stopped reading. That year, I had a new aid, Mrs. Hobson, as Mrs. Zahn was transferred to a younger student. She would be my aid from fifth grade all the way through first semester of my senior year of high school. The fifth grade teacher was a big fan of pop quizzes, and because Mrs. Hobson received things ahead of time to get them in braille for me, she knew there was going to be a quiz on the chapters I neglected to read. So in an act of mercy she told me she would never show again for as long as she was my aid, an act of mercy she reminded me of years later too, she pulled me out of class for a marathon catch-up session. Overall though, my grades were decent, and I had met all the requirements to graduate fifth grade. Tomorrow, there would be a small ceremony in the school gym, and then it was off to middle school. But on June 11, during a period of quiet work time to tie up the last academic loose ends, I heard the principal walk in and whisper something to the teacher, then come up to my desk. For a moment, my heart skipped a beat. Was I in trouble?
“Hi Allison,” Mr. Zahn whispered, “I just wanted to tell you congratulations on your graduation tomorrow. I’m so proud of you.”
“Thank you,” I said, a little caught off guard but grinning ear-to-ear.
“You were an experiment, did you know that?” he asked. I don’t remember what I said, but I remember being puzzled by this statement.
“You are the first blind person to ever attend this school district,” he explained. I had not known that. I knew I was the only blind student currently in the school, but at that age, I was too young to grasp the significance of the Americans with Disabilities Act, or the decision my parents and teachers had made on my behalf.
It’s funny to think how when I was a kid, it seemed as though school would be my routine for eternity. Now that this chapter of my life is over, it feels as though it passed in a flash. But these snapshots stand out in my memory and illustrate my school experience well.
I feel so blessed that I wasn’t sent to a boarding school for the blind, not only because I was spared the heartache of having to say goodbye to my family every week, but also because I cannot imagine that I would have felt as natural, at ease in a sighted world as I do today. In fact, I actually feel more at ease in the sighted world than with a gathering of blind people, and even forget what it means to be blind. As a funny example of what I mean, once when I was in high school, I was invited by a friend to a meeting of the Wisconsin Association of Blind Students at the state convention for the National Federation of the Blind. We needed to vote on something–I don’t even remember what it was now–so the student president said she was going to pass around a bag, and asked us to throw in a dime if we wanted to vote one way, and a nickel to vote the other way. When the bag got to me, I put in my coin, but when I held the bag out to the next person, he didn’t take it.
My first thought was “hello! are you awake!” before remembering, “oh yeah, all these people are blind like me!” So I tapped the person on the shoulder and told him I was passing him the bag, shaking it so he could find it. But my interaction with sighted people is so natural. They see me and seamlessly put items right into my hand. They see me reaching for them and intuitively take the item from my hand. When I went to these events, I could understand the allure of going to a school for the blind when I casually chatted with other students about technology or braille without having to preface anything with explanation, or to not have to explain your disability and the accommodations you need to teachers unfamiliar with blindness. I know some very successful older blind adults who would have gone to the state school for the blind growing up, and they are very confident in the sighted world and have even mentored me on how I could advocate better for myself. This important skill must have been built into the curriculum, or else they did a great job figuring it out on their own. But I feel so blessed to have gotten the chance to advocate for myself at such an early age when Mrs. Zahn responded to the questions of my classmates with, “I don’t know. Ask her!” Whether or not my classmates remember these interactions today, I don’t know. But maybe by having me in class, they at least subconsciously benefitted, by seeing that blind people are no less intelligent than anyone else and can speak for themselves. I have heard blind adults lament that if a sighted person is with them, there is still a segment of the public that will direct questions to the sighted person, assuming this person is the blind person’s guardian. For me, having the opportunity to practice speaking for myself at a young age meant that as I got older and was progressively given more responsibility advocating for myself with teachers, I was confident and comfortable doing so, and by the time I started college and had to advocate for myself completely on my own, it felt as natural as breathing.
