See! See! See! See!

by Lawrence Newman

[from: I Fill This Small Space: Writings of a Deaf Activist
Edited by David Kurs
Used by Permission from Gallaudet University Press © 2009]

In medical terms John had what was called ophthalmia neonatorum, an eye infection which left him with ten percent vision, mostly in the right eye. The first time John went to school, he was amazed to learn that the use of Braille was not only frowned upon but strictly forbidden. "You see," the school people told him "Braille becomes a crutch and will prevent you from using what residual seeing you have. By learning on Braille you will be following the line of least resistance."

Words were a blur even when a magazine was held close to his eyes but John did not complain. He had faith in his school officials. Did they have a lot of experience? And the years they spent in college...What's more, their statements sounded so logical, such as the following: "This is a seeing world, the kind in which you will have to live. Do seeing people use Braille?" There was even a motto in the principal's office: "SEE! SEE! SEE! SEE!"

John's parents were firmly behind the school. Yes they were 100 percent behind the school because they wanted John to be as normal as possible. Constant exposure to the world of sight, they learned, was important. They even had special eyeglasses fitted for their son to help increase the acuity of his remnant sight and to make his drooping eyelids less conspicuous. The school taught him how to lift his drooping eyelids so that he could appear as normal as possible.

No one could say that John did not try. He eventually could make out large letters in the newspaper headlines. His parents were excited and pleased when he showed them what he could do. The school officials were in a dither with John's achievement. They called in the newspapers, and soon John's story was carried by the wire services throughout the nation. The school took John on many trips to demonstrate his ability. He performed before the Daughters of ---, the Charity of ---, the Auxiliary Sisters of___, to mention but three. Many were moved to tears, and some even hugged and kissed john.

Soon something was troubling John. Some of his schoolmates were smuggling in magazines and books in Braille although these were not permitted even outside the classroom. Hi school mates surreptitiously urged John to learn Braille. He refused to be contaminated even though some of the arguments of his classmates carried a more logical right than those of the school people. One congenitally blind boy told him he had no vision so what was he supposed to do? John was flabbergasted because he had been told that every blind person had some residual vision, no matter how little, that could be utilized. The same boy said that if a flashlight was tucked to his eye, he could sense some light but what good would that do?

Another girl, an acquired blindness case, said that she had some vision left, a very small percent, but that after ten years she still could not tell the letters m and n apart; sometimes the tail of the j appeared faded and therefore looked like an i; and the o sometimes became a p. With a sigh she mentioned that time was when she could tell a boy and a girl apart in the distance, but not any more.

What shocked John more than anything else was the news via the grapevine to the effect that almost all blind persons use Braille. Braille? Almost all? He began to waver when he learned that there were some schools where Braille was permitted outside of the classroom. He was staggered even further to know that there were schools that even permitted Braille in the classroom!

John slowly began to realize how surface appearances could be deceptive. There is a form of eye trouble called conjunctivitis, and those who have this are not really blind but only hard-of-seeing. This type student-along with those who acquired blindness late in life and could therefore remember many sights and objects and their shape texture, and color-was often used to demonstrate the success of a school's method. The school's policy and methodology were geared for the benefit of these types. They were often portrayed on television and featured in the press-and the public was misled. Those not in the know or who were fed the one-and-only method looked askance at those who used Braille or could not use their seeing skills; such unfortunates were considered primitive or backward or just plain dumb!

John began to ask himself what good it was to be able to read large headlines if he could not read without facility and understanding whole columns which were the "meat" of what the headlines were screaming. He began to ask himself what it really meant to live in a seeing world.

Which is more important, John kept asking himself: to assume an appearance of normalcy with ten percent vision that stumbles and staggers, OR to admit having a sight impairment, letting the world know it, and using Braille to advance and ensure his place in that world. Which? Which?

"Hey Bill!" he called out to one of his classmates. "Take my hand and show me what these dots mean." John felt a sense of elation as Bill guided him. "Yes, yes, this is A----and what?"

"A stands for 'Alice'...."*

* Alice Cogswell, the first deaf girl to be taught the manual alphabet by Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet.