Category Archives: Guest Blog Post

Blind History Lady  Shares How a Black Blind Teacher  Educated Her Own

Headshot of Peggy Chong

Editor’s Note:

In honor of Women’s History Month, I contacted the Blind History lady, Peggy Chong, to share the story of Emily Raspberry, a Black  blind woman who became a teacher  for the blind and visually impaired. This blog post is a reprint from the February 2022 issue of the Blind History lady monthly email. It has been edited for clarity and length.

Vision Loss and Early Schooling

Emily Raspberry was born December 12, 1915, in Alabama. Emily came down with the flu at age four. When Emily recovered, she was totally blind.

Her mother sent her to public school with her older brother. However, no accommodations for a blind and Black child were possible. So, Emily listened and participated in class orally, not learning to read or write. Finally, Emily was sent to and enrolled at the Alabama School for the Negro Deaf and Blind in the fall of 1926. Although Emily was homesick, there was so much to learn. In only two weeks she mastered the braille code and read all 130 books the school owned. A new world opened to Emily. She had a glimpse of the sighted world and she wanted to be a part of it. Emily’s teachers were impressed with her quick accomplishment of the braille code and placed her in the upper class. She studied hard to cram in several years of learning into her first year.

Death and Separation From Family

Red and white roses on a casket in the back of a white hearse on a bright sunny day

Emily returned home on May 22, 1927, finding her mother gravely ill. She was home only a few hours before her mother died. A funeral was planned in days. After the funeral, Emily was told she would live with her half-sister, in West Virginia. During this time, Emily experienced a range of emotions. She felt the joy of returning home to show how well she could learn and be successful as a blind child. To the shock of  her mother’s death. To the heart-wrenching separation from her family.

Education and Decision to Teach the Blind

Emily was enrolled in the West Virginia School for The Colored Blind almost immediately. She found they had twice the braille books in their library and magazines in braille. Emily threw herself into her studies. She found her classes were harder than in Alabama. Unlike other schools, West Virginia held unsegregated classes including both for the deaf and the blind students. The boys had one dorm and the girls the other. There were no separate dorms for the blind and deaf students. Rooms were crowded, sometimes three or four boys shared a room that would have been considered small for two.

There is no record of when Emily graduated, but it is believed to be either 1932 or 1933. She went to college afterward and enrolled at the West Virginia State College for Negro’s in Dunbar. At the end of her first year of college in 1935, she knew she wanted to be a teacher in a school for the blind. Her hope was to share her love of reading and literature to open the world for other blind and colored students to the possibilities of the outside world. She graduated in 1938 and continued classes through the West Virginia State College, enabling her to become a certified teacher of the blind. She received her master’s degree from Hampton University.

Little Black Girl Wearing Braids and Walking with White Cane

Emily started as an academic teacher in the primary grades at the West Virginia School for the Colored Blind in 1940 in Institute (Clarksburg), West Virginia. She taught reading and writing for the blind kids and deaf children in her classes. When the school for the white, in Romney, and the school for the colored combined in 1955, she was one of only three teachers from the colored school that made the transfer. Not all the colored students from Clarksville transitioned to Romney. The staff at Romney were friendly but Emily did not mix socially. For at least the first year, Emily took a room in the student dorms as did the other single teachers. As a single woman, and the only Black faculty in the blind department, she may have felt out of place.

Innovative Teaching Style

Emily was innovative in her teaching style. When she recognized a spark, she assigned a poetry lesson for spelling class to bring out the creativity of the students. The children were encouraged to write a poem including all of the spelling words for the week. In her braille classes, she taught the students to work with a slate and stylus, while other teachers used the Perkins Braille Writer. She incorporated listening to the radio into her classes to ensure student’s interest. Lessons were assigned to write about what they heard on the radio. The eighth-grade class in 1956, wrote a quiz show based on the show, “The Big Surprise.”

Emily supervised school trips to watch plays or listen to concerts. For years, Emily had season tickets to the Cumberland Classical Musical Series. Each year, she paid season passes for four students who had an interest in music. She took the students to the concerts by bus or driver. When an interesting movie, mostly historical films such as “Man of All Seasons,” was premiering she would ask students to accompany her. She paid for their tickets and treated the kids to their own box of popcorn.

popcorn in a movie theater style square package with movie tickets in the background

A memorable year was 1967 when she was chosen to supervise a student teacher. Emily was honored and proud as the student teacher was a former blind student. In 1969, Emily taught health. Most likely not her favorite subject, but she entered the class with the same enthusiasm as her English classes, even though textbooks were more than twenty years old. One assignment was to make up word puzzles relating to their health lessons. When the project was over, the best questions were put into an article for the school newspaper, “The Tablet,” to show how much her students learned that semester.

Travels and Experiences on Vacation

Emily frequently took the Greyhound bus to Washington, DC for vacation. When a student of hers also rode the bus, she would talk to them about their schoolwork or family. In class, Emily mentioned her travels to DC commenting on the friendliness of the hotel staff and sadness that the maids were paid so little. Other summer vacations were never wasted. She took classes at Harvard. In 1961 she worked as a proofreader for Perkins Braille Press. Vacations meant visiting exhibits at the planetarium, museums, or attending concerts usually in Boston. At one concert, she spoke briefly to Senator Edward Kennedy, who was also attending. Their meeting was exciting for Emily, and she shared the news with her students about her encounter with a man who would make history. There were also trips to attend conventions of the AAWB of which she was a member.