Mrs. Zahn also emphasized the importance of precise language. In third grade, my best friend was Amber and we liked to hold hands and walk together to “special” classes. Sometimes, the teacher would want me to walk on my own to practice orientation and mobility, so Amber was asked to seek permission first. But the first time when she asked Mrs. Zahn “can I walk Allison to Music class?” Mrs. Zahn gently corrected her and asked that Amber say “can I walk WITH Allison?” I overheard this conversation and was puzzled about why Mrs. Zahn wanted Amber to phrase the question this way. She explained to me how she didn’t want my peers to view me like a pet. They didn’t need to walk me to class like a dog. I was perfectly capable of walking to class by myself, but they were welcome to walk with me as friends. As an adult, I find it disheartening when people mock the idea of political correctness. Words really do matter, and just a small, seemingly petty difference in wording can have profound implications for how a demographic is perceived and treated.
Overall, I remember Burleigh Elementary School as a warm nurturing environment that emphasized kindness and inclusion, so much so that sometimes, I felt like a rockstar! It was not unusual, especially in the early grades to have whole classes say hi to me as they filed down the hallway. There was a small underbelly of bullies that I had to deal with at before-school daycare from third through fifth grade when my parents felt they shouldn’t impose on Mrs. Lillie to babysit me when they had to get to work early. When I would try to join in one of their games, I was pointedly ignored, and if I was playing with legos or something they wanted, they would just come up and snatch them away as if I weren’t even there. But when the school day actually started and I went to my regular class, it was as if I went to a whole different school. I never lacked peers clamoring to partner with me for an assignment, or friends to play with at recess or sit with for lunch. In first and second grade, I would try to sit off by myself because the cafeteria was so noisy it overwhelmed me and I didn’t want to talk. So to ensure I had a healthy social life, I was allowed to stay in the classroom for lunch with three peers. Everyone in the class wanted a turn to eat lunch with me. This began to change in middle school, a phenomenon which I had not anticipated. I had a group of girls I sat with for lunch, and there were many days in which I genuinely enjoyed meaningful conversation with them. But some days, I felt so out of place, even with these friends because I found typical junior high antics like screaming over a cute guy, stupid and annoying. To these girls’ credit though, they were extremely respectful in that when I would be startled by an especially piercing shriek, they would apologize to me and try not to act so ridiculous. They couldn’t fully resist acting like junior high girls, but I sensed in them a little more maturity, an awareness that they knew they were being obnoxious even if puberty made this behavior hard to resist. Maybe they admired and respected my ability to just smile and eat quietly, staying above it all. Most of these girls were also in choir with me, so I have happy memories with them in choir too.
I feel fortunate in that I was never bullied outright in middle school or high school, but I often felt ignored. Gone were the sweet elementary school days when people clamored to partner with me for a project. In middle school, when the teacher would ask us to find a partner or divide ourselves into groups, it seemed even if I stood up from my desk and walked toward the throng of students with a hand raised like an awkward beggar, asking if anyone would partner with me, I heard only crickets. Sometimes I could get a group’s attention and get a lukewarm yes when I asked to join them, but sometimes the teacher would have to help me find a group. If I had to do a group project with two or more people, it felt like there was the rest of the group, a cohesive clique, and then me, just along for the ride like a third wheel. I appreciated the occasional teachers like my seventh grade science teacher who really made sure that the group was interacting with me and giving me a meaningful role in the building of our Rube Goldberg machine. I have met blind people who are very comfortable being loud and assertive, but that was never me. I think I did a great job of advocating for myself when it came to explaining my blindness and the adaptations I used, but I never quite figured out how I was supposed to assert myself in a group that I could tell wasn’t really interested in working with me.
