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American Annals of the Deaf

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I Fill This Small Space: Writings of a Deaf Activist

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No one could say that John did not try. He eventually could make out large letters of the type that are on newspaper headlines. His parents were excited and pleased when John showed them what he could do. The school officials were in a dither at John’s achievement. They called in the newspapers and soon his story was carried by the Associated Press throughout the nation. The school took John on many trips to demonstrate his ability especially before the Daughters of——, the Charity——, the Auxiliary Sisters of——. Many were moved to tears and some hugged and kissed John.

Soon something was troubling John. Some of his schoolmates were smuggling in magazines and books in Braille although these were not permitted even outside the classroom. His schoolmates urged John to learn Braille surreptitiously but he refused to be contaminated even though some of the arguments of his classmates carried a more logical ring than that of the school people. One congenitally blind boy told him he had no vision at all so what was he supposed to do? John was flabbergasted because he was told that every blind person has some residual vision that could be utilized no matter how little. The same boy said that if a flashlight was stuck in his eyes he could sense some light but what good would that do. Another girl, an acquired blindness case, said she had some vision left, a small percent, but in 10 years she still could not tell the letters “m” and “n” apart. Sometimes the tail of the “j” appeared faded and it looks like an “I” and the “o” becomes a “p” and vice versa. With a sigh she mentioned that she used to tell a boy and a girl apart but not now anymore.

What shocked John more than anything else was the news John learned via the grapevine that almost all adult blind persons use Braille. He began to waver when he learned that there were some schools where Braille was permitted outside of the classrooms. There were even some schools where it was allowed in the classrooms!

John slowly began to realize how surface appearances could be deceptive. There is a form of eye trouble called conjunctivitis and those who have it are really not blind but part-of-seeing. This type together with those who acquired blindness late in life—and thus could remember many sights and objects, their shape, texture and color—were often used to demonstrate the success of a school’s methods. The school’s policy and methodology were geared for the benefit of these types. They were often portrayed in the movies and on television and the public was misled. Those who were not in the know or who were fed the pap of exclusively one method looked askance at those who used Braille or could not use their seeing skills. They were considered primitive, backward or just plain dumb.

John began to ask himself what good it would do to read large headlines if he could not read with facility and understanding whole pages which were the heart and soul of what the headlines were screaming about. He began asking himself what does it really take to live in a seeing world—10% sight that stumbles and staggers in trying to visualize things or hands that can make things with consummate skill and a brain so developed that there are reasoning and inventive powers? Which is more important John kept asking himself. Which will better prepare him for a seeing world?

Those school people and his parents, John realized why they have full sight and it is easy for them to tell . . .

“Hey, Bill,” John called out to one of his classmates, “take my hand and show me how to distinguish between all these undulating dots.” John felt a sense of elation as his fingers moved. “Yes, yes, this is an A—and what?”

“It stands for Alice . . . ” [1]

1. Alice Cogswell was the first deaf girl taught by Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet.
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