Braille Monitor                                                                                 February 2006


Educating the World, One Reporter at a Time

by Eric Vasiliauskas

Vejas and Petras Vasiliauskas wrestle on their trampoline.

From the Editor: Sometimes we set out to educate the public about the facts of blindness, and sometimes people get the message and even pass it on without our even knowing that they were watching and learning. Paul Silva is a columnist with the Beach Reporter: The Community Newspaper of the Beach Cities in California. Reprinted here is his column which appeared in the April 15-21, 2004, edition (Volume 28, Number 10):

A World Seen Without Sight

by Paul Silva

The boy walks past my house, the red tip of his cane hovering above the ground ahead of him. Walking with him is a man who asks him questions: What street did we just turn off? What street are we walking on now? What is the cross street ahead? The boy is blind, if not entirely, then at least severely sight-impaired. I would put his age at eight or nine. The man appears to be helping the boy paint a mental map of the neighborhood.

I have seen these two walking past my house twice lately when I have come home in the middle of the day to have lunch and check on my dogs. As they pass, my dogs bark. My house has probably been sketched into the landscape that the boy is drawing in his mind. This is the house with the two big barking dogs, halfway down the block, on the north side.

I assume the boy is a student at the public school a block away, and the man, wearing an ID badge, appears to be an aide, helping the boy become accustomed to making his way through the neighborhood. As they have passed, I have overheard their conversation. The boy answers the man's questions briskly and brightly. He seems smart, cheerful, and resolute, qualities he will need in the world beyond this quiet street.

But is it so quiet? I close my eyes and listen, straining to imagine the street by its sounds. I hear the wind rummaging through the trees, the tinkle of a neighbor's wind chimes, the distant yelps of kids at recess, the occasional rumble of a passing car. A door closes; a bird starts off a power line. It's a quiet street, not because there are no noises, but because the noises are familiar, comforting, and peaceful. I wonder if the little boy finds the same comfort, or does every noise subtly remind him of sights unseen? Can you miss what you never had?

He might have better questions for me: What do you miss when you think nothing escapes your attention? What does sight make you blind to? This boy does not see which house is large and which is small. He doesn't know a recent paint job from an ancient one, a brown lawn from a green one, a new car from a clunker. A map of the world derived from sound and touch is less concerned with surface aesthetics. The bird on the wire may not be seen, but its song can be better heard, and doesn't that say as much—or more—about the bird as its feathers?

No one would choose blindness. There is too much beauty to be seen, even with all the ugliness. But sight can be overwhelming, deceptive, and capricious. You can see only what you look at, and sometimes not even that much. It is very possible this boy can learn more about my street than I can. He can "see" the world in a way I can't. This realization makes me thankful, not for his blindness but for a society that makes accommodation for it. I'm thankful for the man who walks with the boy. If these are my tax dollars at work, directly or indirectly, I'm glad for it.

Making room for this boy is not just the right thing to do; it's also the selfish thing to do. Help him now, and who knows whom he will help later? Show him the way along this street, through this neighborhood, and he may show you the world some day. Helen Keller, undistracted by sight or sound, once said, "I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something. And because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something that I can do."

What is life for but finding the something we can do for ourselves and others? The boy walking down my street will find his something, and so will all of us if we take the time to listen to our own voice and each other's. Make a map in your mind of the world as it is and as you want it to be. Take a walk, ask questions, seek answers, and do the something that you can do.

Reprinted courtesy of the Beach Reporter.

The boy whom Paul Silva had observed and then written about was Vejas Vasiliauskas, the son of Dr. Eric Vasiliauskas, who sent the column to the Braille Monitor. But Dr. Vasiliauskas was not content simply to write a thank you note to the reporter; he took the time to reinforce Mr. Silva’s healthy impulses and build on the fine beginning of understanding demonstrated by his article. Here is a slightly modified version of the email he sent to the reporter:

Subject: A Note from the Little Boy’s Parents

Dear Paul,

My wife and I were touched by your article in this week’s Beach Reporter. We assume the young man that you wrote about is our seven-year-old son Vejas, who was out on an orientation and mobility (O&M) lesson with his instructor, Joe Snead. Both Vejas, whom you have seen out and about, and his three-year-old brother Petras are blind. Despite their young age they both teach us much and provide us with a view of the world that few come to fully appreciate. They are both curious and have a positive outlook, yet, as is often the case with siblings, each is unique.

It is admittedly an unusual sight to see a little boy with a cane, not to mention two happy little boys with canes, at times tapping in synchonicity. While for us the blindness issues have essentially become a normal part of our lives, we can’t help being aware that people are always watching us as we go into the community to do things everyone else does, and it is only natural for us to wonder what others are thinking.

We have high expectations for both boys and expect them to achieve much in their lives. We have no doubt they will attend university and pursue careers of their choice. Our primary long-term goal is for both to be happy and to be productive members of society. We want to do everything in our power to make sure that they have the tools and experiences that they will need to be able to achieve this. In our opinion this will best be achieved by integrating/mainstreaming both as much as possible with other children of their own age in all aspects of life (school and play). Yet in order to make sure that they both will ultimately be able to compete successfully in the real world, in addition to the standard academic curriculum, we are trying to make sure that they acquire all the blindness skills they will need including Braille fluency, independent living skills, and independent travel skills.

My wife and I have come to understand that blind people can and do independently travel not only within neighborhoods and cities but across the country and around the world. Mastering the art of independent nonvisual travel requires appropriate training and lots of practice. Both Vejas and Petras started receiving O&M training before they could even stand on their own. As parents we try to reinforce what they are taught during their formal O&M lessons. We encourage exploration, and when we go out, we frequently let them take the lead, for just as with anything else, they ultimately learn best by applying what they have been taught in lessons to real life situations. At times we bite our lips and hold our breaths as we let them learn by finding or bumping into obstacles or taking small tumbles if they don’t pay attention and miss a curb or a stair (rest assured, we are above all concerned about safety and obviously use careful judgment in such instances). It should come as no surprise that a few such controlled mishaps leave a much more profound and long-lasting impression than words of caution from a parent or teacher.