In the hall between classes, it was very rare for a student to say hi to me, and if none of my friends were in class with me, I just sat quietly at my desk while it seemed everyone else was chatting during the lag time before class started. In the awkward insecurity of middle school where image is everything, the old lady clothes I had to wear because of my back brace were certainly a hindrance to making a lot of friends, as well as possibly the white cane I swung in front of me, the cart I had to pull behind me to carry my supplies between classes, and the suitcase I had to take home each night because no traditional backpack was large enough for my braille textbooks and 3-inch binders bursting at the seams with my assignments. But these weren’t the only factors. In hindsight, I realize I was a bit of a weird kid.
Mrs. Reich started worrying about my social life when I was only in third grade. I showed no interest in popular culture, hadn’t seen any of the movies or television shows children my age were talking about, but I still enjoyed playing house with baby dolls.
“Just so you know, when you are twelve, if you invite a friend over and suggest playing with dolls, they will never come over again,” Mrs. Reich warned. I did lose interest in dolls on my own shortly thereafter. I enjoyed collecting American Girl dolls for a few more years, not so much to play with but to display and read the books that came with them, but by seventh grade, I had outgrown that too. But when I got to middle school, I still had no interest in popular culture, and after a visit to my grandma’s house in sixth grade, I fell in love with old country music from legends like Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, Merl Haggard, Marty Robins and Johnny Cash. As someone who got so much joy from singing that I couldn’t get it out of my system in choir, I would sing these old country songs on the bus, and while pulling my cart through the hallways. I guess I figured as long as I look weird, I might as well fully embrace my true personality!
Occasionally, I would have friends over to play braille board games, or card games with a deck of braille cards. It was difficult for me to have friends over because there were no kids my age in our neighborhood, so I would have to coordinate with my parents, the friends and their parents about when was convenient for everyone and who would pick them up and bring them home. But even if there were kids my own age in the neighborhood, since I found most of my peers annoying, and most of my peers probably saw me as the weird blind kid, I still doubt I would have had much interaction with peers after school.
By sophomore year of high school, to my relief, some of my peers were starting to grow up and show a genuine interest in partnering with me, but other factors kept me relatively isolated. In middle school, each grade had the same lunch period, but in high school, lunch periods were not grade specific. There were three lunch periods available, and everyone’s lunch period could change each semester based on when it fit into their class schedule. It was very rare that I could find a friend with the same lunch period, and by high school when academic demands were more rigorous in preparation for college, my friends and I often had to cut lunch short to speak with a teacher about an assignment, or in my case, get math tutoring from Mrs. Hobson. After school, homework usually took so long I didn’t have time to socialize with friends. I pulled many all-nighters so I could be in the Milwaukee Children’s Choir which I would do all over again because it was good for my soul, and I had several close friends in this choir whom I socialized with during the break we always got halfway through rehearsal. But beyond that, I didn’t have the time or energy for anything else. So oftentimes, my only interaction with peers was small talk during partner or group assignments, and if there were no such assignments, I could go whole days feeling as though I lived inside a bubble, silently, robotically going from class to class, doing my own thing. Perhaps due to this lack of a social life growing up, I have a little social anxiety now, especially if friends from bible study invite me to their houses. On the other hand, since I am used to being isolated, I think I have fared better in quarantine than many of my peers. Everyone’s life has challenges in some form, and I suppose each circumstance has its advantages and disadvantages in the larger context of life.
When I was in middle school, I remember feeling almost betrayed by students I thought were my friends in elementary school, but in retrospect, I hold no bitterness toward them. I have since read studies which show that a child’s personality takes shape at about age six, so although I have lost touch with most of them, I sincerely believe that if I met them at a reunion now, they would be the goodhearted people they showed themselves to be in Ms. Gnacinski’s class. But I also believe that while character is something innate that cannot be taught, it can be nurtured by adults through activities that encourage kindness and inclusion.
