Arshina Martin chronicles what it’s like to grow up as a blind woman. Here she shares her experiences from elementary to post-secondary schools and the struggle to be socially accepted by her peers.
I was never especially excited for my birthday because I knew when my birthday was coming up, so was the first day of school. As I’ve stated in a previous article, I attended public schools for both my elementary and secondary years. Since grade three, I was fortunate enough to be connected with vision itinerant teachers, educational assistants (EAs) and orientation and mobility instructors through the York Region District School Board (YRDSB). With their support, I received accommodations and was taught skills essential to my independence. My later accomplishments — obtaining my bachelors and master’s degrees, living independently and being gainfully employed — are, in large part, attributable to the teachers and EAs from within the vision department at the YRDSB.
My academic experiences, though sometimes challenging, were mostly positive. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same about my social experiences. I struggled a great deal with making friends; it was as if my peers thought blindness was contagious. I would make my way up the central staircase and instead of saying something to let me know they were sitting on the edge of the step, they would suck their stomachs in hoping to disappear in the walls. When looking for an empty seat on the bus, instead of making a subtle noise or simply saying “excuse me, this seat is taken,” they would sit quietly, not moving a muscle, and ultimately causing an embarrassing scene where I would end up on their laps. I was rarely, if at all, invited to social get-togethers. I found myself eating lunch alone. I hated group projects and assignments because I knew I would be the last to find a partner.
A memory of my seventh-grade Roberta Bondar science project comes to mind. I was sitting in class beside two of my “sometimes friends” when the project was assigned. They chose to partner up with each other, leaving me as the third wheel. I prayed that someone would approach me to be their partner. One girl walked toward me and I let out the breath I was holding, flooded with relief. But she walked past me, to my “sometimes friends,” and asked them if either one of them would like to be her partner. They informed her they were working together, but suggested she ask me, as I had yet to find someone. Then I heard those words — words I am no longer surprised to hear: “Arshina? Oh no, I can’t work with her. She’s blind and I’ll probably have to end up doing all the work.” I approached my teacher to let her know that I didn’t have anyone to work with. She called the girl over and said that we should work together since we were both looking for a partner. Over the following weeks, I made several attempts to meet with her so we could get started on this project. Every attempt was dismissed. She was always too busy and said she would let me know when she had time, or that she had another project due first. One day, I walked into the computer lab and found her working on the project. I suggested that we split the assignment up — she could work on her half and I’d work on mine — then we could submit it in its entirety. After submitting the assignment, and having it returned, I noticed that my half had been replaced. She had taken it upon herself to remove my portion and substitute her own. After notifying the teacher, I was given permission to turn in my own work to be graded, and despite my partner’s lack of confidence in me, I earned a higher grade than the assignment that was initially submitted. This took place 19 years ago and I remember it like it was yesterday. I was hurt, I felt betrayed and I questioned my own ability.
Fast-forward to 2011 when I first began my master’s program, and when I met a group of girls who, for the first time in my life, made me feel included. I was invited to go dancing, I attended house parties and I even had enough of my own friends to host a Halloween party. One time, after a night on the town, my friends and I were out looking for a cab when they all started walking away from me, leaving me without a guide. After realizing (a few seconds later) that they had forgotten me, they returned and said “Arshina, we forgot that you’re blind!”
Today, these are the words that stay with me the most — words of real, meaningful acceptance. In that moment, I realized that social rejection is not a reflection of one’s inabilities, as I had believed in the seventh grade, but rather it’s a reflection of other people’s ignorance. Rejection might still cause pain and hurt feelings, but I no longer allow it to strip away at my confidence.