This excerpt is from a memoir which commences with my birth and concludes with the death of my mother whom I called Peach. Blind since before the age of three, I will take you on a journey through two years in a residential school for the blind, becoming a pioneer of integration of blind children into the public school system in Canada, to studying physiotherapy in England, back home to try and land a job before employment equity, taking a Master of Science degree online before accessible technology is legislated, training with my first guide dog, and more. You may laugh and cry. In the end, I hope you are glad you read it.
Residential School for the Blind
When I was growing up in Toronto in the 1950s, we always had some sort of dessert with dinner, although there was little in the way of treats. When my father took me to the train on Sundays, we would pass the snack shop in Union Station. Money being tight, we did not stop. However, on one occasion, my father must have been feeling a little flush, so he detoured to the candy counter and bought me a 15-cent box of black licorice nibs. My favourite!
Feeling sorry for the children back in the dorm who did not go home on weekends, I saved my nibs. Once we were all in bed, I sneaked around giving each girl a nib or two. Suddenly, the housemothers appeared, and I was caught. Everyone was told to go to sleep except for me. I was seated on the bench in the corridor, where I was instructed not to fall asleep. A seven-year-old child being punished with sleep deprivation for sharing a few candies! This was a first offence, and yet there was no discussion about what I had done wrong or that I should not do it again. There was only punishment.
What were they thinking? What a level of punishment for a blind child whose only crime had been sharing. I can still hear them laughing as one said to put me to bed while another giggled that I only lasted 45 minutes, an eternity. I never told my parents. After all, my father had bought the candy for me as a special treat and I instinctively understood that the 15 cents was a sacrifice; furthermore, even at that young age, I knew that if he discovered that I had been punished for sharing, he would have been heartbroken.
I don’t know whether my parents ever regretted having me at home full-time, but that first summer may have made them scratch their heads. Agitating for a bicycle, I was once again rescued by Mrs. Greer. She presented me with a little girl’s bicycle, which I promptly mounted and was off. The laneway behind the garages was a great place for riding. Cars tended to mainly drive through early in the morning or at the end of the workday, so I could pedal back and forth with great ease all day long. I loved it.
Unfortunately, before returning to school, I had an appointment with my ophthalmologist. Peach reported to him that I was doing extremely well, looking forward to going to school with my brothers in September, and always riding my bicycle. Dr. Crawford practically needed a defibrillator.
“Mrs. Vallis,” he gasped. “Ruthy is blind. She can’t ride a bicycle. She could get injured, killed, or kill someone else. You must take the bike away!”
“You heard the doctor,” Peach said as she ushered me out the office door. My heart was broken, but I knew better than to protest, even with tears stinging my eyes. The bicycle was sold to another little girl for eight dollars, but I didn’t stop agitating—I was good at that. Discussing a visit to the doctor with her brother George, Peach came up with an idea. Uncle George appeared with a big tricycle he had bought in a garage sale for three dollars. Peach and George were delighted to give it to me, but I was not so delighted to receive it. Tricycles were for babies, and I was not a baby.
It was obvious they were not pleased with my lack of gratitude. Peach had a tone of voice, like most mothers, which one instinctively knew meant business. She used that tone when she told me that I could take the tricycle or take nothing. Well, I wasn’t going to take nothing, and I wasn’t too bad at solutions myself. Tenacity was the mother of my invention.
I mounted the tricycle and leaned to the right enough to cause the left back wheel to come off the ground. Ta-da! I had a bicycle. Somehow, I managed to ride that tricycle on two wheels. Adults would marvel while other children would say it was no big deal, but they never managed to do it.
Eventually, I wore the tires down so much on the right side that one could not ride it on three wheels if one wanted to. Peach threw up her hands in resignation and hoped that I would soon get tired of the bike/trike. After all, she mistakenly thought, one cannot ride very quickly in that awkward leaning posture.
School of Physiotherapy
It was a warm Saturday in September 1981 when I arrived at the North London School of Physiotherapy for the Blind and Visually Impaired. The school had been established in 1899 and until recently had been known as the Royal National Institute for the Blind School of Physiotherapy. It was now housed in a modern building in Highgate, North London. On arrival, we were given keys to our rooms and the students’ entrance of the building. The bursar showed us to the residence, and that was it until Monday morning. There was no orientation to the school or the community.
I was twenty-one, blind, knew no one, and had basically just dropped out of an airplane into bustling London to embark upon a very challenging course of physical medicine study. My room was comfortable and up on the sixth floor with a window overlooking the accident and emergency entrance of the Whittington Hospital on Highgate Hill. Thankfully, I had a single room with a bed, desk, table, and chair, lots of cupboard space, and a wash basin. There were five other single bedrooms in our unit, and we shared two toilets, a bath, a shower, a kitchen, and a sitting room.
We were expected to shop for our own groceries and prepare our own meals, but we could also eat in the hospital canteen when it was open. But there was a very narrow window for lunch and dinner. Bedding and towels were provided, but we were to do our own laundry. Of course, cooking and laundry were no issue for me, but without orientation to the community, I was stranded.
By Sunday afternoon, the other students started arriving, and some of those who were back for their second or third year invited us to the hospital for dinner. I was pretty hungry by then, so I agreed to join them.
