The year is 1988. Billy Ocean is singing “Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car”. Steven Hawking has released A Brief History of Time. Rain Man is topping the box office. Big hair and thick scrunch socks are in. Partying involves the Blue Light Disco hosted at the local concert hall by the police. Google is not yet invented. Mobile phones are not on the market. A bag of hot chips costs less than a dollar. And this is high school.
My Perkins Brailler, invented in 1951, yet still the most used mechanical braille writer in the world, weighing in at 4.8 kilograms thumps awkwardly against my thigh. Its bell tinging ever so slightly with the movement of my footsteps as I hurriedly lug it down the shabby corridor toward my designated room. It’s a room that by its very necessity marks me as someone who doesn’t belong, despite what my school uniform is designed to portray. It’s a room filled with volume upon volume of bulky braille books. These books, with their five to fifteen centimetre thickness and twenty-nine by thirty-six centimetre layout plus binding are too large and cumbersome to carry in my standard, over-crowded, graffiti covered canvas backpack, which might otherwise be considered cool with its half-eaten bread stick wrapped in brown paper poking up like an antenna from the side pocket if it were carried by anyone but me.
Think A4 sized, but square instead of rectangular, and with greater breadth and conspicuousness in comparison to a tightly bound, regular A4 printout. Because unlike print, which can be adjusted in size, contrast and other characteristics, braille only has one size regardless of the application, be it a magazine, children’s picture book, amenities sign, map, menu or greeting card. The only exception is pharmaceutical braille, as found on medicine bottles and boxes. However, everything else, no matter its application should remain at the standard, regular size.
An average braille formatted school textbook can be anywhere from ten to seventy volumes compared to its printed counterpart. Sometimes more, sometimes less, but either way it’s a lot to store. Each volume represents between fifteen and twenty-five print pages depending on the content. One average printed page equals two and a half to three standard braille pages, not including diagrams, which usually have a page to themselves. This medium adds up quickly. Calculate that by two or possibly three texts per subject, and ten or twelve curriculum topics, and it makes for some hefty reading material.
Hence, while everyone else has a dingy wooden locker not large enough to fit one braille volume, let alone an entire converted text book, I have a room. A room that my cohort resent, tease, exploit and ostracise me over on a daily basis, as though somehow the space I require takes away something from them. Little do they know just how far apart we are in terms of equality of education, earning potential or social inclusion. While their futures look bright and brim with possibilities, mine is weighted with ableist assumptions, condescension and impossible contradictions designed to keep me in my place.
Braille is made up of six cells or dots organised in two columns, garnering sixty-four different possible combinations. Each cell is assigned a subsequent number from one through six for ease of learning and communication. These six cells make up the twenty-six letters of the basic Latin alphabet as well as all punctuation, numbers, composition signs and contractions spanning all braille symbols, chemistry, music, computer, mathematical and contracted English. Many of the upward of 250 symbols, also known as phonograms or logograms, are repeated within and across codes, but depending on where they are situated and how they are arranged, they mean different things. In some ways braille can be seen as a type of shorthand. Although not considered a language in and of itself, it is nuanced and heavily reliant on specific context to be understood.
But I digress. Back to high school. As usual, I’m rushing down the corridor. My arms are full of now obsolete braille pages which were not correct for the previous maths lesson, leaving me wondering why I bother. I thought we were working on pages 87 through 93 as instructed previously. I gathered up the three volumes pertaining to pages 84 to 111 beforehand in the hope I had pro-actively covered all my bases, only to be told we were instead working on pages 54 through 60, and no, no I could not leave the classroom to retrieve the correct text because it would take too long.
It would have been five minutes well spent to gain some equity in my education. Instead, I’ve learned nothing in the last hour, just as I did in the hour before that, apart from the reinforcement of how pathetic, powerless and problematic I am as an individual. All this because of an openly hostile teacher determined to flex his cultural and demographic dominance over me in a show of resentment and disdain at my placement under his jurisdiction.
I don’t know it yet, but I will be demonised by this man for the following three years, thereby undermining my career choices for half a lifetime. I will actively avoid anything mathematical, statistical, quantitative, or vaguely related because of his harassment. The only thing I’ll carry from his class is a dislike of the subject and a sense of not being smart enough to take it on even if I did find comfort within its logic and structure. But why bother? I’m clearly not worth the trouble. Once again I’m punished for my disability in ways I cannot as a thirteen-year-old formulate or express, partly because it’s too dangerous to do so, and partly because I haven’t developed enough of an identity to know who I am or where I fit in the world.
It will be decades before I understand, let alone embrace my inherent value. Even then it will be on a sliding scale, able to be hijacked at any moment by something as innocuous as a colleague’s condescending comment, a disability slur by an acquaintance over dinner, or something more detrimental such as being deliberately shoulder-barged by a stranger as I walk down the street, or denied access to a boutique wine and cheese bar because I cannot make eye contact with the bouncer.
