The (not-so) good old days—getting education as a blind student in South Africa

We often hear the joke from older folks today about how hard they had it in their school days—usually something about walking five miles to school every day through a foot of snow.

I didn’t have any snow in South Africa but I did get to struggle half-blind, through my schoolwork. In high school I had an embarrassing ugly pair of magnifying glasses which only focused when my nose was against the page.  Thankfully I sometimes had my friend, Marti, reading to me from our textbooks.  I couldn’t see the writing on the blackboard—yes in those days it was white chalk on a blackboard.  The learning trick was to memorize quickly after I finally figured out the print on the page.

Exam papers in high school were each three hours long. My principal got permission from the department of education to extend my exam session with another hour.  With my pitifully low vision I  couldn’t write on lined paper  and I was given blank pages  and a black pen so I could write as large as I needed  and see the contrast of the black ink against the white page.

My specialty was drama.  Till this day I thank my lucky stars for the school I attended and the teachers who recognized my ability in the theatre for they set my future career course.

On to the University of Pretoria

The requirements for university were three languages, Afrikaans, English and one foreign language, as well as science or math. I studied German and chose Math. Imagine math for someone who could hardly see! Somehow, someway I made it.

I was accepted at university and specialized in theatre.   Here it was the same situation—no aids, no Braille books, no books-on-tape, no talking computers just a constant barrage of text books I struggled to see to read.  Through the encouragement of teachers and professors I graduated but it was never easy. It was a constant struggle not only to study but also by now to pretend I saw things I didn’t.  In my country it was a shame to have a defect so I often found myself lying about my sight.

Today I’m happily, openly blind. It is so much easier socially to be totally blind.   Now I and others know I cannot see anything. Prior to total blindness I was never sure what I could see, perhaps a glimpse of something, or if the light was right more of something. If I didn’t know what I saw, how could I communicate to others what I could and couldn’t see. I’m pleased to take assistance in any way I can such as taking someone’s arm for sighted guidance.  Today I’m not tied up with pretending to see, my energy goes to performing speaking and writing.  My ultimate joy is the accessibility of information through all the latest devices and aids for the blind and I have become a reading fiend.

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