M.A. STUDENT SETS HER SIGHTS ON LITERATURE, AND AHEAD

Limor Vaisman’s biography reads like that of many other outstanding graduate students: high grades in high school, two years in the army, an impressive record as an undergraduate, then appointment as a teaching fellow while studying for an M.A. in Hebrew Literature. There is one difference, however. Limor carries a card attesting to her being legally blind.

“Actually I’m technically classified as ‘visually impaired.’ My glasses don’t really enable me to read, they’re for magnifying texts,” she explained. Which is why when she teaches her class, she delivers her lectures by heart, and refers only occasionally to the few note headings she has written down. In Limor’s case, “visually impaired” means being completely blind in one eye and having a little vision in the other.

Her condition, however, has not stopped Limor from declaring, “Literature is the central thing in my life.” Her particular interest and specialty is folklore, and she describes working in this field as “transforming a hobby into an occupation.” She is writing her Master’s thesis on the Yiddish writer, Y. L. Peretz, who she contends wrote literature, not folk tales as such.

Limor credits her thesis adviser, Dr. Chaya Bar-Yitzhak, head of folklore studies and a senior lecturer in the Department of Hebrew and Comparative Literature, with encouraging her to continue with graduate studies after she had gained her B.A. at the University. She had reached a point in her life when she neither had to hide her disability, as she had done when younger, nor prove to anyone that she could succeed in spite of it.

Astoundingly, Limor, who is 26, managed to go through elementary and high school without her teachers knowing the extent of her limitation. For that matter, she thinks that even her parents did not know the degree to which she suffered. At one point, her parents did ask if she wanted to go to a special school. She refused, despite not being able to see writing on the chalkboard or to participate in classroom interactions. To this day, she said, she cannot identify someone unless she knows the person very well and the figure stands or sits close to her.

Her good mind, however, produced good school grades and belied the severity of the myopia that had been congenital. In fact, she never underwent any eye operation until the age of six. None of the subsequent operations helped, and one even went awry, blinding her permanently in one eye.

Though the reading subjects--literature, history, Bible--may seem to some to offer the most trouble to the visually impaired, it was mathematics and languages that gave her the most problems. She simply could not see the numbers written on the board. Because she never told the school of her impairment, one math teacher accused her of deliberately not copying the numbers correctly as an excuse for failing. For almost the same reason, she had difficulty with languages, and so never really learned English until she was 20. Although she could not clearly see the items for the chemistry experiments she was required to perform, she was able to fabricate them sufficiently, and she came up with high grades.

When she was already a student at the University, she bumped into a former high school teacher, who immediately greeted her. Limor apologized for not recognizing her. The teacher said she understood; she apparently had been the only high school teacher to have assessed Limor’s handicap but never revealed the girl’s secret.

The time she spent in the army, for which she volunteered, began to see a change in both Limor’s and her parents’ attitude toward her disability. Her and their forthrightness in dealing with the problem increased during her first two years at the University. Her parents no longer refused financial and other assistance for her from various institutions, thanks to which she could attend classes. Their expression of pity was no longer deemed her best protection, and she herself was no longer afraid to tell either her professors or her fellow students of her problem. At the very least, her classmates had to understand why she did not recognize them. She laughs when she recalls the foot-high letters that one professor wrote on the board the day after she hesitatingly told him of her disability. Her high school teachers had not been so sympathetic.

At this stage, Limor, too, began to take advantage of whatever rights were due her, whether from the government, which aside from some financial aid was not much, or from the University. Israeli law as such does not make special allowances for people in her situation as U.S. Federal and state laws do. In her second year, the University permitted her to type her examinations on a computer, since she writes only with great difficulty, and honored her request for more time to complete tests. That year, too, she was able to buy for herself a special computer set-up that enlarges the letters on the screen as one types. (The University’s Computer Aided Language Laboratory has a similar device for visually impaired students--see Focus, Winter 94/95). The computer and her newly gained self-understanding, that “it is no so bad that I don’t see well,” added to her self-confidence.

Handling her disability has been, in Limor’s words, “a process of exposure,” both to herself and to others. She now readily acknowledges that there are certain things she cannot do. On the other hand, she has learned that if she “doesn’t ascribe importance to it [her impairment], others don’t also.”

Limor has moved out of her native Haifa and now lives in her own apartment in Tel Aviv, where she works for the Center for Educational Technology while commuting to Haifa for her Master’s. Tel Aviv is also midway between Netanya and Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, where there are large libraries of tapes of literary texts. There is no collection in Haifa to match these two.

Although Limor criticizes the educational system for not coping with visually impaired youngsters and not instilling confidence in them, she has also learned from her own experience that the disabled and their families have to cooperate with the system, too. On the other hand, she once audited a course in the Education Faculty and saw impressive changes in the way teachers today are prepared to deal with visually impaired pupils. Perhaps her most salient recommendation is addressed to the parents of children who suffer impairments: they should be completely supportive and strengthen the child’s resolve that he or she can succeed.

Her little remaining sight has become very valuable to this determined graduate student. “I feel myself so much more fortunate compared to a blind student,” she commented in concluding the interview. “Even with the remnants of the vision I have, I have no need for readers as they do. I can read myself, and decide what to read and what to skip, which they can’t do. I’m not dependent on someone else to read to me when I do my research.”

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