In first grade, every student got the chance to be “star of the week.” When it was your turn, you brought in a poster to promote yourself. My mom helped me create a poster with pictures of me reading braille, using my cane, playing on the swing set in our yard. I made braille labels which Mom glued next to each picture. The “star of the week” also got a few classroom privileges, like the opportunity to call out groups when we needed to line up, and to sit on the comfy couch in the library corner during story time rather than on the floor. To practice writing letters, the rest of the class sent “fan mail” to the star of the week, letters complementing what they are good at and why they make a great friend. I remember figuring that when it was my turn, my classmates would write print letters that Mrs. Zahn or my mom would read to me. My classmates didn’t know braille after all. So I was amazed when I noticed that week that Mrs. Zahn was taking students aside one by one and helping them transcribe their letters into braille for me. It felt like Christmas morning when I received that bag of 23 letters from my classmates, all of which I could read for myself. Similar activities like this occurred all through elementary school.
Incidentally, sophomore year of high school when it seemed like classmates were more receptive to partnering with me, everyone was required to take a speech class. In this class, we talked about communication in general and the many different means of communication. The teacher invited a guest speaker, the teacher for students who are deaf or hard of hearing who showed the class a little sign language. The teacher also asked me to give a presentation on braille, and it seemed like after this presentation, more classmates paid attention to me. But in middle school, the No Child Left Behind initiative had just been enacted, and all the teachers were freaking out. So much time was redirected toward making sure we met academic standards set by the state, even learning testing strategies, that there was no time for things like presentations on braille. Even if there had been, I am not saying it would have eliminated the teenage insecurity that resulted in my exclusion, but even when the seventh grade science teacher reminded my group to include me in the Rube Goldberg project, their acceptance of me seemed genuine. I think teenagers just get so caught up in their own world, their insecurity that they just need to be reminded to stop and take notice of people with disabilities. Education reform is a complex issue I don’t want to get into in this book, nor is it a career I am interested in, but I think society would benefit from education reform that incorporates into the curriculum age-appropriate activities for all grade levels that encourage acceptance and inclusion of people with disabilities.
To the extent possible, I was held to the same academic standards as my peers. In elementary school, I attended the regular gym class with my peers, but also had on-on-one instruction with a gym teacher twice a week. Starting in middle school, it was determined that many of the gym requirements for the sighted students were inappropriate for me, so I had gym class with the Special Ed students. I think the only academic requirement I was exempted from was high school chemistry because it was very visual in nature, and I had no interest in any career that would involve Chemistry anyway. In exchange, I took Earth Science, also known as Rocks for Jocks. I was walking to this class one day when the wrestling coach with whom I was casually acquainted because he was friends with Mrs. Hobson, said hi and casually asked me what class I was headed to. When I told him I was headed to Earth Science, he said, “Ah! Rocks for Jocks!” This still makes me laugh, partly because I admire witty people, and partly because after looking up what a jock is on my BrailleNote’s dictionary, I realized it was such an accurate assessment of the class. I really felt out of place in this class because I was one of only a few other girls, and all the boys really were jocks. But it was an easy class where I remember getting my homework done relatively quickly, and for someone whose second least favorite subject is Science, that was all I cared about.
Sometimes, I even felt like I was held to a higher standard than my peers. I remember envying my sighted peers sometimes, not because I wished I could see, but because when they didn’t do their homework, they only had to deal with lecturing by the classroom teacher and their parents. But because I had an education team, when I didn’t do my homework, I was lectured by the classroom teacher, my parents, my aid and Mrs. Reich. The lectures from Mrs. Reich were especially memorable because normally, she really is perpetually cheerful, and she still found ways to make lessons fun and rewarding as I got older. In middle school, she started teaching me basic cooking skills, and while some vision rehabilitation teachers follow a prescribed curriculum of foods blind students should learn to cook, Mrs. Reich was more laid-back and believed the same skills could be learned cooking foods the student likes. So I knew that if she felt the need to lecture me, I had really messed up.
