Friday, February 8, 2008

ruminations on seeing

Post-cataract surgery on my right eye, I am struggling with adapting to my changing vision, and wondering how long it will be before I can get the new glasses that will let me read again with ease. Physically I feel great, but emotionally this is far more challenging than I expected. I can already tell that in the long run my vision will be far superior to anything I've experienced since the age of 9, but the short run, with classes to teach and papers to grade is very daunting. The experience has reminded me of childhood events that had lay in the dusty back rooms of my memory for some time.

When I was a child (between the ages of 10 and 14) I was inordinately fascinated with Helen Keller. At ten I read a biography of her life written specifically for children, that had at the end of it a chart of the letters of the alphabet in sign language. I promptly memorized all the letters and practiced finger spelling often. At a slightly older age, I read Helen's own autobiography, and the play "The Miracle Worker," and saw the movie version starring Patty Duke and Ann Bancroft.

I spent a lot of time wondering what it would be like to be deaf or blind (but never both), and concluded that if I could choose (it never occurred to me to think about the fact that one does not get to choose these things) it would be preferable to lose my sight, because one could substitute reading with ones eyes with reading Braille, but one could not substitute hearing music with anything else.

The junior high school I attended, was paired with an elementary school, and was the location for the districts program for blind children. This was many decades before ADA and no one talked about children having "visual impairments." They were blind, and that was that. There were two girls my age, Barbara and Susan, who were part of that program and they each shared several classes with me. This was long before the term "mainstreaming" was introduced into the educational vocabulary. The younger children in the program spent more of their time in the programs classroom, while Barbara and Susan only went there for home room, lunch, and one other period during the day.

Just as I had earlier become fascinated with finger spelling, my attention was riveted by Braille. In the program room there were machines that one "typed" out Braille on; the sighted women who ran the program on a daily basis spent much of their time, translating students homework assignments and lessons from print into Braille, and translating the students' Braille documents into text for their regular teachers. In the classroom, both girls used Braille slates to take notes.

I started spending all my break and lunch time in the program room learning Braille. I never progressed beyond "First Grade" level --advanced Braille depends upon many contractions to shorten the laborious process of producing Braille writing. Using a Braille slate, was very labor intensive as each letter (except for "a") involved multiple punches (for multiple dots).

At the time, I did think about working in education with blind students, but mostly I had strange, almost romantic notions about disabilities. Disabilities, in my mind, made people interesting and exotic, not plain and ordinary like myself. I purchased my own Braille slate, and would lie in bed at night with the slate on my belly writing notes to Susan and Barbara, or trying to read notes they had written me by touch.

Then junior high school was over, and Barbara and Susan, went off to other high schools, and Braille like finger spelling got set aside for other interests. The finger spelling became useful briefly in college, when students from Gallaudet University did a semester exchange with some Oberlin students, and two Gallaudet students ended up on the dormitory floor I was responsible for as a "floor counselor" (Oberlin speak for Resident Assistants). As for the Braille, every day on the elevator, I run my fingers over the Braille letters for each floor, and for "door open" and "door close." Possibly the only person on our campus who has ever done so with understanding.

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