Braille Monitor                                                                                                           October 2004

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All You Need to Know about Blindness
You Could Learn from a Four‑Year‑Old Girl

by Sheri Wells Jensen

Sheri Wells Jensen (right) with her husband Jason and daughter Claire.
Sheri Wells Jensen (right) with her husband Jason and daughter Claire.

A few weeks ago my husband, my four‑year‑old daughter, and I were driving to the grocery store‑‑he at the wheel, I in my usual place in the copilot seat, our little one chattering away from the booster seat behind us. By now we are used to her marvelous, wild ideas and off‑the‑wall questions; they are the sparkle and zest of our lives. Who on this earth can fathom the quiet depths and quicksilver shallows of a four‑year‑old's mind? That particular day, halfway to the corner of Main and Wooster, she came out with this.

"Mama," she asked matter‑of‑factly, "Will I be blind like you when I grow up?" I can only imagine the gasps of shocked sympathy this question would bring from much of the sighted public: the poor little thing, silently contemplating her terrible, black fate, little heart pounding, afraid for so long to ask the awful question stalking her through her innocent childhood. The pathos is really quite staggering.

I suppose it's possible that some such anxiety may lurk in our daughter's little head, but this question was certainly not the manifestation of it. Sitting calmly in her booster seat, little tennis‑shoed feet swinging idly, her hands busy in her lap with some doll or other, she asked her question with the same casual interest with which she might have inquired if we were having corn or peas with supper that evening. No dread or despair--she just wondered.

Her question made good sense if you think about it. She knows her little girl's body will change slowly over time into a woman's‑‑like mine. She has been told that her golden hair will most likely darken--like mine--and that her angular girlish shape will soften and curve into an adult woman's form. I'm the adult woman she knows best. So it makes sense that she might also reasonably assume that she would be an adult blind woman‑‑like me.

"No, I don't think so, sweetie," I told her.

"Oh," she said, and went back to her doll.

To be honest, we have done very little to try to teach our daughter anything in particular about blindness. Yes, she can write a few letters in Braille and will be taught more as she gets older. She has learned, through casual observation, how to handle a white cane, and she knows how to help label canned goods, but not much beyond that. I sometimes worry that our nonchalance about the topic has left her vulnerable to outside influences, that we were creating a vacuum into which mainstream fears and prejudice might rush, given half a chance. I have sometimes wondered if we were doing enough to prepare her for what lies ahead. Or was it too late already? What did she believe about blindness?

I decided to make a list, from her perspective, of the differences between her sighted father and her blind mother and see what I might learn:

*When you go shopping with Mama, you ride in a taxi, and you shop together with a store employee; when you go shopping with Daddy, you take the car and shop alone.

*Mama always takes her keys and her cane when she leaves the house; Daddy does not own a cane--He always takes his keys.

*Mama writes quickly in Braille and is not good at coloring pictures; Daddy is a good coloring companion, but his Braille is very slow.

*Mama does not need to turn on a light at night to make a snack; Daddy always uses the kitchen light.

*Mama plays Ticklefight and Capture, and she likes to wrestle; Daddy is good at making dollies talk and building Leggo cities.

*Mama bakes bread; Daddy is good at making curry.

*If you nod or gesture at Mama, she won't answer; if you put your feet on the furniture, Daddy will notice first and tell you to stop it.

*Only Mama knows right away what time your violin lesson is this week and whether anyone is coming over to dinner afterward; only Daddy knows right away who the mail is from when you get it out of the mailbox.

*Mama does the dishes; Daddy does the laundry.

*Mama reads in the dark; Daddy reads books from the public library.

*Mama sometimes cannot find things and needs help; Daddy sometimes cannot find things and needs help.

Certainly I cannot claim to have definitive insight into my daughter's mind, but it appears from this list, at least, that the differences between her father and me have much more to do with personality than with blindness. I am a social, physical person who grew up in a big family and hates laundry. My husband is more quiet, artistic, contemplative, an only child. Our daily lives are a dance whose moves are choreographed by our experiences, habits, gifts, and quirks. Blindness is one force that shapes our family life‑‑one force among many, all of which together hold us in balance. It is neither the most powerful nor the most interesting. Our daughter knows my limitations and gifts, as she knows her dad's. So far she has a handle on the situation: an intuitive, realistic perspective on how blindness shapes, and fails to shape, a life. Whatever destructive myths and prejudices about blindness are loose in our corner of rural Ohio, they haven't affected her yet.

 Soon enough, though, she'll begin to notice that our family does not hold the majority opinion about what blindness means. When I walk her to school this fall, she'll hear the woman who lives down the block call out: "It's so nice of you to help your mommy find her way, sweetie!" She'll notice, and she'll understand when her teacher says: "You can ask your daddy to help you with this homework." Perhaps worst of all, she will know, along with us, exactly what it means when a family friend exclaims: "Your mother gets around better than I do!" She'll hear; she'll understand; and some days it will burn in the back of her throat as it does in ours. And like the strong, beautiful woman she will become, she'll deal with it, drawing from the truths she learned quietly as a child, and I dare say she'll set a few people straight from time to time.

So I'm not worried about what she believes or what we are teaching her about blindness. At four she already knows everything she or anyone else needs to know.

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