On Love and Rebuilding

When I was a small child, I was always comfortable with my blindness. My mum tells me that I would approach people at events and confidently introduce myself. "I'm Holly, I'm four and I'm blind." In my family, blindness was just another part of the many things that made me who I was. I liked to climb trees, ride horses, and bury myself in stacks of braille books. I never felt like I was limited because quite simply my parents never allowed me to feel that way. If I fell down and cried they'd pick me up, and tell me to carry on with whatever I'd been doing. And I did.

I knew I was different from other children. I read braille, used a screenreader and was pulled out of school for an hour a week to learn to use a cane. The adaptations I used were tools that enabled me to be successful, and I loved the freedom they gave me.

Although I had been taught to feel comfortable with my blindness, other people still viewed me as somehow less. I noticed this for the first time, when I was six years old. In these situations I would experience this awful, sickening sensation, like a million bugs crawling through your insides. Your whole body begins to heat up with fear and embarrassment as you try and find a way out of the situation you're in, even though you know your attempts are futile. I went from loving my entire being, to wishing I could be anyone other than myself.

School was a place I both loved and feared. I spent five, long years being bullied to the point of screaming, throwing myself on the floor, and refusing to go. I hated my parents, especially my mother for making me. I blamed them for what I was experiencing, after all it was because of them I was blind.

However, in class I was desperate for knowledge, soaking up every bit of information I was given. Yet, knowing I would have to spend time with other children filled me with anxiety. One incident, I remember most vividly. It took place when I was about 8 years old. My class was getting changed for PE, and I'd taken off my school uniform. I reached down to pick up my bag to get my gym clothes, but it was gone. I was crouched in my underwear on the changing room floor, frantically feeling for the bag I knew I had placed beside me. There must have been around 15 other girls in the room who could see what was happening, but none of them would approach me. Nobody even spoke to me. I can't remember if I cried, I can't even remember if I shouted in anger and desperation. Somehow, I must have put my uniform on again, and left the room to find a teacher, but I don't remember doing that either. Much of my childhood is a blur like that, blocked out because, even now remembering causes me to feel sick.

Eventually, a teacher found my gym bag. It was outside having been, I assume, either thrown out a window or carried out of the room by a child on small, fast feet. I begged the teachers to listen to me, to understand that I hadn't done this, that I was scared and lost and lonely. But instead, I was told to be more careful with my things, to not forget where I had left them.

From then on, I refused to use a cane, and stopped describing myself as blind. I became angry when my parents mentioned my disability to strangers. Slowly, I began to erase the part of myself that I had once embraced. I was unable to go places alone because I couldn't stand to be seen with a cane, it was yet another symbol of my shameful, awful difference. It took me years of painfully slow progress to reclaim my identity, and begin to heal the chasms that seemed to have opened inside of me.

Despite living under a shroud of self-loathing, I had plans for my future. I wanted to study abroad, to travel the world, and go to university. But I knew deep down that unless I made some changes I would never do those things. Finally, at 17 I bought myself a new cane and tentatively allowed it to become a part of my life again. I was sick of being at the mercy of others, of relying on friends and teachers to get between my classes. I knew that I was capable of being so much more than I was.

I am now 22. I have studied in Spain, started my degree and traveled alone to the US. I have friends who can't imagine the person I once was. They know me as a girl who travels independently, and talks about blindness being an important, much loved part of my identity. The years of fear, and shame may not be visible but they are a constant companion that I expect to live with for the rest of my life. I still have to battle with my mind, to live the life I want, telling myself that it's okay to be seen, that I don't need to hide away, and that I am safe in my own body.

When we talk about the impact of lowered expectations it is often in the context of allowing blind people to obtain an education, and participate in activities of their choosing. I however, believe it goes much further than this. When we expect less of disabled people we are contributing to a culture that allows a bright, confident girl to lose herself in shame and hatred. We must not give power to those who dismiss the voices of disabled people, especially children. I have made the choice to reclaim that power, to make it my own. I will not allow myself to be silenced anymore, and it is my mission to show children that they never have to be ashamed of who they are.