Last fall, I published ““The Dreaded ‘Can’t’ Word” in which I discussed an instructor’s refusal to accept me in her copyediting class. The course, which is an integral part of my Bachelor of Communication Studies degree, was one I had been looking forward to for more than a year. I’d long been interested in pursuing editing as a career path, and the copyediting course was to be the necessary foundation.
Stricken, I fought the decision. I argued that a blind person can do at least 80% of what a sighted copyeditor can do, if not more. I argued that I’d still be employable, even if I had to go about things in a different way than this instructor was accustomed to. I even offered to drop out in the event that it became clear things weren’t working out, either for her or for me. All in vain, I’m afraid. She ultimately told me I’d never be a copyeditor, and that she would not waste time teaching a student who would not be employable anyway. And that was that.
I’ve since taken the course under a different instructor. It was incredibly difficult, and while I did manage an A, I slaved for it. It was one of the hardest, most stressful experiences of my academic life. It’s not what you think, though: it had nothing at all to do with the actual coursework, and everything to do with the extra burdens I felt I was carrying. You can be the most brilliant student alive (I’m definitely not that), but if you’re stressed enough, you will flounder every time.
Most blind people I know have had to “pave the way” at some point in their lives, whether it be at work or in school. There’s a first time for everything, and people with disabilities tend to end up with a lot of those firsts. For example, I was the first blind student my local school division had ever dealt with, at least in recent memory. I was certainly the first blind student any of my teachers had ever taught, so my education was filled with a lot of trial and error—emphasis on the error, might I add. For the most part, they were brilliant—innovative, compassionate, and eager. For years, I thought I was tragically bad at math, because passing those courses took twice as much effort as any of my other subjects combined. I later realized that, while I’m no math genius, the bulk of my struggles was due to an inability to process the visual concepts we were being taught. Many of my math teachers taught in exclusively visual ways, and didn’t know how to make the material comprehensible to me. Several other blind people—being naturally excellent with numbers—overcome these challenges with ease. If you’re like me, though, being unable to see the material is going to make math a living hell.
I was pleased, then, to transition to university, where I didn’t have to be the very first. Sure, I was the first blind student to enter the relatively young BCS program, but not the first blind university student. There was even an entire department dedicated to helping students with disabilities. Indeed, all was smooth sailing until I reached this copyediting course, in the third year of the program. Abruptly, I was hitting a wall: for the first time, I was being told “you can’t do this.” And, after fighting as hard as I did to get the chance to try anyway, I felt that I could not fail. The margin for error, I felt, was entirely nonexistent. If I messed this up, I thought, I’d be letting a whole host of people down, including my instructor, future blind students, and myself. No pressure, yeah?
Feminists have often grumbled that a woman must work twice as hard as any man to be considered half as valuable. I definitely felt that type of strain while doing this copyediting course. I felt that I had to be absolutely brilliant, as though my place in that class needed to be justified. No sighted student needs to justify her presence in a classroom. As long as she has the prerequisites, she is free to pass or fail, and no one will question her right to be there. I, however, had the uncomfortable impression that I was a case study of sorts. A trial run, if you will. You want blind people to be allowed into copyediting courses? Fine. Show us what you’re made of, missy.
As is typical, this was all in my head. No one from the administration said anything of the kind to me. My instructor treated me like any other student, and was more accommodating than I ever could have imagined. All my friends and family were convinced I’d be just fine. Fellow students in the program rallied around me in unexpected but welcome ways. Nearly everyone was wholly supportive, and no one was worried but me. Yet, I walked around with this heavy burden on my shoulders, almost entirely of my own making.
Why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we take responsibility for things we cannot possibly carry? Why did I place such unnecessary stress on myself? Was I so arrogant as to believe that my progress in the course would have an effect on future students?
Hindsight tells me it had nothing to do with arrogance. I think it was a mixture of pride (I can so be a copyeditor!) and fear (I hate to let people down). I thought that perhaps if I did well, the university would be even more willing to accommodate students who may face unique challenges. Perhaps the instructor who had been so pessimistic would change her tune. Perhaps my experiences could be used to help someone else in a similar situation. I really think I carried these burdens—real or not—because I wanted to please everyone, including myself. I wanted to justify my place here, to myself as well as to others. I wanted to belong, and I believed that in order to belong, I’d have to positively shine. Being mediocre was not an option, not for a blink.
It looks like I’ll be a copyeditor. Despite the hardships, I thoroughly enjoyed the course and I am now taking the higher-level editing courses. I’m having a great time and I’m really finding my feet. I’m becoming more confident every day. But I won’t soon forget how this past semester felt.
I’ll conclude by saying that if you ever find yourself in a situation like this—where you are, in essence, a trial run—don’t do what I did. Consider me your cautionary tale. Focus on you, and what you’re doing. If you’re proving anything, it should be your ability to ignore the unwarranted pessimism of others. You’re not responsible for someone else’s future. You can only be responsible for your own. Educate, by all means. Advocate, by all means. Work hard and do well, by all means. But do it for yourself.