Retirement and Death

She retired at the end of the 1977 school term and moved to Boston. Emily kept in touch with some of the Romney residents. They wrote to her in print, and she answered them in print. She died September 12, 1988, in Vermont.

About the History lady

Peggy Chong is the author of more than a dozen books about “Blind Ancestors” who have made a difference. Her monthly email list to her followers highlights another “Blind Ancestor.”  She wrote the history column for Dialogue Magazine, “The Way We Were”.

In 2016, Peggy launched “The Blind History Lady” project. This project has to date published thirteen books, detailing the lives of what she calls her “blind ancestors” who quietly made a difference in the lives of the blind men and women of today. Each book highlights their struggles and triumphs as blind people and highlights the normality of their lives and how each person was an integral part of his/her community as a normal citizen.

Peggy’s goal is to have the history of the average blind and disabled person taught—not just to the blind and disabled themselves, but to those entering into professional fields where their jobs will impact people with disabilities. Blind people historically held regular jobs and pursued professions that are the same as professions occupied by people without disabilities. These blind individuals performed exceptionally well, setting examples for others. By understanding what the blind and disabled have achieved in the past and knowing the history of the contributions made by people with disabilities to our country, our society will be much more willing and accepting of the disabled.

For more information and to subscribe to her monthly email list contact the Blind History Lady at theblindhistorylady@gmail.com.

The Differences Between Living with Low Vision and Total Blindness

Black and White Photo of Amy Bovaird

Editor’s Note: Guest blogger, Amy Bovaird is a good friend and fellow peer advisor at VisionAware. We have been online friends for many years and lovers of the written word. Here is her story about living with low vision.

Everyday Misconceptions of Low Vision

Several years ago, my boyfriend’s housemate told him, “Amy can’t be blind, she makes eye contact with me.” In another situation, I was reading an excerpt from one of my books to members of a Rotary Club. Afterward one of the group members raised his hand and said, “You’re not really blind. How could you read that book?” Sometimes children come up to me and ask about why I use a white cane. When I explain, they often say, “But you don’t look blind!” One summer a Lions Club group sought out help to serve their famous BBQ at their fairground stand. I volunteered. Being a lion from another club, the leader took me on, albeit reluctantly. She put me at the end of an assembly line adding bread and butter to the plate.

Each of these situations perpetuate an inaccuracy or mistaken belief about blindness. I am legally blind but not completely blind. I am one of many who still has some useable vision, albeit not always stable or reliable. In fact, 15% of the people in the city where I live, Erie, Pennsylvania, struggles with some degree of sight loss. That is about 200,000 people. Many individuals never pick up a white cane. They simply manage the best they can, often keeping their loss to themselves. The amount of sight loss varies from person to person. It’s not liked a light switch, with one setting—on or off. Blind or sighted. There is a large continuum in between. That’s where meeting those with low vision often becomes cloudy. I want to clear up some of the confusion with you today.

February is Low Vision Awareness Month

February is both Low Vision Awareness Month and Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP) Awareness Month, making it the perfect time for me to share my story. I have Retinitis Pigmentosa, a rare, hereditary eye condition characterized by progressive sight loss. One in 4,000 people live with it. I first started to notice it in my late teens. My visual field narrowed and I had trouble in low light (at night or in darker environments). This progressed to tunnel vision, restricting vision more and more. It took me more than a decade before being diagnosed with RP. I was told I would “go blind.”  In 1988, even specialists did not distinguish between low and / or no vision. Some of the challenges are similar and some are quite different. Both are manageable with the right mindset.

Addressing Misconceptions of Low Vision

Let’s revisit those situations I started off with in this blog post. I could still make eye contact with my boyfriend’s housemate because I still had my central vision, which was quite strong at that time. I had lost—or was in the process of losing—my peripheral or side vision. Others with low vision may also be able to appear as if they can make eye contact, even if they have lost some of their central vision, the reason being—our brain can “remember” and connect with people to make it look like one is making eye contact even if he or she cannot actually see the person’s eyes. So yes, legally blind people can make eye contact.

Now, sometimes when I tell the story of the gentleman from the rotary club who believed I was not really blind because I could still read print, I smile. The belief about blindness, or any ingrained stereotype, pervades. Earlier in my talk that day, I had explained to the group about how those with low vision had different degrees of sight loss, which met the “legally blind” criteria. After his comment, I showed him the Large Print book I read from. It was a size 18 font and said any smaller print would be indistinguishable. Sometimes it requires patience and reminders to others. People don’t see their perceptions as limiting or that they need to reframe them.