Eventually, someone showed me how to get to the Co-op to buy my groceries. They didn’t accompany me to help me select them, but simply gave me directions and sent me off on my own. It has been said that Canada and England are two nations divided by the same language, and that was certainly true for me. After one week in London, I went off, armed with a grocery list, to purchase some necessities. I was determined for this adventure to not conquer me.
Although this was a school for blind and visually impaired people, I was the only one in my class of thirteen who was totally blind. In fact, there was only one blind person in the second year and two in the third year. We were in a great minority, and those with low vision did not understand, and in many ways, were less accommodating or sympathetic than the normally seeing public. I mistakenly thought that there would be some help to get me settled, but every hour of every day involved some sort of discovery. Upon entering the supermarket, I stood in one spot in the hopes that someone would notice me and offer some assistance. Eventually, I drew someone’s attention.
I asked for some laundry powder. “Pawdon?” That was “pardon” to a Canadian’s ears.
“Laundry detergent to wash clothes.”
“Oh, you mean soap flakes.”
“Yes, I guess I mean soap flakes.”
“Which brand of soap flakes would you like?”
My brother Christopher worked for Lever Brothers, which I knew was a British company, so I said, “Sunlight.”
“Why don’t you tell me which brands you carry, and I will select one?”
“We have Persil.”
“That will do. I will take Persil.”
Our last stop was the cheese counter. Aha, I loved cheddar, and I knew Cheddar Gorge was in England. I am ready! I got this one! When the woman behind the counter asked what I would like, I confidently said “cheddar, please.”
“Do I detect an accent, and would it be Canadian?”
I admitted it was. “
Would you like Canadian cheddar? It is our bestseller!”
Not wanting to surrender, I snapped, “No, I want English cheddar!”
However, after that, I usually bought Canadian cheddar. It was, after all, nice to have a little bit of home away from home.
Taking my things back to the residence, I decided to do some laundry. There was no one else in the laundry room, so I read the Braille instructions on the machine, popped my washing in, poured the required amount of Persil into the receptacle, pushed a ten pence piece into the slot, and pressed the button. The machine started up, and I returned to my room to study while the clothes were going around.
Once I felt the washing was likely finished, I returned to the laundry room to find the residence manager mopping up bubbles that were waist-deep on the floor. It was like something out of a science fiction movie—the attack of the Persil bubble people.
“Ruth, are these your clothes in the machine?” he asked.
“My clothes are in one of the machines,” I admitted.
“There is only one machine being used, so it must be yours. You have used too many soap flakes and have made a mess of the whole room!” I protested that I’d simply followed the instructions written on the machine. After I held up my box of Persil to show him, he sighed.
“Ruth, those aren’t soap flakes for automatic electric washing machines. Those are soap flakes for hand washing. You can’t put that in the machine, as it will cause all these bubbles.”
How was I to know that many people in England still washed by hand? I assured him that I would ask for automatic soap flakes in the future and left him to clean it up. I couldn’t imagine anyone not having an automatic washing machine. Why did the woman at the supermarket assume I washed my clothes by hand? Did I look like a pioneer?
Joining the Workforce
I applied at Humber Physiotherapy. It was a relatively small clinic and only about a thirty minute journey on the subway and bus from my parents’ home. I was interviewed by the owner. She offered me the position on the spot, which I accepted happily.
Once one is employed, one has to inform the licensing board, and the clinic owner said that she would also be letting them know of my new employment. I was asked to arrive at eight in the morning on Tuesday, September 4 to begin my first day. I was thrilled and excited. Peach was delighted for me and bursting with pride.
She loved to repeat, “My daughter is a physiotherapist,” and now I was an employed one.
I arrived bright and early on Tuesday, eager to dig in. Like every other newly qualified professional, I believed I could conquer the world and wanted to prove it. Upon entering the reception area, I was met with a cool and awkward atmosphere. The secretary, the owner’s daughter and not a physiotherapist, informed me that the owner wanted to speak with me first thing. As I entered the boss’s office, I knew something was wrong.
Without even offering me a seat, she simply said, “you can’t work here.”
I almost fell over.
“But you have already employed me. What has changed?”
She ushered me into the treatment area and asked me how I would manage the equipment. I informed her that I was trained and qualified to work with this equipment.
“How would you know the dials were in the right place?”
“They are slightly tactile,” I said, “and I can put some transparent Braille numbers on them to be extra certain.”
“No, no. You can’t work here!” I was escorted to the door and it was closed quickly behind me.
I had been hired and fired without one single minute of working. Stunned, I started to cry and didn’t try to fight the tears. With my heart broken, I asked God to help me put this behind me and to accept that it was not the job he had in mind for me. Peach was surprised to see me home so soon. I explained what had happened and, like any loving parent, she was hurting for me but could do nothing but offer comfort.
Some people urged me to launch a wrongful dismissal lawsuit, suggesting that this could be my opportunity to own a clinic—that one! No, I was not going to sue or embarrass the woman. Instead, I had asked God to help me shake the dust in faith that he had something much better in store for me.
Ruth Vallis was born in Toronto in 1960. After a two year stay in a residential school, she was a pioneer of integration of blind children into the public school system in Canada in 1968. She graduated from the North London School of Physiotherapy for the Blind and Visually Impaired in England. She is now retired from a thirty-two year career, mainly at the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute. Based in Toronto with her guide dog Darwin, she is the author of the memoir Love is Blind.
Read more inspiring stories here.