By high school, I was a serious student who was invited to Academic Honors Night every year. Academic Honors Night was an annual event rewarding students with a GPA of 3.5 or higher. This dedication was mostly due to genuine maturity, as I was becoming an adult who understood the importance of education for my future, a future that I realized was much closer at hand than it was in elementary school, and I had developed a passion for writing and politics that compensated for my hatred of Math. It also helped that by the time I got to high school, technology was available that made homework completion much less tedious. In addition to the BrailleNote which made writing papers and doing research so much easier, the horrible 4-track cassette player and a box of cassette tapes for each textbook, was replaced with one CD for each book, and a special CD player to play it. Each box of cassettes came with a braille reference sheet to look up which cassette, and which track on that cassette contained an assigned textbook chapter. The volunteer readers for these books announced every page and chapter heading, but once you found the right track, you had to fast-forward, stop every few seconds, listen for a little bit to hear what page you were on, then fast-forward more until you got to the right spot. I didn’t have the patience for this tedium, so unless I could talk someone into giving me a print book and convince my parents to just read the chapter to me, I often found the consequences of giving a flimsy excuse to the teacher for not doing the assignment more bearable than messing with the 4-track player. But the new CD player had a keypad where I could just enter the page number and boom, I was there!
But if I am being honest, this dedication was also partly fueled by a conversation with Mrs. Reich in eighth grade when she worried about how I would handle the academic rigor of high school, and suggested the possibility that I could spread high school over five years, or because of my disability, I could legally stay in high school until I was 21. I don’t remember my exact response, but I remember the spirit of it was “Oh heck no!” Many nights at 1:00 in the morning when I was still creating a graph or trying to figure out a complex equation and I was so tempted to just go to bed and forget it, this veiled threat was enough to motivate me to persevere until the assignment was done, even correcting mistakes I had made on my homework the night before.
A couple years ago, I had a chance to catch up with Mrs. Reich over lunch. She told me then that a lot of aids request that teachers only assign the blind student half the homework assigned to everyone else because some subjects, especially Math are more difficult to grasp as a blind person. But Mrs. Hobson believed that I should have the same homework as my peers. She wanted me to be well-prepared for the real world, which she believed could not happen if I had the expectation of only having to do half the work as my peers. Maybe it’s a good thing Mrs. Reich didn’t tell me this until I was well into adulthood because had I known this as a teenager, I might have been furious with Mrs. Hobson. Because homework took me so long, sometimes I feel like I didn’t fully get the chance to be a kid. For example, every time I listen to a political debate, I think about how neat it would have been to try out Debate Club, but when this opportunity was offered, I knew joining this club would be biting off more than I could chew. My only extra-curricular activities in high school were weekly piano lessons with a sweet nun who taught me by ear, although I was often too burnt out from homework to practice as much as I should have, and the Milwaukee Children’s Choir which rehearsed at a church downtown two hours one evening a week. Even with just these activities, I was often living on four hours of sleep at night. But if I had it to do all over, I definitely would not have exchanged choir for debate club, as singing was, and still is a true passion of mine, and the friendships, opportunities and joy this choir brought to my childhood could not have been matched by debate club. And as cliche as it may sound, with maturity I have come to agree with the sentiment that adversity builds character. If I went through school having plenty of time to pursue every childhood opportunity, but accustomed to having only half the homework as my peers, college might have been a much bigger culture shock than it was, and I may not have been as tenacious when challenges came my way in college, in my first job as a paralegal at a Social Security disability law firm, or in seminary school where I am currently pursuing a Masters certificate in Christian studies.
At every school I attended, I was given a private room designated the Braille Room. At Burleigh Elementary, I was pulled out of class when my peers were practicing penmanship, and taken to this room to practice Braille. I was also sometimes taken to this room when the class was given time to work on assignments independently. The teacher often played music during this time, and classmates would talk which made it difficult for me to concentrate. I was also periodically pulled out of class during story time just after lunch. This was the only time I was ever sad about meeting with Mrs. Reich as I loved everything about story time, especially in Ms. Gnacinski’s class. Ms. Gnacinski was my teacher for first and second grade. She never chose a story I didn’t love, and just listening to her sweet, expressive reading voice made me smile. Instead of listening to her from our desks, we would sit in a circle on carpet squares in the corner of the classroom. After a long morning learning to read for ourselves, followed by the noisiness and craziness of lunch and recess, this cozy story time was just what I needed. When I expressed sadness about having to miss story time, Ms. Gnacinski tried tape recording the class story time for me to listen to at home which I tried to do a couple of times, but it just wasn’t the same.
