by Robert Feinstein

BLINDNESS, 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.

Those 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 school orchestra.

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.

The 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.

Some 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.

I 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.

Even 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.

Totally 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.

Since 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 meet.

Around 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."

Those 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.

The 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 of life.

I 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.

I 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 and 60s.

Text ©2002 Robert Feinstein
Illustration ©2002 Robbo



Bob Feinstein
and Harley live in Brooklyn, NY.
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BENT: A Journal of CripGay Voices/March 2002