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Square Blind Teen in a Round Sighted World

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: Mike Yale lives in Huntsville, Ontario. He has worked in various capacities in the fields of human and disability rights.

As a blind teen in the late 1950s, my greatest concern was a lack of a "normal" social life. I suspect it is the same today for modern blind techno-teenagers, with all their sophistication.

Back then, the world was very different from nowadays. Computers, for example, were gigantic and almost considered science fiction. Consumerism was the name of the game, but the streets were much more tranquil, and our society seemed to be in a kind of holding pattern. The tumult and flourishing of civil rights of the 1960's were yet to come.

I grew up in Los Angeles, where my parents had a choice regarding my education. They could send me to the school for the blind in Berkeley, or enter me in the public school in Los Angeles. They chose the latter.

As I entered public school, I faced one unique personal challenge. I had been blinded at the age of five in an explosion and fire, and hence had numerous facial and upper body scars. Sighted children often pointed at me and asked their mothers loudly, "What happened to him?" This caused much humiliation and discomfort. After all, being blind, I didn't actually know what I looked like. For me, then, blindness was a major difficulty, with my appearance being more painful and hard to deal with.

My first few grades were with blind children in a segregated section of a centrally located public school. We learned braille, typing and introduction to arithmetic and English. We were bussed from our homes.

Bussing was not an issue for our parents or community at that time. It only became a boisterous and sometimes violent issue 20 years later as an instrument for desegregating racially-based Northern U.S. school districts.

For junior high and high school, I attended regular homerooms and classes as one of ten blind students. We also had a resource room with a teacher and necessary equipment. Although we went to regular sighted classes, we were never quite like the other students.

At that time, real integration and social skills were things of the future. Our parents considered it good enough--better than good enough, it was considered really an outstanding achievement--that we were in this integrated setting. All were grateful for the opportunity.

since I was not allowed to go to my local high school, and since the school I attended was some distance away, I knew virtually no neighbourhood kids and none of my school friends lived nearby. Consequently, I had no social contact with either group. I was educated as I walked through their world. I could learn a lot if I worked at it. I could be smashed permanently if I dwelled on their lack of interest in my life or as me as a person.

When I later showed talent with the piano and started getting invited to school functions, dances and events, I soon discovered that I had become the living, breathing juke box. I was their source of entertainment as they sang and danced around me while I played that new rock and roll stuff. They didn't even have to put a dime in my slot. I did it for praise, just like a pet.

I soon stopped attending such functions. When school was over, they would return home, 20 miles away from where I lived.

In those days, not so many teenagers drove cars at 16, and few girls drove 20 miles to pick me up for dates, as you can imagine.

My dates generally involved my Mother and Stepfather driving me to the young lady's house to pick her up. We were then delivered to a movie, and a time was set to pick us up later in the evening. As I had not had any cane travel training, nor did I have a guide dog, I rarely went to the young lady's front door on my own or to meet her parents. At best, my date would come to my house, escort me to meet her parents, and then we would return to my parents'

car. Generally, however, she was as terrified as I was, and it was a comedy routine with few laughing.

As for my appearance, it was a real issue for me that, frankly, I did not resolve satisfactorily until years later after time in therapy.

As a teen, my appearance made me shy and rather naive. Being called Frankenstein (and worse) certainly made it difficult to Socialize.

Like with most differences and the resulting hostilities between people, I was treated as a nuisance at best, and as a pariah at worst. But like other prejudices, when people really mix together and spend time together, differences melt away and become inconsequential. This surely happened with a few close lifelong friends.

Perhaps I am making it sound too bleak. I don't mean to do that.

I got involved in lots of school activities--student government, debating, public speaking, etc."and discovered that learning wasn't such a bad thing after all. And when my answers in class came quickly and accurately sometimes, I heard the intake of breath indicating admiration, and I took some joy in my small piece of the world where difference gets forgotten or overlooked for a fraction of a second.

But I was a scared, as well as scarred, teenager.

The idea of a kiss on the cheek on the first date--how to kiss or get kissed--was a constant torment. The idea of going much farther was a fantasy and close to unimaginable, at least for me as a young teen. I knew about sex, had read about it and had had conversations with friends, male and female, who had

"done it" or experimented far beyond my expectation. The rare kiss was at least possible, and also achievable.

I did grow up, and fast too, once I went away to University in Berkeley in 1961. I tried desperately to make up for lost time. I sought knowledge of all kinds and flourished, I do confess and believe.

In the sighted school world, I had observed those around me and learned many lessons about discrimination, poverty and pecking orders.

My junior high school was actually in a poor non-white section of Los Angeles, and black and oriental students outnumbered white students by ten to one.

The blind students, half of them white, were constantly picked on verbally, and sometimes physically. But things were relatively quiet, not very violent, definitely a seething cauldron in the 1950's.

One of my friends, Mark, a white guy and blind since birth, hated blacks although he had never seen one. In the fourth grade he discovered a mutual friend, also nine years old, was black. Although we had all been friends since first grade, as of that day, Mark would not hang around with him.

I learned that those on the top, the richest or those with influence pick on those who are weaker; and those picked on, pick on the next weakest group, and so on, until someone gets dumped on by everyone and has no one himself to dump on. Oh, pity any folk who come along later and are weaker still!

I learned that poverty has no colour or nationality. It sucks dry the souls of all it infects. I learned a political conscience and was instilled with a will to fight against prejudice and injustice in the cauldron of East L.A.

In my middle and late teens, I became more introspective, But I used the time alone to read voraciously, listen to radio constantly, and learn about the changing world around me.

as 1960 came and JFK got elected president, I began to make plans to leave my roots, Los Angeles, which I disliked and offered me little. I wanted to make real changes in my life and myself. I felt my independence depended on it.

So I left my teen years and isolation behind me in Los Angeles and hit the road. Stanford University had also accepted me, but Berkeley beckoned me, calling me to come join something new and exciting.

I answered the call and have no regrets.

My blind peers dealt with their teenage years differently. One friend has happily worked for years in a workshop with others who are disabled; two are musicians;

three live on pensions, have not worked much, if at all; two were or are married with children, with an overall employment history that is not very inviting or remunerative. Some have died. The tiny group of blind kids, which held together only because its members were blind in a sighted school system, has faded into memory.

In my late youth, I longed for new opportunities and experiences; I craved the right to set my own course; I desired to explore my world on my terms and find my own self-defined niche. I needed some rebuilding from within.

At Berkeley, I learned how to channel my political energies and how to identify and expose ideas that oppress and repress all of us--especially we who are different.

I answered the call and have no regrets.

Comments

Hello Mike,

We lost contact shortly after you moved to Huntsville. (We used to run into each other in Don Vale in the early 1970s when you were establishing BOOST.) I was pleased to see your name in the AEBC newsletter and to see that you are still active.

If you have time when you are in Toronto I'd be happy to see you.

Bob Katz