We have gotten looks or overheard comments at times from people who don’t understand why we don’t just make it easy for our boys by taking their hands and leading them everywhere. They don’t seem to grasp the concept that, when adults do everything for blind children, they deny them the opportunity to develop the skills they need ultimately to function on their own in life. We therefore make a concerted effort to foster independence. The boys never leave home without their canes, which they use to get information about their environment. When possible I encourage them to help me by carrying things in their free hand. They are then less prone to try to grab my hand and use me as a guide; they need to pay more attention. By doing so, they learn to take active control of their travel rather than being the passenger, so to speak.

As you suspected, Vejas attends our neighborhood public elementary school. The mainstreaming process is going quite well overall, though we continue to deal with hurdles along the way. We are looking forward to similar success with Petras. The local school system has thus far overall been responsive to our needs. Vejas and Petras each have an itinerant VI (vision impairment) teacher who comes to work with them and their classroom teachers three or four times a week. The VI teacher is responsible for making sure that the boys have full access to the curriculum through nonvisual techniques, which include Braille, raised graphics, and other adaptations. Most of the regular education teachers who work with the boys have shared with us that, by incorporating the nonvisual techniques they have learned, including enhanced verbal explanations and descriptions, they feel they have become more effective teachers overall.

Vejas is in first grade and has been doing very well. He knows Braille, and in fact he has won the Braille Institute’s Summer Reading Program the last few years in a row, both for his age group and overall. Last year he read almost 1,500 pages of Braille in three months and won third place in the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) Braille Readers Are Leaders contest. He was the only kindergartener to place. This year our seven-year-old first grader read over 3,300 Braille pages during the three-month contest. Vejas sometimes Brailles our grocery lists on his Perkins Brailler (like an old fashion typewriter, except it punches out Braille letters) before we head out to Trader Joe's or Vons. At the store he reads us the list as we shop so we don't forget anything. He loves words and word play and spells better than I do at times. He enjoys geography and math and is also learning basic Spanish.

Vejas learned the QWERTY keyboard layout by four years of age from the various toys he plays with. At home we are beginning to use a computer that is adapted for nonvisual access. Vejas has access to text that appears on the computer screen via a screen reading program called JAWS. I am trying to make technology fun. He is learning how to email his relatives. I also recently figured out how to work Windows Media Player so that, with the assistance of JAWS, Vejas can on his own now access his favorite songs and Disney Read-Along stories, which I have converted into Playlists. He finds this latter feature quite cool.

His latest favorite toy is his BrailleNote, which is basically an oversized souped-up PDA for blind people that talks and has refreshable Braille cells. He loves this amazing tool that allows him on his own to create documents, write stories, and read children's e-books and children's e-magazines (like Spider magazine) that we have downloaded from the Internet.

Petras recently turned three and just transitioned into our school district’s preschool program. The school system is really doing a nice job with him as well. Petras is a delightful little boy who passionately loves music. He spends hours playing on the piano, creating his own tunes and even playing musical pieces that he has picked up by listening to Vejas play. His favorite toy is the Perkins Brailler. While some kids scribble on walls, Petras spends time scribbling with his Brailler. He also loves playing outside and reading stories with Mom, Dad, or his older brother.

We are of Lithuanian descent. In fact Lithuanian is the primary language we try to use at home, though at this point Vejas's English is clearly superior, while Petras at this point still understands Lithuanian better than English. Vejas attends Lithuanian school for four hours on Saturdays. He reads and types in Lithuanian Braille and is actually the fastest reader and writer in his first-grade Lithuanian Saturday school class.

My wife Rasa is a true gem. While she is an occupational therapist by training, she currently works at home caring for the boys and takes them to all their various appointments, activities, therapies, and extracurricular classes. Rasa is fluent in Braille and has in fact Brailled over three hundred children's books at this point. Rasa is quite creative with modifying toys. She Brailles Vejas's textbooks and modifies his worksheets for both Lithuanian Saturday school and Sunday school. Rasa really invests the time it takes to make sure Vejas and Petras understand the concepts introduced in school. She does most of the hands-on work to make sure the boys learn the skills they will need to succeed not only academically but in life in general.

Each helps out at home with designated age-appropriate chores. Both also assist us in picking out fruits, vegetables, and other groceries at the store and then help put the purchased items away at home. We play as well. The boys enjoy swimming; exploring the playground; jumping on the trampoline; and visiting the zoo, aquarium, Legoland, Disneyland, and water parks and just hanging out at the beach. We have even tried our hand at roller blading on the strand, tandem biking, kite flying, boogie boarding, kayaking, and believe it or not skiing and surfing.

Amazing as it may seem, when you spend time with the boys and interact with them, you find yourself quickly forgetting that they are blind. They are two wonderful little boys full of energy and personality. They are not defined by their blindness; they just happen to be blind. Through our interactions with the blind community we have come to fully believe that there is virtually nothing a blind person can’t do if they put their mind to it. Most of the limitations the blind face are conceptual biases that most of us have grown up with. We have had the fortune and honor of meeting quite a number of remarkable blind individuals who have been able to overcome the barriers. We have met or read about quite a few successful blind role models who inspire us to reach for what is possible. While it is becoming increasingly easy for the blind to blend into a predominantly sighted world, I have to admit that to a certain extent it sometimes feels as if we live in what could be described as a parallel world. As a result our lives have become much richer.

Thank you once again for sharing your perspective.

Eric Vasiliauskas