Lessons Learned in the School of Life: Going to School and Leaving Behind the Dinosaurs

Editor’s note, as part of our Lessons Learned in the School of Life series, Mary Hiland has written her personal experiences as a sequel to the Going to School with the Dinosaurs post by Lynda Jones. Also check out the other “Lessons Learned in the School of Life” starting with Part One. Deanna Noriega’s Swimming up the Mainstream post was published on FamilyConnect.org, an AFB website for parents of children with vision loss.


by Mary Hiland

Searching for a Diagnosis

Snellen Chart

Who knew that being declared legally blind from retinitis pigmentosa (RP) would come as a relief? In my case, the search for a cure for my poor eye sight started at age eight, when my second grade teacher noticed that I was holding my book over to the right of my face. I was given the eye chart test with the big E at the top and dutifully recited, E, F, B, Q, R, T. But the picture was not of letters, but of a sailboat.

In the 4th grade, I was allowed to stay after school, so I could walk up to the blackboard and peer at the math problems on the board. In the 5th grade, I used a magnifying glass to read with, but by the 6th grade, my mother was reading all of my homework to me.

Thus began the rounds of optometrists, ophthalmologists, psychologists, and other doctors who tested my reflexes, conducted E.E.G. tests, and claimed I had lazy eyes. At age 14, I went through rigorous exercises to correct the lazy eyes (a condition known as amblyopia), including staring without blinking at a blank wall until my eyes watered. Finally one day, I got fed up and walked out of the doctor’s office unnoticed and furious that I was forced to do such worthless exercises. My dad was alarmed when he came to pick me up and found me standing on the sidewalk in front of the building. Fortunately my parents allowed me to stop.

So the search for answers continued until, with unexpected relief, we found a doctor who made the correct diagnosis. It had taken ten years to find out that I had retinitis pigmentosa.

Getting On With Life

I could now quit searching for a cure and get on with my life. At age eighteen, I started braille lessons and orientation and mobility training. My dreams of becoming a professional ballerina were dashed, and so I was sent to Ohio State to become a social worker.

Although there was financial assistance from the state of Ohio, it was difficult to find other support. I did talk with the head of the Department of Exceptional Children at the School of Education as there was no such thing as an Office for Students with Disabilities (see College Bound in resource section).

Professor Loetta Hunt provided one invaluable piece of equipment, a manual Perkins Braillewriter, on loan. She showed me how to use it. Then I never saw her again. But I use it to this very day.

Not Easy to Find Volunteer Readers

At that time, there was no pool of volunteers to read for students. I had to recruit a willing roommate or classmate to read my text books to me. So, I sent most of my books home for my mother to record onto 8-inch reels for my Wallensac tape recorder, a behemoth of a machine. Then we discovered Recording for the Blind (now known as Learning Ally), so I sent the books off to them, but it often took weeks to get the tapes back.

I honestly don’t know how I made it through those classes as many of my instructors didn’t know which text books we would need until the week before class. One quarter, I had no books for five weeks, which was extremely frustrating.

Old Technology

Each morning, I set off for class with my portable reel to reel tape recorder that used three inch tapes. If I paid attention in class, I’d notice when one reel would run out, and then quickly flip it over to side two. One morning, it was snowing so hard that not only had the battery cavity filled with snow, but the tape had unwound and was dragging behind me as I crossed the oval. I spent the first half of the lecture winding the tape back onto the spindles. Then in the afternoons and evenings, I would listen to my tapes and take notes on my Perkins braillewriter.

One night, my three roommates suddenly decided to have a popcorn party while I was in the middle of doing my homework. I was very annoyed and I lugged that Wallensac machine down to the bathroom and worked there instead. Other nights, I used pop-beads out on the hall way floor to try to understand genes and chromosomes for biology class.No wonder that by the time I achieved my Bachelor’s degree in 1968, I had no desire to work toward my Masters.

The End of the Dark Ages

With the acquisition of digital recording and sophisticated note-taking devices, lap tops instead of typewriters, and a dog guide instead of my stubborn refusal to use a white cane, I am sure I would have learned much more than just how to get through the day. College students today have a whole new set of challenges. Hopefully, one day they too will look back at college life and wonder how they ever made it through and have the opportunity to enjoy a successful life as I have!

two young women in graduation caps and gowns, holding degrees

Additional Resources

My Suggestions for College Success

Back to School Tips for Older Students

College Bound: A Guide for Students with Visual Impairments

A Cheat Sheet to Help You Advocate for m as a College Student Who is Blind or Visually Impaired