I attended half-day kindergarten in the afternoons, but every Monday, Mom would take me to school early for physical and occupational therapy. Once I started first grade, I was pulled from art class, another largely visual subject, for this therapy. I didn’t cry in therapy as I did in preschool, but I wasn’t fond of it. I especially hated the balance beam, and having to stand on one foot without holding onto anything. I actually don’t know how I managed to graduate physical therapy by the end of second grade because I still couldn’t stand on one foot if my life depended on it. Maybe Mrs. Judy just decided I was a lost cause. I received Occupational Therapy through fifth grade. In kindergarten, the focus was learning to use silverware. Mom would send me to school with a Tupperware container of macaroni and cheese, which Mrs. Becky would heat for me. I should not have graduated from that either, as I still don’t have patience for forks. During these lunches with Mrs. Becky, I would either manage to only catch one or two noodles when I tried to spear them blindly with my fork, or I would get too many noodles and spill them all down the front of me while bringing the fork up to my mouth. My well-meaning older siblings have tried various times over the years to make me practice, but the bossy way they went about it, and the way they nitpicked everything from my posture to the way I held the fork only made me feel more frustrated, discouraged and rebellious. Meals are supposed to be enjoyable, and I don’t understand why it is so taboo in the sighted world to get a little bit of assistance from the hands God gave us. As an adult, I developed Celiac Disease, which has turned out to be advantageous as I have a legitimate excuse to avoid eating at formal events, and on the rare occasion I do eat out with friends, I have found them to be true friends who accept me as I am, even saying if they lost their sight, they would need to use their hands too!
In first and second grade, I remember the focus shifting to learning to dress myself. Mrs. Becky showed me how I could tell my shirt and pants were on the right way by making sure the tag was in back. Nowadays most clothing does not have tags, a well-intentioned remedy to the annoyance of being poked by tags, but a change which has made it a little more difficult to ensure I am not putting anything on backwards. Fortunately, most clothing has a tiny imprint I can feel where the tag used to be, and of course, if the shirts have anything tactile like a painted design, beads or glitter, it is pretty obvious that goes in front. Mrs. Becky also showed me how to work zippers, snaps and buttons, and how to tie my shoes.
Then toward the end of second grade through fifth grade, the focus shifted to learning to type on a qwerty keyboard and use a computer equipped with screen-reading software. I caught on to typing pretty easily. In the very early days of learning this skill, there were braille letters on every key, but I didn’t need them for long. I don’t know if the engineers behind the creation of the keyboard were consciously thinking about accessibility for the blind, but nevertheless, the little bumps on the f and j really helped orient me. The only thing I hated about learning to type were the frequent trips to the computer lab to take typing tests with my class. The tests required entering long, complicated sentences that Mrs. Zahn would have to read to me, and then a software program would assess our speed and accuracy. On these tests, my typing speed was slow which concerned teachers at first. But Mrs. Becky quickly figured out that when I could type my own sentences, cutting out the awkwardness of trying to re-type sentences read to me, my speed improved dramatically. But while my typing ability on the Qwerty keyboard was acceptable, I much preferred typing on the braille keyboard where I amazed classmates and teachers over the years with how fast my fingers could fly. To sighted people, the braille code that is based entirely around just six keys seems complicated, and I can understand where they are coming from. But once you memorize the code, the braille keyboard is so much more efficient in my opinion than the qwerty keyboard. But I am so glad I learned to type on a qwerty keyboard, not only because it is a vital skill to have when using a braille keyboard isn’t possible, but also because by middle school when spelling was no longer an official subject, the qwerty keyboard provided a much-needed opportunity to practice spelling.
