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Being Blind at Harvard

By Laura R. Benjamin

RIGHT NOW there are somewhere between six and twelve blind students enrolled in Harvard University. The exact number is unknown because no University official has any record of this statistic. Optimistically this could be seen as a sign that the University is attempting not to single out the handicapped. It could also show a lack of interest, except that the University clearly is interested in these students, and attempts to help them whenever possible, from supplying reading rooms for undergraduates to helping recruit readers at the Law School.

Public elementary schools recently have begun adapting themselves so as to be able to accept handicapped students. Formerly the blind child had no recourse but to go to a residential school for the handicapped, such as Perkins Institute for the Blind, or to be tutored at home. Most of the Harvard students went to public schools for at least part of their pre-college education.

David Richman, a freshman at Harvard who has been blind all his life, started out in a residential school, but switched at an early age to a public school with special facilities for the blind, such as Braille lessons. After seventh grade David went through the regular public school system. He feels that this was the best thing he could have done. A residential school is a "very unreal environment," he said. "It is a closed stale society, ignorant of the outside world. The transition from a school for the blind to a sighted university is almost impossible."

Charlie Hodge, a first-year law student and a graduate of Amherst College, spent ten years at Perkins. Unlike David, Charlie feels that for many blind children a residential school is best, at least through the eighth grade. "The rough and tumble of a public school is unsuited to the handicapped child," he said. He explained that rebuffs or teasing by normal children could make a blind child withdraw into a shell of hostility. Perkins not only teaches blind children tricks to make life more amenable and to help them get along by themselves and take care of themselves, but it also "builds up your confidence because you are competing with your peers." However, with the new trend of integrating the public schools, Charlie feels that schools like Perkins will turn into institutions for the slow learners or the retarded child.

Perhaps the most famous blind student in the world is Harold E. Krents, Harvard graduate and second-year Harvard Law student. Hal won international reknown when he was classified 1-A by Local Draft Board 10 in Mount Vernon, N.Y. last spring. Hal said he would be glad to serve his country in any way possible, but hoped he'd be able to request the post of bombardier. His "Open Letter to General Hershey," to the tune of "On Top of Old Smokey" was printed in Esquire this fall. Legally blind since birth, Hal had limited vision until the age of nine, when his retina was detached in a football injury and he became totally blind. When the Scarsdale public school objected to his returning to school after the accident, Hal's mother learned Braille herself and tutored Hal at home until the school would accept him back in normal classes. Hal is extremely glad that his parents refused to send him to blind school: "They [blind schools] do succeed in giving you more mobility, but they don't prepare you for being out socially in the sighted world. I have seen several students from Perkins who couldn't take college because they weren't prepared to live with sighted people. You learn to live with it in a public high school." He feels that any parents who have the funds and the energy are likely to keep their children at home rather than send them to boarding school. "If my parents had sent me away," he pointed out, "I would have felt that they didn't want me."

DIFFERENT sorts of problems present themselves when the blind student reaches college. David, only a freshman, is still in the process of adjusting to University life. Living in Wigglesworth, right in the Yard, he finds no difficulty in getting around with a cane, which he claims is both simpler and easier than a seeing eye dog. A prospective English major, David so far has been able to obtain most of the books he needs in Braille, and uses only one reader (a person who reads to a blind student) a week. He also makes use of Talking Books--a program sponsored by the Library of Congress which puts literature on records for the blind. Eventually David would like to do some work for PBH; this past summer he had some experience in tutoring first-year algebra. He would also like to have time for creative writing; he has already written several short stories and some poetry, and is working on a play.

Charlie was an undergraduate at Amherst College, and is an enthusiastic alumnus of that school. A poly sci major and a fraternity member, he was the only blind student at Amherst. Unlike Harvard, Amherst appears to have an unwritten policy limiting the number of blind students they will accept. "They feel that they can't provide enough facilities to get more than one blind student through at any one time," Charlie said. "I worked closely with the freshmen dean, and talked with the Admissions Office. This is not a set policy--not in writing--but it is closely adhered to." Amherst put itself out to be helpful to Charlie, waiving the science requirement, and recruiting faculty wives to tape reading assignments for him. Charlie prefers tapes and records to readers, because they give more flexibility as to when a student can study. He got most of his records from Recordings for the Blind, a privately endowed non-profit organization in New York which will record almost anything on 16 rpm records, given three months notice. Because of the honor system in effect at Amherst there was no problem in having Charlie take his exams in his own room, having some classmate read the questions to him.

HAL was not the first blind student to go through Harvard, although he does predate the reading rooms in the basement of Emerson. They were finished in 1966, partially due to a study Hal did for the now defunct Harvard Council for Undergraduate Affairs. Hal was an English major, and lived in Adams House. He prefers using readers to Braille books or tapes; for himself, he finds readers faster and more flexible, and it is also a way of meeting new people -- a perennial problem for the blind. Harvard makes no special dispensation as to the science requirement. Hal took the old Nat Sci 6, an introductory anthropology course--it was the only Nat Sci which didn't have a lab. "There was a bit of trouble," Hal said, "When I had a freshman Cliffie trying to describe pictures of the reproductory system 'o me," Hal admits that some credit for passing the course must be given to the final paper he wrote on the vocalizations of the Great Apes. Standing in a bathtub (to get the right reverberations) Hal and his father recorded sounds made by the orangutan and the chimpanzee. Hall is particularly proud of his reproduction of the copulation call of the female gibbon--he feels it was his masterpiece.

