The Braille Monitor                                                                              October 2005


Federation Leaders in the Spotlight

From the Editor: Dan Wenzel is president of the NFB of Wisconsin. His wife Jennifer works at home and takes care of the couple’s three young sons as well as helping with affiliate projects. They live an all-American life, and because the Wenzels are blind, they attracted the attention of the Janesville, Wisconsin, Gazette. On May 27, 2005, staff writer Briana Brough wrote a story about the Wenzels that gave them a chance to demonstrate their healthy attitudes about building a family, keeping children happy and well-balanced, and living with blindness. Here it is:

Couple Don't Let Their Lack of Sight Slow Them or Their Children Down

Take a moment and think about all the things you do in a day: rushing to get the kids ready for school, going to work, buying groceries, chasing after toddlers. Now imagine doing those things without being able to see. That's what life is like for Jennifer and Dan Wenzel, a Janesville couple with three children.

The Wenzel family in their home. Left to right they are Roland, Stephen, Dan, and Jennifer holding Tanner. 

The Wenzel family in their home. Left to right they are Roland, Stephen, Dan, and Jennifer holding Tanner.

Blindness and visual impairment affect as many as 200,000 people in Wisconsin, according to the State of Wisconsin Bureau for the Blind. Most lose their vision later in life because of disease or age, but some, such as the Wenzels, are born blind or impaired. People who are blind do most everything that sighted people do. They go to school, have productive jobs, and raise families. They simply have a different set of tools with which to build their lives. In many ways the Wenzels are a typical American family. Dan works as a transition specialist at the Wisconsin Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired in Janesville. Jennifer is a stay-at-home mom who proofreads Braille textbooks in her down time. They have three boys, Roland, five, Stephen, three, Tanner, ten months, all of whom are sighted. Dan has some vision; with corrective lenses he can see 20/200. Jennifer has been totally blind since birth.

Dan and Jennifer met a decade ago at the Colorado Center for the Blind, where they worked at a summer program for blind high-schoolers. After long-distance courting while Jennifer finished college in Minnesota, the two married in 1997. "My mom was very upset because she wanted me to marry a sighted person who would take care of me and who would drive me to the grocery store," Jennifer says. "I didn't go out and pick a blind person versus a sighted person. I picked the person that I love for who he is."

The Wenzels' philosophy, which they developed at the Colorado Center for the Blind, is that blindness doesn't matter. It is simply a characteristic, like eye or hair color. The philosophy underlies how the Wenzels approach their marriage, their family, and their lives in general.

"I think the similarity between us and any family is the fact that we love our kids just like sighted parents are going to love their kids," Dan says. "We do things right just like sighted parents do, and sometimes we struggle and do things wrong and make mistakes just like sighted parents do. Parenting really isn't that much different just in the idea of love and discipline and sort of the family routine you go through."

There are differences, of course. Because they cannot drive, the Wenzels walk or take the bus. "Sometimes it's frustrating and annoying because it takes longer, but most of the time that's just life, and you just do it and keep on parenting and making the best of it all and having fun," Jennifer says.

At the park they have a rule that, when one of the kids goes to a new piece of equipment, the child must tell a parent. The Wenzels also teach their kids to answer when called. "They don't have to come by us, but they need to answer as soon as they hear us so that we know where they are," Jennifer adds. "That's just my way of monitoring them instead of looking around for them."

Jennifer has a stable of alternative techniques for day-to-day tasks. When cooking, for example, she uses the tip of her finger to feel when a liquid has reached the top of a container, and she keeps things such as oil and some medicines in the refrigerator so she can feel them.

For the most part she memorizes clothes by texture, but she sometimes puts a small safety pin in an article of clothing if she has two that feel the same. "I do like to know color," she says, "even though I've never seen color, because that's part of the real world."

Braille is also an important tool for Jennifer. She gets Braille books at the library to read to the boys, or she Brailles them herself with the help of a reader. She has Braille on her watch and microwave, and she uses a special machine to Braille playing-card and board games.

Traveling, especially with the boys, is a challenge for Jennifer. "I have a really bad sense of direction," she says. "I think I'd have trouble traveling even if I could see. I sometimes can get turned around a bit, so I have to stop and think and concentrate on it, but that doesn't mean that I can't do it. I still want to go out and do the things with my kids that I need to do and that I want to do."

Dan and Jennifer don't hesitate to set off, kids in tow, on adventures by bus, train, or plane. They think it is important to expose the boys to different places, cultures, and ideas. "We really want our kids to travel," Jennifer says. "We want them to see the U.S., and we hope to get them to Europe."

They've got a good start. The family travels around Wisconsin by bus or by hiring a friend to drive them. They have visited friends and family as far away as Oklahoma, and they even have plans for an eighteen-hour train ride to visit Jennifer's sister in Baltimore.

"We really, really enjoy train trips because you can move around," Jennifer explains, noting that the boys love to walk between cars and visit the cafe and observation cars.

As the boys get older, the fact that they can see things their parents can't creates a new quandary for the Wenzels. "You want to encourage that they're trying to be helpful and they're trying to learn," Dan explains. "And we want them to learn to see the 'walk' sign when they're crossing the street because that's something they're going to need to be able to do. We also want them to know how we cross the street and how we utilize the traffic and the flow of traffic to cross."

"I don't ever want them to think that I'm dependent on them," Jennifer adds, "and it's a fine line because I also don't want them to think that they can't ever help anybody."

"We're a team, and we all have our parts to play," Dan says, "and as parents, we have more of a part to play when it comes to travel and decision-making than our kids do. But at the same time, we're trying to teach our kids to be independent thinkers, and so we work on that."

To the Wenzel kids mom and dad's blindness is just a normal part of life. Jennifer looks at her sons' artwork by feeling its texture or by asking them to describe it to her. Jennifer says it was at Stephen's third birthday party when it clicked for him that she couldn't see.

"He got a View-Master. He asked me if I wanted to look at his View-Master picture, and I said, 'Well, I can't see it, but you can tell me what it is,' and he just went 'gasp!' But now it's funny because he'll still show me the View-Master, and he'll shove it up to my eye and say, 'Just pretend you're looking--it's Buzz Lightyear!' So it's very important to him that I pretend, so I pretend."

Jennifer won't pretend, however, that it doesn't bother her when well-meaning strangers assume she needs help or speaks to one of her children instead of to her. "That's really insulting," she says. "I'm still an adult. I'm still a person. I'm a person who happens to be blind. I have no problem with anyone asking me if I need help," she adds. "I'll respond politely. I have no problem answering blindness questions that anyone might ask of me. But then I hope that eventually if we're going to be friends or we're going to communicate a lot, that we move past that and just become friends because I have a lot of other interests too."

Family, however, is most important to Dan and Jennifer. "I think parenting is a tough job for anyone trying to raise their kids," Jennifer says. "Everyone wants the best for their kids and wants their kids to be happy and healthy and safe."

Dan has advice for anyone in a similar situation who's considering a family. "Really the most important things are that you're a family that works together, you're a family that loves each other, you're a family that cares about the education of your kids, you're a family that cares about a work ethic and raising kids that respect other people and other cultures."

With an attitude like that the Wenzels have all the vision they need.