My computer skills regressed again when I got to high school because I loved my BrailleNote so much that I came to despise the regular computer. I not only hated the computer because of the inefficiency of navigating through a zillion menus and toolbars and windows with tabs and arrows when the BrailleNote was so much more straight-forward, or having to listen to text read, and sometimes mis-pronounced, in a monotonous computer voice when on my BrailleNote, I could read silently using the braille display. I also hated the fact that because the laptop equipped with the Window-Eyes screen reader was a shared computer, the screen reader did not come on by default, so I had to go through a whole procedure to get the screen reader open. For a brief time in elementary school, we had Window-Eyes installed on the family computer. My family, understandably didn’t want this on all the time, but once they figured out how to turn it off, they couldn’t figure out how to get it back on again, and family life was very hectic during those years such that no one had the time or energy to figure that out. In middle school, assignments that required typing were rare enough that I could either get them done at school, or I would write the paper on my Perkins Brailler and dictate it to Mom or Dad who would type it.
At school, getting Window-Eyes open involved a relatively simple procedure that Mrs. Hobson wrote out for me. After holding down the power button for couple seconds and waiting for some clicking and a chime to indicate the computer was ready to go, I think I had to tab three times, enter my username, tab again, enter my password, press enter, then tab ten times to find the screen reader, press enter and it would come on. The problem was that this procedure almost never worked for me, and when Mrs. Hobson would check in on me and I would tell her I couldn’t get it open, and she would see I was completely on the wrong screen, I think she assumed I just didn’t follow the directions, especially when, of course, the procedure would work perfectly for her. It was my intention to follow the directions exactly, but I could have mis-counted the tabs, or even mis-typed my username or password. But with no screen reader, I had no way of knowing where I went wrong. In preparation for college, I found out that most colleges use the JAWS screen reader, which was fine with me because given the frustration using the computer provoked, I kind of wanted a fresh start, and I never was really proficient with Window-Eyes anyway. So in August 2008, as soon as my guide dog training was complete, I scheduled some training sessions with JAWS through Vision Forward. I am a proficient computer user with JAWS now, but more importantly, now that I am an adult, I have my own computer set with the screen reader to come on instantly and no one is allowed to touch it!
The BrailleNote could connect to the Internet, but back in those days, not every website was compatible with the BrailleNote. One Tuesday in December my senior year of high school, Mrs. Hobson gave me two days advance notice of an upcoming unit in Algebra 2 that would require a special calculator to multiply matrices. The other students had advanced hand-held calculators for this, and my BrailleNote had a built-in calculator, but it was not capable of this particular task.
“I want you to think about how you could do this assignment,” she told me that Tuesday.
By then, I had been working with her so long I knew exactly what she was getting at. There was a website with a calculator program I could use. I think I did a half-hearted Google search on my BrailleNote that evening, but when I clicked on the links to a couple sites and they didn’t work with my BrailleNote, I reported to Mrs. Hobson the next day that I couldn’t find any websites. With a sigh of disappointment at my lack of initiative, she gave me the name of a website she had found. I hadn’t found that particular site in my half-hearted search, so I held out hope all day that this website would work with my BrailleNote, but alas it did not, and my anxiety about dealing with the Laptop was so intense that, in an uncharacteristic reversion to my slacker childhood ways, I lied to the Math teacher the next morning and basically told him the assignment was inaccessible for me. By then, interaction with teachers was pretty much exclusively my responsibility, and this teacher was really kind and laid-back. But Mrs. Hobson found out, and needless to say, she was not pleased with me. She marched me down to the Braille room, walked me through the procedure of opening the computer again, and showed me the website, ending with, “This should have been done days ago.”
It so happened that the following two days, Mrs. Hobson had an emergency to attend to. But she told me in no uncertain terms that I had Friday to practice using the computer, and by the end of the day Monday, I was expected to complete the Math assignment. I forget now if I had to ask a teacher or librarian for help, or if I managed to get Window-Eyes open myself by being extra cautious, and paying meticulous attention to every keystroke. But I got through that assignment without further incident, and all was forgiven.
