because of the way it affects mobility and social interactions,
isolates by its very nature. Although I have no empirical data
to back me up, I am convinced that both nondisabled and disabled
people are less comfortable around the blind than they are around
people with other disabilities.
I think it has a lot
to do with the great importance that the sighted place on eye
contact, facial expression, and gestures. It is no coincidence
that "the eyes are the windows of the soul" is a quotation so
familiar and accepted.
born blind face isolation in every aspect of their lives in ways
that sighted people find hard to understand. From about fourth grade
until the end of high school I was mainstreamed, but despite being
with sighted classmates, I felt like an observer. I looked forward
to time spent in the Braille room with other blind students, where
the teacher transcribed into Braille the class notes that sighted
students made for us by using carbon paper. Although I could use
a Braille slate and stylus, I was too slow to take notes, and the
continuous banging made by the stylus as I punched dots into the
heavy paper disturbed my sighted classmates. Something designed
to make me independent contributed to my isolation.
My feeling of not being part of the class changed a bit in high
school. Because some sighted students worked in the Braille room
as guides and readers, we blind students got to know them. This
was a good arrangement, because the sighted volunteers earned extra
credit and we blind students enjoyed their company. I did make a
few friends who read assignments to me and I was able to join the
high school was located outside my neighborhood, however, and since
blind students came to the school from all over Brooklyn, we had
no opportunity for socializing after class. I have talked about
this to many blind friends and we share similar memories of getting
home from school, doing homework, and sitting in our rooms listening
to the radio or to talking books, and occasionally talking on the
phone, but usually only with blind classmates.
rift grows larger as you get older. At the age of sixteen I still
had to be guided everywhere. None of my classmates invited me to
visit them at home, nor was I included when they had outings. Even
if they had tried to include me I would have had no way of participating
unless my mother had taken me, and like any teenager I would have
found that embarrassing. As I think back on this period, I am filled
with anger towards my mother because she never tried to make it
possible for me to socialize. She was a woman who had many problems,
and was virtually a recluse herself. She did not or could not see
how lonely and isolated I was. She could have given me money to
take a cab to visit a classmate; she could have given me permission
to invite classmates to our home, but she never did. If I complained
about being bored, she would use some dismissive Yiddish phrase
like, "Bang your head against the wall," which any child of Yiddish-speaking
parents will recognize. I felt trapped, with no idea of how to make
my life better.
of the other blind students felt less isolated because they had
families that did things together. I enjoyed one tiny taste of this
kind of family support when an aunt I loved very much would come
to visit and take me for walks. She brightened up the gloomy atmosphere
at home and was even able to make my mother laugh.
am fifty-two years old and my mother has been dead for years. Why
am I remembering all these past events now? I began to wax nostalgic
because a friend is reading me a book about the folksong revival
of the 60s. Although those were times I lived through, a lot of
what the book relates sounds like news from another planet. During
those years I would sit at home for hours listening to Joan Baez
and Judy Collins without knowing that singers like them were performing
in Greenwich Village, just a subway ride from where I lived in Brooklyn.
Apart from records, I did not even know there was a folksong revival.
when I finally learned to use a white cane at the age of seventeen,
my travel was limited to going to the Lighthouse, a well-known organization
for the blind. Because Mr. Bennett, the blind man who ran the music
school, refused to let students study anything but classical music,
I was forced to study music I did not like and really couldn't play.
I was considered one of the better pianists (which wasn't saying
much) and was made to play for concerts that took place at the end
of the school year. I spent hours learning music through Braille
notation, a painstakingly slow method which involves learning a
measure for the right hand, a measure for the left hand, and then
combining them. While I was spending hours learning classical pieces
I hated, or alone in my room with my talking books and my radio,
listening to soap operas like "My True Story," other kids my age
were going to folk music performances or coffeehouses, or learning
to play the guitar.
on my own for the first time, I
found the transition from high school to college difficult. As
it turned out, my freshman roommate was gay; he even had occasional
partners in bed right in front of me. Because I was used to being
alone, and certainly unaccustomed to being with sighted students
exclusively, I did not imagine that such things went on. I just
knew that he and his friend made a lot of noise.
I reacted to my own sex but never to women, I
was pretty sure I was gay, but
I was having a hard time just making casual friends,
so I was afraid to reveal my feelings. Besides, I had no idea how
gay people met, and this added to my isolation. I was amazed at
how easily sighted people interacted with each other, and to this
day I fail to understand what signals pass between people when they
this time I also came to realize that many sighted people, especially
men, are uncomfortable with my taking their arm, although this seemed
less true when I was in France or even Canada. On campus, guys seemed
afraid of touch. Having to guide me seemed to threaten their masculinity.
To hide their discomfort they would often say things like, "Keep
your cane out; that way nobody will think we're queer."
on campus who were gay (supposedly most of the organ majors!) did
not bother with me; if any of the friends I made, or the students
who read to me, were gay, I never knew about it. I did get to attend
one Judy Collins concert during my four years at Oberlin, some students
taught me a few chords on the guitar, and I even learned to play
Tom Dooley, but blindness, coupled with the realization that I was
gay, isolated me more and more. I felt like I was invisible, that
not only was I unable to see, but that people didn't see me, either.
book about the folk music revival is wonderful to read, but it has
left me with a deep sadness, an emptiness that I haven't felt in
years. It brought back the loneliness and isolation of those college
years. As my friend read the book to me, my eyes filled with tears.
I was ready to abandon it, but writing this piece has served as
a kind of catharsis. I can now hear about what others experienced
without the horrible feeling of having missed out on a large part
wonder if things are better for blind kids nowadays. I do not know
any, so I can't ask. We now know how to regulate oxygen in the incubator,
so few infants develop ROP (retinopathy of prematurity), and the
rate of total blindness has dropped dramatically. Most people classified
as legally blind have quite a bit of sight, and children born blind
like me are pretty rare.
am glad that this has happened. But as the French song says, Le
temps perdu ne se rattrape plus, Lost time cannot be found
again. The times have changed, and I will never know what it would
have been like to be a part of that wonderful era of the late 50s
Text ©2002 Robert Feinstein
Illustration ©2002 Robbo
and Harley live in Brooklyn, NY.
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