When most people think of memories of school, they are positive and happy. They involve
whispered secrets with close friends, Giggling and playing at recess, fitting in. That experience was not my own. I am Guyanese American. I live in the Bronx, and I’m totally blind. When it came to choosing a school for me, my immigrant parents, probably terrified I’d be the target of bullies, decided to send me to a school for the blind. It was incredibly small. Less than 200 students in all, and an average of 7 kids in a class. I went there from kindergarten through 12th grade, and my experience was definitely not ideal.
The concept is a good one. Put students in a situation where they are with people exactly like them and give them individualized attention. However, the execution usually tends to fall short. In the first few years it was okay. My little class of 5 were friendly enough, we talked, to each other, played together, and generally got along. However, once second grade hit, that’s when things started to change. I was an only child, and first generation. I was a quiet, shy, timid, and very anxious kid. My classmates usually came from loud large families. They would play with dolls, run around, and just be like typical kids. I never knew what to do with all that. The anxious introvert in me would completely shut down. I didn’t know how to make myself fit in, so, I just kept quiet. As you can imagine, this didn’t make me popular with most people. I was seen as a nerd, really awkward, the no it all, the kid who would be guaranteed to always ask about homework. I just could never figure out how to make myself likable. The biggest issue was that since the school was so small, when you don’t fit in, there was really no one else to turn too. I was just forced to keep to myself out of necessity, because there was no one who I could naturally click with.
Middle school brought even more challenges, mostly in the realm of academics. I’ve always naturally been intelligent. Work just came quite easily to me. However, the standards at a school for the blind aren’t high. The problem is that some students have additional disabilities, as well as blindness. Since the classes are so small, teachers have to make sure that everyone in the class understands what’s going on. Essentially this means that most things are dumbed down quite a bit. Instructions are repeated over and over, and the work we do end up getting is really easy. For someone who just wanted to learn and get pushed, it just didn’t really feel challenging. I might as well have not even been in a classroom since the work was so easy. I just didn’t feel as if I was learning.
High school was the hardest. While other kids were taking AP classes and boosting their GPA’s, I was still stuck. My parents and I have never had the closest relationship in terms of emotional conversations, so I couldn’t really just talk to them and open up about how stuck I felt. I vowed to myself that I would get as far away from their as I could when it came to college. I was one of only 3 students in my graduating class who ended up pursuing higher education. That says a lot about how limiting schools for the blind actually are. I got into 8 out of the 11 schools I applied to and was thrilled to finally go somewhere and be someone different, reinvent myself, and actually have friends.
This leads me to the most damaging aspect about schools for the blind. While educators think their doing a good thing by having us all in one place, they’re actually isolating us. By being with our own kind all of the time, we’re not able to really interact with the sighted world. I didn’t have anyone my own age to hang with at home, so actually being in the sighted world was about as foreign to me as a new country probably would have been. I just had no idea how to fit in. I’ve always been anxious, but college ramped it up to a whole other level. How would I meet people? What if no one wanted to talk to me? Would I make any friends? The thoughts wouldn’t stop racing. Those first few months were not easy. I didn’t talk to anyone, and pretty much starved cause the dining hall terrified me. Looking back, I wonder if going to a public school would have made me better at talking to people, more approachable, more friendly. I honestly have no idea. The first time I ever felt normal was when I went to the Cheesecake Factory with 2 girls on my hall at the end of my first semester. My friend drove us, and I felt this huge sense of joy. I just couldn’t stop thinking, this is what normal teenagers do. That friend with the car and I are still really close. I’ve also managed to make a lot of other friends. Friends who help, keep me company, listen to me vent about how inaccessible campus can be. Take me out for a drive when my anxiety gets really bad, and who just like me for who I am. Going from being that quiet, shy little kid, to someone who actually is liked and has people was the most amazing thing for me. By going to college, being away from home, I finally felt free, like I could let who I was before go, like I could finally really express myself. That feeling of likability is something I will never get tired of, because it has shown me that my past doesn’t need to define me.
While most of this piece has been negative towards schools for the blind, I would like to say that I am not every student. My experiences are purely my own, and I do know people who didn’t have a problem with the way they ran. I would also like to point out that there were some positives. All the field trips were completely accessible and there was never any struggle to understand things when we went. I was able to go to multiple guide dog schools for visits which only solidified my decision to get one in the future. All the class material given was accessible, and there was always a way to get things in braille. We had sports teams and that’s where I found my passion for swimming. I learned all the strokes, realized how calming it was to just swim laps when my mind wouldn’t stop spinning, and was able to compete for 5 years straight. These are things that I would have never gotten in public school and I will forever be grateful for that.
I think that educators need to look at student’s as individuals more. I would have been so much happier and felt a lot more challenged if I had just been pushed harder. More emphasis needs to be given to college readiness. I never had any positive blind role models when I was applying, which is the main reason I started my YouTube channel, to give advice and tips to other students going through the process. I wish more outreach would have been done with public schools. I know for a fact that I would have been a lot more comfortable starting college if I had sighted friends in my life. While I would have preferred being mainstreamed, my experience at a school for the blind has given me a lot to think about. It has made me view education in a much different way. Ultimately, it was a big part of my life and I will always value the time I spent there. I may not have loved it, but it will forever and always be a part of my story.
Jessica is a young college student studying social work. She loves reading, swimming, iced coffee, and just so happens to also be a YouTuber. You can check her out here.