Then one Friday afternoon about a month later, I walked out of choir rehearsal, my last class of the day to find Mrs. Hobson and Mrs. Reich waiting for me. My stomach dropped as my mind raced. I hadn’t tried any more shenanigans like telling a teacher an assignment wasn’t accessible. What could I have done to be in so much trouble? Usually, I got myself to the bus after choir. Sometimes Mrs. Hobson would meet me to ask me a last minute question about an assignment or something. But I had never been greeted by both of them.
“We’ve got a bombshell for you,” Mrs. Reich said, “Mrs. Hobson got offered another position, so she will no longer be your aid.” They determined that I was mature enough to advocate for myself on my own, and what better way to practice for college. At that point, Mrs. Hobson only adapted a few Math materials and tests in braille for me. The vast majority of my assignments were e-mailed to me ahead of time directly from the teachers, and I e-mailed completed assignments directly to them. Mrs. Reich would handle the few things that still needed to be brailled or transcribed into print for the Math teacher, but basically, I was now on my own.
To even my own surprise, I was not anxious. I was excited. I tried to be professional and hide it. I think I said something like “Oh, wow congratulations.” But Mrs. Hobson laughed. She could always tell what I was really thinking, and she knew I was like the office employee who found out they would no longer have a boss.
For the most part, I handled this new independence with maturity. Shortly after gaining this independence, there was a Spanish project where the teacher wanted us to write a paragraph in Spanish color coding different words to indicate which were adjectives, nouns, verbs etc. Since I couldn’t color code words with my technology, I spoke with the teacher, and we worked out an adaptation where I would put the nouns in bold, underline the verbs, italicize the adjectives. But when I sat down to do the assignment, senioritis got the better of me and the tedium of navigating to all these different fonts was more than I could take. So I wrote the paragraph with no special fonts and turned it in. Disappointed, my teacher returned it with a D.
In one sense, you could say my wish to experience what it would be like to be treated like the sighted kids, to not be lectured by a whole education team when I messed up, was granted. But when I saw that grade, my maturity returned and I found no pleasure in it. In fact, I even told Mrs. Reich of my laziness and the bad grade that resulted even though I wouldn’t have had to. I don’t think I fully comprehended until then that all the years of being tough on me, holding me to high expectations, was not for their benefit but mine. It was then that I understood the love component of tough love. They knew that this world is rough, and if a blind person is going to thrive, she needs to have a strong work ethic and set high expectations for herself, and they knew they wouldn’t always be there to help me along. So they held me to high expectations, and called me out when they knew I was capable of doing better, in the hopes that when they said goodbye, I would be self-motivated and have high expectations of myself and live a fulfilling life. As an adult, I find myself thanking Mrs. Hobson and Mrs. Reich often for their tough love, especially when I am faced with challenging situations and find that I am able to resist the temptation to just give up.
After that wake-up call, I shaped up, and proudly accepted my final certificate at Academic Honors night that spring.
On June 8, 2008, I graduated with the same senior class I would have been in without a disability. I knew Mrs. Hobson would be there, and I couldn’t wait to grant a wish she expressed at the start of senior year, to see me cross the stage to accept my diploma independently. Despite practicing the route with Mrs. Reich at a rehearsal three days earlier, I was embarrassed when my cane disrupted the dignified occasion by clanging loudly against a podium that hadn’t been there in rehearsal. I wasn’t quite sure how to get around it, but my embarrassment melted away when Mrs. Hobson, whom I could tell was crying, ran onto the stage, gave me a hug and guided me around the podium. I didn’t know what the uncharted waters of college had in store for me, but that day, I knew I was well prepared. After the ceremony, Mrs. Hobson came to the cookout at my house, where she presented me with a ceramic plaque. Carved on this plaque in giant print letters was a mantra she said to me often over the years. “NEVER NEVER NEVER GIVE UP.”