Imagine how you would feel as a child of seven if you were sent to a school far, far away from everything you knew and loved. What if that school were a strict, regimented environment where nobody understood you and you couldn’t go home except for Christmas, the occasional Easter holiday, and summer vacation. What would it be like to spend six years in such an institution, governed by uncaring supervisors, teachers, and nurses? Such was the case of Canadian author Bruce Atchison. He talks about his experiences in Deliverance from Jericho: Six Years in a Blind School.
I met Bruce several years ago through Behind Our Eyes, a disabled writers’ group. I thought I had it bad at the Arizona State School for the Deaf & Blind in Tucson until I read his book. In Canada as in the United States, disabled children were sent to special schools before 1970. Bruce was no exception. Visually impaired since birth, he managed to get through the first grade in a public school. After that, the government, determining he wasn’t doing well in the public school, sent him to Jericho Hills School where he was educated from 1964 to 1970. He was then mainstreamed into a public school where he stayed until he graduated. He held a variety of jobs including that of a security guard, cashier, and office worker. When his eyesight deteriorated a couple of decades later, he went into freelance writing. He is the author of two memoirs: Deliverance from Jericho and When a Man Loves a Rabbit and is in the process of publishing a third book about his experiences with a cult and how he became a Christian.
In Deliverance from Jericho, Bruce describes what it was like to live in that government-run institution. School officials demonstrated insensitivity towards visually impaired students. They demolished two play areas and replaced them with a garden and tennis courts, neither of which were beneficial to those without sight. The children were taken on outings to such visually oriented programs as the ice capades, circus, and sporting events. The main purpose of these activities was to make the school look good.
Discipline at Jericho Hills School was harsh, and teachers and dormitory supervisors often made students feel inferior when chastising them for even the most minor of infractions. Like any sighted boy, Bruce loved to get into mischief, and in those cases, punishment was justified, but he was often berated, spanked, and sent to bed early for such little things as not being able to tie his shoes or not making his bed properly. One dormitory supervisor, for no apparent reason, made him stand in the hall with his face to the wall for hours one evening before finally allowing him to go to bed. This woman also made Bruce and the other boys wash her car and run personal errands for her. She stole their allowance money and treats they received from home. Bruce and some of the other students eventually complained to the administration, and she was fired.
Bruce and his classmates were subject to bullying by a boy named Charlie. Adults at the school did little to stop this, and on the rare occasions when Charlie was chastised for his behavior, he became even more abusive. When Bruce was older, he contemplated suicide to get away from Charlie and Jericho Hills forever. One year while returning to school after Christmas vacation, his emotions got the better of him, as he sat on the plane, waiting for takeoff. He started kicking and screaming uncontrollably and had to be removed and sent home. When he eventually returned to school without a fight, he was interviewed by a psychologist, and when he talked about how much he hated life at Jericho Hills, he was told to be grateful he was getting such a good education. His parents told him the same thing when he complained to them about conditions at the school. This demonstrates these adults’ inability and/or unwillingness to understand Bruce.
Life at Jericho Hills wasn’t all bad. Bruce and the other boys enjoyed such activities as tobogganing and riding bikes. The school had a swimming pool and bowling alley which the children enjoyed most of the time. Teachers and dormitory supervisors often took the students on outings to museums, movies, the beach, and a carnival, to name a few attractions. Bruce developed a fascination with radio and other electronic equipment, and some teachers encouraged his interests. At times, his radio was his only source of solace during those years.
Bruce also describes his home life when he returned there for vacations. At times, this wasn’t much better than his life at school. When his alcoholic father picked him up at the airport, he often stopped at a bar on the way home, and Bruce was forced to wait in the car while his father went in and had a few drinks. His mother was often verbally abusive, berating Bruce and his siblings for such minor infractions as ripping their pants and getting their shoes dirty. His parents’ marriage was falling apart, and his developmentally disabled brother with behavioral problems broke things and was never punished.
But no matter how bad things got at Jericho Hills School, Bruce was always glad to get home to his family. He had many happy times with his sisters, going swimming and making trips to a local candy store. One year on the rare occasion he returned home for Easter, he and his mother surprised one of his sisters with a rabbit. I wonder if this incident inspired him to own and write about rabbits as an adult.
In 1970, at the age of fourteen, Bruce was mainstreamed into a public school near his home. The curriculum in the public school was a year ahead of that of Jericho Hills. As a result, he had to work harder to catch up with his peers. Because he received no mobility training at Jericho Hills, he had trouble getting to and from the public school and negotiating the premises. He had few social skills and developed such blind mannerisms as rocking back and forth. His sighted classmates thought of him as a freak at best. Also, textbooks and other materials weren’t available in accessible formats, and he often had difficulty reading the print. Despite these obstacles, he managed to get through high school, and although he lived in fear of being returned to Jericho Hills, this never happened.
Not all residential schools for the blind are bad. Some students have such fond memories of their schools that they attend reunions. When such an event was planned by the alumnae of Jericho Hills, Bruce refused to go because of all the unpleasant memories associated with the facility. Since he became a Christian, he is able to put the past behind him and go on with his life.
At the present time, Deliverance from Jericho: Six Years in a Blind School is not in an accessible format. I’ve suggested to Bruce that he contribute it to Bookshare at http://www.bookshare.org I hope it will eventually be available for download from that site. In the meantime, you can visit his blog at http://www.bruceatchison.blogspot.com/ where you can read excerpts from his books and purchase print copies directly from him.
Abbie Johnson Taylor, Author of We Shall Overcome and How to Build a Better Mousetrap: Recollections and Reflections of a Family Caregiver