Since even children believe those who are blind look a certain way, this shows how deep the stereotype exists in our culture. The truth is there is no specific way a blind person “looks.” To teach this aspect to school children, I created a video called “The White Cane Song,” a collaborative effort by Melissa and Larry Beahm, a professional duo of singers, and me. It educates about the use of a white cane and also about the spectrum of sight. One of the lyrics reads “I have some degree of blindness. But I use my cane to help me through.” The video shows two young girls and me walking down the sidewalk with our white canes. Some friendly townspeople let us pass. The song has a catchy tune and demonstrates how children with sight loss can pursue hobbies. The children learn yoga in the video. It’s important to educate children to create an environment of empathy and inclusiveness in the school place.

The final example is harder to combat. It’s sometimes difficult to change the low expectation society places on those with low vision. I could easily manage the task given to me at the barbecue yet the leader came to me frequently to ask if I needed help. My role was to give them assistance. I learned from that experience to clearly communicate my abilities. This misunderstanding took place with a member of an organization tasked with “Being a beacon of light for the blind” by Helen Keller. It becomes imperative to share our truths, especially in an organization who provides support to the blind. We need to bridge understanding and build teams of outreach to teach others who know even less about sight loss. Like every other person, those with sight loss have skills, talents and natural abilities. We are more than able to contribute to society. I call myself “The low vision motivator with high expectations.” We have much to contribute to society and need to overcome that limitation in all social circles.

Living with Low Vision

So, what does life with low vision look like for me? I lead an active life. I am a teacher by trade, and a storyteller by nature. So, when my sight loss made managing a classroom too problematic, I decided to turn my hobby into a second career. It combines writing, educating and telling stories within two arenas – faith and sight loss. When I finally got past some of the fears being blind threw at me, I started writing about my slice-of-life situations. And I always found important life lessons. So, I share these in my memoirs and at my speaking engagements.

I now have come to terms with my five degrees of limited sight. With RP, this will decrease as my condition continues to deteriorate. However, I am optimistic about the quality of my life and I want to pass on that optimism with others.

The Six Factors of APPLY-G

6 factors have helped me maintain a positive outlook despite my unstable and unreliable vision. I call it hide-and-seek vision because it seems to be playing this game with me. Daily I remind myself to Apply-G because these factors are really ingredients in my personal sunscreen. They are:  Attitude, Power, Patience, Laughter, Say Yes to Change, and Gratitude. When I add this sunscreen to my life, it prevents me from getting burned!  

1.  Attitude is an area of constant rephrasing for me. Being viewed as “accident-prone” because I couldn’t see something hurts my psyche. I once dropped a stack of text books on the floor thinking it was the edge of my teaching table. Live that one down!  But I have learned to show kindness and empathy to myself and look at my situation in a more positive frame of mind—whether that means downplaying it, joking, explaining or establishing a life lesson.

2.  Power comes with choice. Since I can’t control what my eyes show me, or what I can or can’t see in a given moment, I have to choose how to respond. Making that decision reminds me, ultimately, I am still in control. That feels good!

3.  Patience has taught me to s-l-o-w down. Typically, I move fast. But since I can’t see well, it’s an accident waiting to happen. I am getting better at slowing my pace down.  Also, patience teaches me I can still pursue my passions. For example, I am discovering I can do many of the same things I used to do, such as running and teaching if I am patient enough to adapt my style. Recently, Zoom has given me new opportunities to teach English. I have trouble moving around safely in a physical classroom—which was my style—but online, I can keep my active personality and still teach my students the tenets of English. It’s not quite the same, but I am back “in the driver’s seat!”

4.  Laughter is healing, so I write and speak about mishaps. It helps me to enjoy my life, and makes me more approachable to others.

5.  Say Yes to Change enables me to get out of the doldrums. I give myself permission to stop what I’m doing and choose another activity. I take a nap, call a friend, go for a run or write in my journal and I begin to feel better.

6.   Gratitude is the secret substance to giving me my outlook.I keep a journal where I thank God for what he has done, or will do in my life, if I don’t see it happening now.  I find gratitude reminds me to live in hope and joy. Gratitude is The. Key. Ingredient. It makes all the other elements flow smoothly. I love the picture this paints in my mind.  I have only to recall the worst sunburn of my life when I sunbathed on a cloudy morning on the equator without any sunscreen. I didn’t think I needed it with the clouds covering the sun. The painful red as a lobster memory along with the visual to APPLY-G reminds me of the importance to Add sunscreen liberally. 

Chat with and Learn More About Amy

It’s been wonderful to share my thoughts with you today. I would love to hear your comments and any questions you might have about Low Vision Awareness Month or my eye condition, Retinitis Pigmentosa.

Amy Bovaird is a freelance writer,  ghostwriter, the author of the Mobility Series and the Finding Joy After … Series. She is the recipient of the “Distinguished Merit of Literature” by Ohio Valley University for her first memoir, Mobility Matters. A former ESL instructor, world traveler and inspirational speaker. She peppers her talks with faith, humor and culture. Amy is legally blind and losing her hearing. But she advocates living your best life, one rich in gratitude. Amy now lives in northwest Pennsylvania in the same house where she grew up. She strives for the upper hand with her three lively cats, and on most days, fails miserably. Learn more about Amy at her website.