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Posts Tagged ‘Social interactioin’

My grade one teacher probably thought she was wasting her time the day she ordered me to stay away from my friends. Her stern warnings about cutting myself off from sighted students had little theoretical chance of registering, after all, drowned out as they were by the incessant laughter of the two fellow blind kids sitting at the lesson table with me. The clatter of our braillers, the chatter of our audio books and the click of the abacuses on which we mastered math calculations was more than enough to compete with the scratch of pencils emanating from the classroom next door where our sighted peers were also hard at work. As far as my blind buddies went, her words certainly fell on deaf ears. They couldn’t understand why our merry trio should split up during the only fun time scheduled in the day. What good would it do them to seek out “seeing guys” simply so they could be excluded from a game of tag or soundly defeated during the first round of Red Rover? They shrugged off her reprimands for spending too much time together and openly defied her the day she meted out punishments for avoiding sighted classmates, likely assuming I bore them company in their feelings as I always had before. They were wrong, however, and so was my teacher. Her words hit home, the very place where I had heard them for the first time, and proved oddly prescient in my dealings with the two worlds I inhabit.

I grew up with the notion that blindness was to be rejected as much as possible. This attitude may have seemed normal to my parents, who welcomed a fully sighted infant into the world and brought a blind toddler home from the hospital nine months later after cancer destroyed both retinas and threatened to do much worse. They grieved, as any parents would, fearing that their child would be doomed to a life of limited prospects and social isolation. No daughter of theirs would spend her life weaving baskets or tuning pianos, they vowed..and so their active pursuit of a “normal” life began. Not for them the nursery school where most blind children attended…They found it lacking and promptly enrolled me in an alternative program featuring mostly sighted children of varying abilities. They had always planned for me to get my earliest education in French, the language spoken by all my maternal relatives. Why should blindness change that? Kindergarten passed in a blur of Allouette and Le Petit Prince, all of which shielded me from any knowledge that I was different.

My parents’ alternative leanings prevailed when primary school began, too, deciding to send me to an integrated day school where both sighted and blind students learned side by side rather than the residential facility specifically for the blind that many other families advised instead. That integration was emphasized to me as I prepared to switch schools, and indeed I felt no qualms. Hadn’t I spent my final days of kindergarten promising to marry the sighted guy who sat next to me on the carpet and sworn we’d build a house next door for our other friend so that we could always stay together?

But something strange happened when I arrived and met my blind classmates. They were more like me. Not in appearance or attitude or even sense of humour, but in ways that were even more fundamental. They understood concepts the same way I did, had the same curiosities about the sensory world beyond what most kids wanted to explore. This was never discussed, of course, it was just understood. So well, in fact, that we gravitated towards one another and formed a clique so tight that it aroused the anxiety of our erstwhile teacher. She understood, as my devastated parents had, that the mainstream world didn’t function like this. A blind person hoping to make his/her way among sighted peers would need to master their frames of reference and acquire the confidence to literally walk their walk. My friends, both more rebellious by nature than me, ignored this traditional advice and went about doing things their own radically different ways. For me, that wasn’t an option. My teacher was just reinforcing the lessons resonating in my earliest memories. Her cautions were no different than my mother tilting my chin to teach me to look at others when I spoke, or preventing me from rocking back and forth when forced to stay stationary. Both Mom and my teacher were only trying to negate the impact of my blindness and make it as easy as possible to act sighted. Why should I fight against that?

Their lessons paid off. By grade four I had transferred to my neighbourhood school, joined an extra-curricular choir and become an enthusiastic piano student. Periodic bullying commonly experienced by artistically inclined kids was compensated by the true friends I made, many of whom remain close to this day. I maintained regular contact with my two blind pals of primary school days, but no longer could we weave an auditory world around ourselves. That time receded further into my memory as middle and high school flew by, all in the company of sighted friends who embraced me and absorbed me fully into their everyday lives. The trappings of blindness that I did carry, such as my cane and braille textbooks, were conversational icebreakers rather than isolators. As I aged, my parents’ wishes became my own. Feeling grateful for the ability to mesh in a world that I knew was not easily accessed, I made it my goal to assimilate into it as much as possible. I never actively denied the limitations of my blindness, but sincerely believed it would never hold me back from anything substantive.

Reality checks came thick and fast starting the summer I worked at a camp for blind people. I chose the job as a poor man’s alternative to the regular camp I’d attended for years, which very understandably declined to hire me because of my inability to be a lifeguard. 🙂 While there I saw many examples of people who had become isolated from mainstream society and the bitterness such solitude could spawn. I felt a kinship to these people, yet also experienced internal tension as I fought to distance myself from that feeling. Things were different for me, I told myself. This sense of connection was downright dangerous and could jeopardize my chances of being normal! Such were the absurd musings of a seemingly confident teenager who was fighting to stem the rising tide of insecurity. Challenging one’s place in the world was terrifying and not the way an ordinary person spent the summer, after all, so I quashed the questioning voice and continued to do so for the next several years. University made it fairly easy to keep my head in the sand, feeling as it did like a continuation of my high school experience. Learning skills from my sighted housemates, going on tour with sighted choir friends and landing satisfying jobs at major corporations that epitomize mainstream life only deepened my sense that my blindness was an occasional inconvenience rather than a salient part of my personality. But there’s nothing like a change of career into an inherently questioning atmosphere to force a person to do some soul-searching and face the facts they find there.

Breaking into journalism first taught me that my facade of sightedness wasn’t going to pass muster under real scrutiny. I was outright told I couldn’t do the job and should pursue a career in academia instead. I flouted that advice and excelled in the journalism graduate program I attended, but received the same message when it came time to get a job. Only persistence, networking and extreme good luck got me the break I needed, first at a national newspaper and later at the wire service where I work to this day. The five years I’ve spent there have taught me a lot about the truths I tried to ignore. I am blind, no matter how much I may be able to ignore it. There are barriers in the sighted world I will never be able to cross, despite my own efforts and the best intentions of those who try to help. Being blind comes with frustrations and challenges that only a select few can truly understand. Pursuing that understanding is healthy, not a sign of sliding standards.

There’s a flipside, too. Too often I hear blind people rail against the iniquities of “the sighted world.” They lament that those who can see simply don’t care about the struggles taking place on the other side, or are simply too busy succumbing to the superficial lure of pretty exteriors to engage with someone who doesn’t fit the mould. Such thinking is grossly unfair — the disability world’s equivalent of reverse racism. Why should stereotypes and truisms be applied to sighted people if they’re not acceptable to the blind? Why does an “us vs. them” mentality have to exist? Don’t the concept of blind and sighted worlds only deepen the divides that circumstances have entrenched without any help?

I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to that teacher from so long ago, as well as to my adored parents that worked so hard to smooth my path. Their lessons created a dissonance that I still struggle to resolve, but also gave me access to a community that I could so easily have shunned. The conflicts I felt growing up seem so much simpler now. My blindness is a part of me, much like my dark hair and love of writing. Just as I wear red to play up my colouring and read voraciously to keep my language skills sharp, I must embrace my blindness and bring it to bear in a way that helps bridge the two perspectives I’m lucky enough to have. One of the people I love most in the world lives this reality in a much more concrete way, having neither enough vision to be considered legally sighted nor enough telltale signs to let the world know he struggles to see. He’s channelled that experience into a profound empathy for nearly all around him and a sincere desire to help in matters great and small. I wish to emulate him by helping connect the dots for blind and sighted alike. If I can facilitate dialog between groups that may not instinctively connect, then I have indeed found the place where I belong.

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