Eventually I’ll learn there are only so many things I can plan for, guard against or get upset about before it becomes too much, and I have to reassess my priorities. In the meantime, whatever this actually is, I know it’s horrible, and I hate myself. I’m trapped in a situation not of my own choosing, and there’s absolutely nothing I can do or say to make a difference. Experience tells me if I bring up the unfairness of it all, I’ll be seen as a troublemaker. I’ll be accused of not trying hard enough, being a liar, being lazy, being too smart for my own good, being a drama queen or anything else other than who I am and what I know to be true.
My lack of sight will always override everything. The rebuke is always the same; you are blind, so how would you know? The words don’t even have to be said to make them real. They simply hang in the air cultivating the smug superiority and irresponsibility that people think their eyesight provides, as if a single, notoriously unreliable sense is the be-all-and-end-all of truth. I swallow my vulnerability, isolation and humiliation like a good girl, all the while knowing the further behind I get, the less of a future I’m likely to have. Because without the competencies and all the inferences an education is supposed to provide, I’ll be left with nothing.
I’m reminded of this every day as though this is solely my responsibility. School is important, learning matters and knowledge is power. However, what happens when I turn up but the adults charged with delivering my education refuse to bend? What will I be left with when I’m free to leave and they continue coasting through the cosy confines of their careers? As it is, by the time I reach year ten, we will all have given up on me, and my pass will be a token orchestration for the benefit of all.
I try not to think about the constant shame and fear I feel, but it seeps from me through my words, my actions and my attitude toward everything. I’m bored, frustrated and angry. I’m angry at a school system that claims to support me yet denies me equity. A school system that treats me not as a person, but as a problem, a burden, a bother and a broken object. A school system that clearly cannot handle my presence and refuses to acknowledge its own shortcomings, instead blaming me as the student for not doing more to justify its investment.
I’m angry at a school system that accuses me of faking my blindness to gain some sort of advantage, as if that is even plausible. A school system that demands I play netball, but when injured due to my lack of visual capacity, suggests I’m deliberately not being a team player. A school system that denies me the school captaincy, even though it is a peer based voting process, because the result doesn’t fit with adult expectations or belief I can lead. A school system that refuses me the opportunity to follow my interest in geography because there is no protocol in place, and nobody wants to create one so I can succeed. A school system that bullies me into choosing music appreciation in accordance with someone else’s idea of what I’m capable of and what is convenient for them.
I’m frustrated by a school system that tells me to aim for the stars, but when I do, tells me I’m being unrealistic. A school system that forces me to learn to write with my right hand instead of my left because of an archaic convention. A school system that avoids teaching me braille even though it’s obvious to everyone I cannot use the extra lighting and heavily lined paper it dictates as a suitable allowance.
I am part of the first generation of children who are blind or have low vision to be mainstream educated as opposed to institutionalised, so I guess they have to start somewhere. However, it’s as though I should be grateful for this form of social experimentation and systematic exclusion of my personage. I know as a child I’m not supposed to recognise the exploitation of my disability for the sake of so-called progress, but I do. I have always known it. Even as a toddler, my not belonging, my not being like the others and my not being accommodated for was abundantly clear to me, just as it is to me now. And no matter how many years pass, this will be a pattern that society continues to perpetuate regardless of how proud its protestations are to the contrary. The truth is, we are centuries away from equality, if we ever get there at all, and judging by history’s treatment of people with disability, it doesn’t look promising.
I place my books back on their shelf, making sure their order is correctly sequenced for the next time I need to grab and run. I have four minutes between classes, just as everyone else in order to get from one location to another. The only difference being, I have two destinations between one subject and the next. I scan the desk with my fingers for my sketch book in readiness for the following series of microaggressions I’ll have to endure courtesy of an art teacher who believes I shouldn’t be in her class either. But it’s okay, because within a year her manipulation will have worked and any sense of creative expression I previously thought I had a right to will be gone. My self-esteem will be shattered and she’ll be able to tell herself and everyone else how right she was about me all along.
I don’t know it yet, but I’ll never pick up a pencil or use a pottery wheel again, let alone attempt to dye a fabric or sew a skirt. And when my daughter is born in twenty-five years time, I’ll avoid the craft activities, handing them over to my husband because I don’t feel capable. This won’t be the last place I bear the brunt of someone else’s prejudice and pain because they’re not willing to do it themselves.
I am desperate, defeated and depressed in equal measure, yet there simply isn’t time to fantasise about the alternative non-disabled life I wish I had. Because right now I need to count entrances in my head as I rehearse my best route to the next lesson. Do I take the two flights up and over because it’s less crowded and well-marked by the opposite staircase leading directly to the walkway I need to get me to the art department? Alternatively, do I go down one flight, through the shadowy enclave and cut across the quadrangle? Although quicker, if my trajectory is slightly off, I miss the path and risk the embarrassment and potentially dangerous situation of finding myself in the shrubbery down behind the tennis courts where the cool kids smoke.
