Donna Hill - Part 2
In Part 2 of her story, Donna Hill takes us on a journey beginning with her college days, through her work as a journalist, singer and song writer, and then bringing us to what some might consider the culmination of her passion and advocacy efforts, the publication of her first novel, The Heart of Applebutter Hill. As mentioned in the introduction to Part 1 of Donna's story, her novel is available worldwide to organizations and individuals who have a Bookshare international membership.
Donna Hill's Story: Part 2
"Mighty oak trees are nothing but little nuts who stood their ground."
This gender-neutral version of an anonymous saying is the chorus of "Rutherford's Song," by Abigail Jones, the 14-year-old, legally blind heroine of my new novel, The Heart of Applebutter Hill. Like Abigail, I had no training in non-visual skills even though I was born legally blind. The reading vision in my better eye went during the summer before I started college. My rehab counsellor finally approved recorded books a year later.
When I learned that Audio-Visual Aids was a required course for all education majors, I froze. I remembered an elderly high school teacher trying to load huge reels of tape into the movie projector. I switched to liberal arts. I told myself that I didn't want to be a teacher anyway.
Then, there was the matter of mobility. By day, I was falling into construction pits and trampling newly-planted bushes. At night, I oriented myself by staring at the lights lining the sidewalks. The campus guards thought I was drunk. Still, no mention of O&M.
Just before graduation, an instructor from the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind (GDF) showed up on campus. The Dean of Women, when asked if she knew anyone who might benefit from a guide dog, had the nerve to mention me. I wasn't blind – I just had "bad eyes." Nonetheless, I took the application. My roommate liked the idea. What did she know? Other friends agreed, suggesting that I should have something – if not a dog, a white cane. What was this, a conspiracy? Then, another friend pointed out that we were talking about dogs, and I loved dogs. She had a point.
"Girls shouldn't be out after dark alone anyway"
I decided to go, against my rehab counsellor's advice. He wasn't satisfied with merely offering his opinion; he wrote to the school. When I went anyway, he called to advocate for my immediate removal from the class. "She's OK in the daytime," he told the director of training, "And, girls shouldn't be out after dark alone anyway."
Fortunately, GDF just raised an eyebrow and proceeded to train me as one of their first partially sighted students. A classmate taught me the basics of Braille, which, even with my limited ability with this system of six raised dots, proved to be a Godsend for living alone.
After I returned with my guide dog, my rehab counsellor had a job interview arranged for me. When I realized I'd be putting erasers on the ends of pencils at a sheltered workshop, however, I refused to go.
I had a choice. I could stay with the familiar and be a hobbled version of myself, an after-thought, the girl in the corner who was approached mainly to ask if she wanted a piece of cake. Or, I could break away from my natural community and head for the great unknown. I chose the latter.
It was a rocky journey. I stopped free-falling when I started street-singing in a center-city Philadelphia train station. Having an audience that walked past me enabled me to work out my shyness, and the brief conversations with total strangers helped develop some much-needed social skills.
I produced radio programs for the Radio Information Center for the Blind in Philadelphia on everything from politics and folk music to women's issues. My coverage of the Carter Inauguration was awarded national press credentials. It was a first. Never before had this happened to a blind representative of a radio reading service.
Soon, I had my first album, then, my second. I wrote songs for special occasions and received recognition. Presenting programs at schools and other venues enabled me to share my music and talk about guide dogs and other nonvisual adaptations.
While recording my third album, which my soon-to-be husband and I planned to use to market my song writing skills in Nashville, I found a lump in my breast. It was cancer. After treatment, I returned to the studio and finished the project. Just as we sent the master tapes and artwork to be transformed into CDs, however, I found another lump. My Nashville dreams were over.
But, I had started writing a book I'd been thinking about since childhood. After years of talking into cassette recorders and keeping notes in Braille, I learned to use a computer with a screen reader. Technology had blown the lid off of what was possible without sight. Even the plethora of tech problems I had the first year couldn't hold a candle to trying to read a card catalog with "bad eyes."
Writing and editing were a breeze. I could go through letter by letter to check spelling and punctuation. If only they could put the text of books in a document. Then, I found Bookshare. For the first time, I could listen to a book and have access to the all-important structural underpinnings of language.
But, then, why was I hearing so many stories about inaccessible websites, employment discrimination, students who couldn't get accessible course material and parents who begged for Braille for their kids? Despite the technology and the law, the public was still unwilling to embrace blind Americans as equals.
Learning to Stand My Ground
I noticed that the media wasn't covering the issues. I couldn't spend all day writing my novel anyway, so I wrote articles about blindness issues for online magazines. Using the skills I'd developed while promoting my music, I became a volunteer publicist for the NFB Performing Arts Division.
The irony of my career as an online journalist was that it ended during a series on web accessibility. The site, where I at least earned some money from revenue sharing, was completely overhauled. The writer interface was no longer accessible. They claimed that accessibility was a high priority. They asked me to beta-test it, which I did. Nothing changed. When I learned that they were dropping their journalistic standards and becoming a social network for writers, I gladly left.
I've tried everything I know to affect change: I sang and talked about it, I wrote about it and I placed stories about blindness issues and exceptional blind people in newspapers and other media throughout the country. My interest now is to influence people through fiction. From "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and "The Grapes of Wrath" to "Roots" and "Children of a Lesser God", fiction has a noble history of breaking down barriers through its ability to transfer information and ideas in the most private and personal way.
In The Heart of Applebutter Hill, Abigail encounters varied and bewildering responses to her blindness at almost every turn, but she's not learning to accept her disability. She's learning to stand her ground.
There are reviews of "The Heart of Applebutter Hill" on Goodreads. In addition to being available from Bookshare, The Heart of Applebutter Hill is also available for purchase from Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, and Amazon.
Donna has also written about her battle with breast cancer. Butterflies & Me: An Author's Breast Cancer Survival Story which is available on her website is just under 3,000 words long and is worth a few minutes of your time to read it.
The photograph of Donna sitting on the ice bench was taken by Rich Hill. The photo of Donna with the University of Scranton was taken by Ashley Allegra. The cover art image of The Heart Applebutter Hill was provided by Donna Hill.