CW: This post contains discussion on bullying, anti-LGBTQ+ language, and violence
You know they’re all making fun of you, right?”
That’s what my friend Ashley said to me freshman year as we sat
eating lunch in my high school’s lounge. I had just come off of an amazing summer, having set two world records in swimming, qualifying for Worlds, and joining my high school’s swim team. I loved being a part of the high school team. I was doing something with my sighted peers, and in a lot of cases, I was doing it better. And then came that fateful lunch with Ashley. She told me that the seniors on the team (most of whom I swam better / faster than) were making fun of me for how I cheered for my team mates during the swim meets, and then being nice / supportive to my face. That revelation was only the beginning of my high school experience.
I grew up in central Illinois, and was incredibly fortunate to have access to a top notch education. The schools I attended were affiliated with a university, and I had access to the same TVIs from the age of three until I graduated at 18. I never wanted for Braille books, always had teachers helping me understand the vagaries of math, and had early access to O&M. On the education side, my experience was exemplary. From pre-school through eighth grade, I attended classes with the same kids, give or take, and despite some instances of cane stealing in middle school, and an incident where I swung my Perkins brailler at a kid in sixth grade, I had a relatively ideal social experience as well.
However, that all changed when I entered high school. The education side still remained robust and strong. Our “normal” classes were taught at the same level as the AP classes at the public schools in the area. (My schools were known as “laboratory schools” because of their partnership with the university, and students were admitted on a lottery basis). Socially, the school became my own personal hellscape. My dad told me on many occasions that my mantra should be, “Get my diploma, and get the hell out.” It started with the swim team, and degraded from there.
In passing periods, students would throw things at me, and kick my cane out of my hands. “How many fingers am I holding up?” and “Guess who!” while hands were clapped over my eyes, were favorite games for my peers to play. While those games were annoying, my high school experience could have been bearable, but that was only the tip of the iceberg.
Healthwise, high school set the stage for things that I still experience today. I was diagnosed with Multiple sclerosis at the age of 16, and later that year, I began a five-year migraine which caused me to miss a month and a half of my senior year, and laid me out in the hospital on several occasions.
I graduated in 2005, so my high school experience was supplemented by Livejournal, Myspace, and AIM. This also meant that the phenomenon of cyber bullying reared its ugly head during those formative years, and guess who bore the brunt of that? If you haven’t guessed yours truly, then I don’t know if I’ve been laying this out well enough.
I started to receive messages from people pretending to be my friends. “Hi. It’s Katie from math class. I wish I could slam your head into your locker over and over again until you were in pain for the rest of your life. I bet you fuck yourself with your blind stick.” The messages continued this way for three years. One of my best friends was in theater and exploring her sexuality at the time. The same bullies who went after me, chased her around our lounge taking pictures with digital cameras and calling her a dike. So of course, they wrote to me about it. “I bet you both fuck each other. Does she shove your blind stick in her huge ass?”
Attempts to seek assistance from administrators were completely fruitless. One accused me, in front of my father, of faking my migraines to get out of classes and seek attention. (He was there to take me to the hospital … again.) Most of the time we were met with “We take these allegations very seriously! This will be their final warning!” In the case of my friend, the administration made the bullies delete the pictures of the camera, but didn’t confiscate the camera itself. We tried to go higher and go to the police for help with the cyber bullying. However, since AIM was so new, and the law takes a long time to catch up with technology, we were told that the only way we could definitively prove who was sending the messages, would be to get a grand jury to subpoena AOL for account creation records. We thought about having me switch schools, but then I would lose access to my TVIs and all the accommodations which allowed me to learn and ultimately graduate with a 3.6 GPA.
The only thing that kept me at least a little sane during my high school year was my connection to music. By my senior year, I was in two choirs and two musicals. I received a lot of solos, and I was able to shine despite being in some of the darkest places in my life.
High school shaped many of the interactions I have with people today, and not for the better. I have very few friends because I intentionally don’t let many people in. I have major trust issues stemming from the people who pretended to befriend me and then ultimately stabbing me in the back. I struggle to advocate for myself because in my mind, the higher-ups will just side with the other parties anyway, something which I experienced in college too, but let’s not even begin to go there.
Based on my experience, I can definitely say that I’ll never attend a high school reunion. The sad thing is, from what I’ve heard from other blind students, these kinds of scenarios aren’t uncommon. It is my fervent hope that administrators and teachers can take a hard look at why this is, and how they can start helping students with disabilities have better experiences. Or at least, ones that don’t put them in therapy with suicidal ideations. For right now, the best four years of my life were certainly not the ones I spent in high school. I hope that sentiment can change for blind students in the future, but there’s definitely a long way to go before that becomes a reality.
Tiffany has since left Illinois and her high school experiences far behind her. She now resides in Arlington, VA with her husband, whose high school experience was decidedly better, and her dog, who thankfully can’t access the internet. You can follow her on Twitter here.