People don’t seem to realise the demands placed on me by the built environment and just how much extra concentration and time it takes to navigate it. After all, it isn’t as though I can reflexively glance up and check the room numbers and adjust my direction accordingly, avoid the movable metal garbage bins or any number of other obstacles everyone else takes for granted. The wind, the rain, the shadows, the sun and the season are all variables I factor into my carefully curated mental map, yet still there are days I become disorientated. Place on top of this the hordes of noisy, unforgiving teenagers who like to taunt and tease me about my disability, who unsettle me with their fake directions and false offers of help. It isn’t an easy place to grow up.
I’m stuck in this strange world of colours, shapes and shadows that exhaust me with their shifting perspectives. It’s like living in a kaleidoscope of patterns that never truly make sense or match up. However, I’m expected to decode and deliver according to a set of rules and series of coordinates I don’t have access to because I cannot see them.
When it comes to making friends, I am tolerated, but if anyone wants to distance themselves from my pariahdom, all they have to do is move their regular place in the playground, and I won’t be able to find them. This is the signal that I’m no longer a novelty. My capital or exploitative ability has run its course, and it’s up to me to find somewhere else I don’t belong either. I then wait for the inevitable dance of ducking and weaving to begin again. It may take a few weeks or it could last a few months, but it will happen, and once more, I’ll be confronted with the cruelty and advantage that everyone else has in comparison
I carry the suspicion of these experiences into adulthood, never quite easing into friendships with the grace and openness that I ought to extend. I’ll forever be surprised when someone seeks out my company or genuinely wants to spend time with me. I will delight in their spontaneous drop-in for coffee, suggestion of a run, invitation to a show, offer to help me shop for shoes or discussion of a good book. Unfortunately, I won’t always have the confidence to say yes when the invitation is offered, let alone reciprocate. My instinct is always to pull back a little just in case they decide to change their regular place in the proverbial playground.
People wonder why I don’t use my cane. They don’t understand how it signifies yet another line between me and my peers. It’s a testament to what I am literally unable to do, marking me as an adulterer against human perfection. A cane is designed to merely detect obstacles when it comes in contact with them, as opposed to a guide dog that I’m too young for and don’t want, which is trained to navigate toward and around things depending on what they are. Although a cane is extremely useful, the whole argument that it signifies to others they should be mindful is often lost in translation. Firstly, I don’t want people to realise the extent of my blindness. And secondly, people aren’t that neat or nice, so why give them any more reason to hate me.
The fact is, if I could see, the entire contents of this room full of braille volumes could fit into my school bag. I could carry a dictionary, a trashy novel, the requisite text books of 200 pages or more, some highlighters, a pencil case full of pens and other paraphernalia, and the totally on-trend collage ring binder full of loose-leaf paper and coloured dividers under my arm.
As it is though, I’m surrounded by equipment I cannot use. Equipment such as magnifying glasses, angled desks and over the top bright desk lamps that only remind me how well I am failing to literally see what the education system seems to think I should be able of using. The only half-decent thing in here is the electronic typewriter, but as it is deemed too precious to take outside this room, I guess there is nothing. Nothing but the dread of having to return in an hour, and instead of swapping out textbooks, I will be meeting with my itinerant teacher to continue my braille lessons.
I love braille thanks to Helen Keller, the only example of a university educated female I can mirror my ambition upon, knowing she was a rule breaker just like me, who found her way in the end, even if it wasn’t quite on her terms or lived up to her expectations. Somehow even now as a teenager, I know that my life will be the same. I will require more assistance than I would ultimately like, and just as was her fate, no matter what else I do, I will never break free of the stereotype that is the blind girl.
However, unlike Helen, my teacher and I do not see eye to eye. There’s more tension than trust between us, which makes it difficult to work. Her constant disappointment in me is merely another form of how wrong I am about everything. I can tell she’s simply going through the motions with me, which is why I don’t listen to her lectures. She is the minimal provision of a couple of hours a week from a system wanting to be seen as doing the correct thing, but failing to deliver on their promises.
Teaching me braille is nothing more than an exercise in keeping up appearances. Nobody is serious about my education, so why should I be? I was ten when I first began to learn braille, as only then did the system declare it an appropriate course of action for my literacy and numeracy needs. Never mind the gaping holes in my spelling or basic use of punctuation which will haunt me forever. I am expected to perform to a standard well beyond my experience or skill level and I am reprimanded when I do not. I am constantly told that exceptions cannot be made and I do not deserve special treatment. After all, I am just like everybody else.
Meanwhile, here I am, caught between classes that teach me nothing accept how I don’t measure up, fit in or follow through. I am assessed using exactly the same standards as my peers, but with less than ten percent of the resources. When I do well I am accused of cheating, falsifying my marks or misrepresenting myself. When I do poorly I am accused of being inattentive, apathetic and attention seeking. But this is who I am – the first and only blind kid in the school.