One of Hal's first crucial tests when he reached Cambridge was learning to cross a street alone. Back home in Scarsdale everybody drove. "I didn't know how to use a cane," he recalled. "I used to wave it over my head, utter a few prayers, and run." He made one attempt to get a seeing eye dog, but gave it up when Helen (his dog) objected vocally to Professor Alfred's rendition of Beowulf in old English.

CHARLIE has found life at Harvard Law rather different from life at Amherst. He was accepted by three law schools--Harvard, Columbia, and B.U.--and feels that there are very few law schools that would reject a prospective student because he was blind. At Harvard he finds he has to use readers, because the law texts are so immense; and unfortunately there were problems in obtaining readers at the beginning of this year because of an oversight by PBH. Charlie likes law because he is a rational, logical individual, and because it is a real challenge--everyone has warned him that he will have a great deal of trouble breaking into a law firm.

Last year Hal became the first blind student at Harvard Law in recent years. Now there are three new blind students. "I proved," Hal explained, "that a blind student is draft exempt." According to Hal, it is not so easy for a blind person to get into law school. Many of the schools where he was interviewed were quite discouraging about the prospects of his getting in and getting along there. He had a particularly bad interview at Duke: "You mean to tell me you're really that blind?" the Duke interviewer asked. When Hal inquired as to the ease of getting around, the answer was "It's very difficult." And when asked about readers, the interviewer said that Duke had no facilities whatever for recruiting readers.

However, Harvard Law has been extremely cooperative, Hal says. Joseph E. Leininger, vice dean of the Law School, kept a protective eye on Hal his first year. Blind students were first allowed equal time for their exams; now they have time and a half (on the undergraduate level Harvard allows double time for exams). When there was a reader shortage this year, Leininger recruited extra readers from the Law School to help out.

BLIND students may have to spend more time and effort to get through an equal work load, but this does not keep them from outside interests. In high school Charlie managed three sports (both Hal and Charlie are avid sports enthusiasts; Hall has been at almost every Harvard football game this year, accompanied by a transistor radio and a pretty girl). Hal played the violin in his high school orchestra, and was president of Scarsdale High's General Organization. He ran for that position partially because he faced so much opposition from the faculty and the PTA: they were afraid he would not be able to handle it. "I won," he reports, "and the school is still standing." Hal is also a talented performer: he writes songs, sings, and plays the guitar and piano. As an undergraduate he did some nightclub work, but had to give it up when he dislocated his shoulder playing touch football. Recently he has reserved his talent for the Nameless Coffee House, and is one of their favorite performers. After one performance, a personal pitch by Hal brought in $100 in donations.

A particularly serious problem that every blind student faces is the difficulty of having any normal social life. This is one reason why Charlie liked the fraternity system at Amherst: "I had a system of friends who got me 'blind' dates." Here at Harvard he finds it difficult to meet people. Hal uses his readers as contacts, but seldom dates a reader. "You don't get much reading done," he explains, "and, if you break up, you lose a reader." One problem he ran into in his undergraduate days was the type of girl who was willing to go out with a blind boy: "There are two reasons why a girl would go out with me," he said. "Either they were doing their bit for humanity, or they were trying to tick off their parents." Also, girls tend to be looking for the norm, especially in high school, and the first few years of college. A blind man would not exactly be considered an eligible husband. "When I was in high school I used to get some tremendously imaginative excuses," Hal said. "I used them in a play I wrote. It was about a teenage idol who comes back to the school in disguise and has a terrible time trying to get dates. I made the girls use the excuses they had made up themselves, the ones they had used on me. The play was a great success."

NEITHER Charlie nor Hal is at all interested in trying to meet a blind girl. And for a blind person in the sighted world, it is not only hard to find dates, it is even harder to find someone to get serious about. As Charlie said, "I can't see that beautiful girl across the room and run over and ask her out." And any girl who marries a blind man must be prepared to fight. "It's harder to find someone when you're blind," Hal said, "but when you do find her she's exceptional-more understanding and very mature."

Hal in particular needs to find a fighter, because he wants to go into politics when he gets out of law school. "I'm an idealist," he told me. "It's the only way I can function, being blind." But he isn't only out to make a better world, he also wants to help educate the world about the blind. Once when he was applying for a job, the interviewer said to him, "My grandson is afflicted too. He's mentally retarded." Students such as David, Charlie, and Hal have proved themselves to the academic community, but the rest of the world needs convincing too. Even Hal's experience with the draft was a step in the right direction. "Not only did it give the nation a chance for a good laugh at itself," Hal pointed out, "but it showed the world that a blind person can have a sense of humor."

There have been many new inventions that make life easier for the blind, such as tape recorders and Braille machines. IBM recently came out with an electric typewriter with a regular keyboard but which types in Braille. With this any sighted person can Braille a text, without knowledge of Braille. A new process has been developed, by which fifty copies of a Braille page can be made at once, facilitating the printing of Braille books. And then there are the inventions of the future, such as the electronic cane. But these are all external crutches, so to speak; what the blind need more desperately than special treatment is acceptance as normal individuals. For example, Hal once wrote a grievance song for the blind, which reveals just one of the many injustices with which they are confronted. The song is entitled: "There are no dirty books in Braille.

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