Determined to learn
Children with a disability have the same rights to education as everyone else in the community. Unfortunately, for blind children going to school and university things can be difficult. It is challenging to get access to technology because it is very expensive. As a blind student, I had to overcome many barriers to get an education.
I was born totally blind and went to a school for the blind when I was a little girl. This was in the 1970's. Integration of people with a disability into regular schools was just beginning.
Learning to read
I discovered reading as a very small girl. At first the large Braille book which I was given confused and overwhelmed me. But then my mother borrowed the print version of the book from the library. She sat with me and patiently helped me. My mother is Italian. She knew very little English at the time. She did well.
I slowly learnt to read Braille. My mother's quiet encouragement helped me. Mum would hold the print book open as I began to read in faltering sentences. My speed and accuracy in Braille grew. Mum would also look at the pictures in the colourful print book and describe them to me.
Computers were not available at school. I used a Braille typewriter called a Perkins Brailler to write with. It is an old-style device with six keys. The Perkins Brailler uses the six dot Braille alphabet system.
At the end of primary school I told the principal that I wanted to go to a regular school. I was terrified I would have to stay at the blind school until I was 18 and then go into a sheltered workshop. Another common job was working in a library as a Braille transcriber. I didn't want to do those things. The blind school ended up sending me to a Catholic girls' school, which I loathed. I wanted to go to the local high school which was 10 minutes walk from my house. All my friends were going there.
High school was busy. I had no time to play. Technology was difficult. I used my Perkins Brailler to take notes and do assignments. I spent hours typing my tests and assignments. There were no editing programs on the typewriter. But there was also a primitive computer called a Braille and Print which helped a lot. It would hook up to the Perkins and the notes would come out in print.
All my Braille textbooks were stored in a large cupboard in my homeroom. I would carry my Perkins Brailler from class to class. I would also carry a shoulder bag with the books for the class. Everything was really heavy.
All my school notes were stored in big binders. I remember my mother would punch holes in my Braille paper for my binders at night long after I went to bed. She would do this as she watched television. Meanwhile, I would hide a Braille book under the blankets and read with the lights off.
Studying at university
I found it horrible studying at university. I still used a Perkins Brailler. But there was no-one to Braille my books for me anymore. Audio was the fashion. Audio materials were cheaper to produce. But the audio books were frustrating. It was hard to learn how to spell difficult words. It was also hard searching for important paragraphs to use in my assignments. I would often stay up all night listening to the audio books and typing Braille notes with my Perkins Brailler.
I fought to keep my literacy skills alive. I also have the many friends that I made at university to thank. They read to me and we studied together a lot. We helped each other. The lecturers at university were also kind and helpful. For example, my British Politics lecturer allowed me to sit an exam in my room on campus after my eye’s cornea split.
I studied social work in the 1990's. I found post-graduate studies easier. Braille had become more widely available. I was also older and more assertive. I later won a scholarship for low-income students with a disability to go to Central Queensland University to study indigenous therapies. Everything was also Brailled during that course. But there was no Braille resources available for my Herbal Medicine Diploma. It was back to volunteer readers and sleepless nights. Computers did not become available to me until I started working.
I continue to fight for a decent education for blind students. It is also important students get access to the assistive technology they need.