Donna Hill - Part 1

Donna Hill sitting with her dog guide Hunter in her lap. (Photo taken by Rich Hill.) Donna Hill is an author, song writer, singer and journalist. She also advocates for equality – equality for people who are blind or have low vision. Proceeds from the sale of her book 'The Heart of Applebutter Hill' provide braille books for students who are blind. In addition to being available to Bookshare members in the US, her novel is available worldwide to organizations and individuals who have a Bookshare international membership.

It was not until she was 19 that she started reading recorded books – at that time they were from RFB (which became RFB&D and then was renamed more recently Learning Ally). Those early talking books arrived on reel to reel tapes. Donna was 60 when she signed up for Bookshare; she still reads books from NLS and Learning Ally. This is Part 1 of Donna W. Hill's story.


Score one for Bookshare!

My first novel, The Heart of Applebutter Hill, was available through Bookshare in April, 2013 — two months before being published in print. It makes sense — a blind writer, two blind characters and a sighted boy in a wheelchair, who uses recorded books. The book even opens with Abigail listening to a magazine on her digital book player.

OK, it's not surprising to find it on Bookshare, but before other formats? As is often the case, the obvious reasons don't tell the whole story.

I was born with Retinitis Pigmentosa with a field restriction so severe that I never could see at night. My parents could have sent us to a school for blind children, but they wanted my younger brother and me to live at home and attend school with our peers. They respected authority, however, and the prevalent view was that you were either blind or sighted. Since we could see somewhat, we should read print and get around as best as we could – no Braille, no white cane, no recorded books.

And, so began my journey as the first legally blind child mainstreamed in our local schools. First grade wasn't bad, except for the bullying; my friends melted into the woodwork whenever it started. My teacher seemed to genuinely like me though, and my love of learning and desire to teach were awakened in her classroom.

One afternoon, I received an A on a test, and was called up front to collect my paper. I was "looking" where I was going, but, due in part to the lack of color contrast, I didn't know anything about the wooden chair in the aisle until I was in the process of flying over it head-first. I bashed my forehead on the toppled chair. A collective gasp went up from the class.

The teacher sent me to the nurse's office bleeding. I should have had stitches, but I seemed so composed. I was, in fact, so angry and so humiliated that I wasn't going to acknowledge it with tears or complaints. My teacher wrote a note to my parents telling them how incredibly brave I was to fall like that and not even cry. We found the note with my mother's belongings after she passed away.

My second-grade teacher, however, couldn't stand watching me struggle with my workbook. Despite above-average grades, she recommended my transfer to the "Special Class." The "garbage can class", as the kids called it, warehoused a dozen students from five to 15, dealing with every manner of disability. We received a short individualized lesson, after which we were allowed – compelled, really – to go back and play with the blocks. My assignments were first-grade level, and I was not permitted to try to catch up. I was given large-print books, which were more difficult to read than regular print – probably due to the non-uniform nature of my central vision.

A few months later, when our ophthalmologist found out, he hit the roof. He insisted I be placed with my peers, vowing to leave his beloved Philadelphia and take me out of Special Class himself if necessary. His confidence in my ability would have to hold me for years. The third-grade teacher who 'drew the short straw' was not happy to have me in her class. She allowed and participated in open bullying and punished the girl behind me for reading test questions from the board to me.

Flights of stairs leading to a large building. This image, Cathedral 
Of Lausanne Switzerland, is courtesy of David Castillo Dominici, available on FreeDigitalPhotos.net. I started having recurring nightmares. I was running behind a pack of people heading for the wide cement steps leading to a large building. People kept passing me, and although I was running flat-out, I was falling further and further behind. Soon the crowd and the building were just a dark blur on the horizon.

As time passed, my vision grew worse, the work became more difficult and I had to prioritize. English and science were in, math and history were out. Piano lessons stopped when I was twelve, because of the increasing difficulty with seeing well enough to memorize the music. Still, Braille wasn't mentioned.

I was getting mixed messages. One faction took every opportunity to remind me that I would never make it in college, live alone, have a career or find a husband. My unwillingness to accept my limitations branded me as someone who didn't know her place. The other group maintained that I was an under-achiever and faking my vision problems. I knew I was faking something, but not that. I was trying to see as hard as I could, even to the point of getting sick from eye strain.

Retinitis Pigmentosa was a never-ending succession of losses, and there was no one to talk to. No one even understood the condition. Writing stories and poetry helped. At fourteen, I taught myself to play guitar and started writing songs, though I was a long way from sharing them in public.

Some people seem to know that they are going to succeed. They don't doubt themselves, but that wasn't my experience. I had to start over time after time on what my heroine Abigail would call my "ragged march to maturity." An abiding certainty that I would overcome all obstacles was not something I experienced. At the end of the day, all I really knew was that I didn't want any of the naysayers to be right, and that proved to be my salvation.

In Part 2 of Donna's story Part 2 of Donna's story we learn about her rocky journey and her decision to break away from her natural community and head for the great unknown, and about how technology changed her life. Donna's website is donnawhill.com.

Photo Credits

The photograph of Donna and her dog guide Hunter was taken by Rich Hill.

The image of flights of stairs leading to a large building is a photograph of the Cathedral of Lausanne Switzerland. It is courtesy of David Castillo Dominici, available on FreeDigitalPhotos.net.