Braille Monitor                                                                                 March 2006


Meet an NFB Member

Steve Jacobson
Steve Jacobson

by Steve Jacobson

From the Editor: This article is reprinted from the Fall 2005 issue of Expectations, the publication of the Minnesota Parents of Blind Children. A frequent feature of this newsletter is a profile of a blind member of the Minnesota affiliate. This is what Steve Jacobson wrote about himself:

It is difficult to know, when asked to write about one's life, exactly where to start. After some thought, though, starting with the present will help explain why I have already considered how I arrived where I am now. I hope perhaps elements of my life can help others.

Besides always having been blind and being a member of the NFB for more than thirty years, my wife and I are parents of two adopted blind children, ages ten and thirteen. Our kids have varying degrees of remaining vision, which in many ways makes understanding blindness and its characteristics very, very important. I have been fortunate to have been employed for more than thirty years in the computer field, spending most of that time with the 3M Company. Just like other parents I want my children to have a good life, at least as good as that I am experiencing. It is therefore not surprising that I would look back to those early years as a blind child for answers to questions I often have as a parent.

Clearly I have been lucky. My Maker gave me an aptitude and an interest in mathematics. Such an ability would have meant little a hundred years ago, but it has been the key to a rewarding career since society values such skills just now. Yet much of what I have managed to accomplish has been directly because of the expectations held by my parents. Those expectations were often based more on belief than on hard evidence because they didn't have much hard evidence to guide them. In the 1950's, the period in which I grew up, services offered to blind people were being developed. Social workers mixed good advice based upon their own experience with advice based upon written materials that often reaffirmed stereotypes of blind people that were outdated even then. In the end my parents discovered that they had to follow their own instincts at times, and I can remember yet today some of the lessons they taught me.

As far back as I can remember, my dad conveyed to me the idea that I would be working when I became an adult. Since he has been gone for almost twenty years now, I don't know to what degree he thought about it, and he certainly must have wondered what sort of a job I would have. When I was very young, I remember him suggesting that I might be a good Lutheran minister, for example, and college was always part of the picture. To get into college, it was necessary to do well in school, so this was a related part of the expectation.

There were other specific lessons as well. I remember running into a pole that supported a streetlight when I was four years old. The resulting cut required a number of stitches. Several days later, while I was playing inside, my mother gently suggested that I play outside. A lump of fear formed in my stomach even though I understood that I had hit the pole, it had not hit me, so there was nothing of which to be afraid. Still I was clearly afraid, and going back outside was parallel to getting back on the horse from which one had been thrown. Strangely enough, I don't remember what I did when I returned to playing outside, but I don't recall being afraid again. She knew when a gentle push was in order even though it must have been difficult.

Unfortunately I don't think I quite learned what she hoped I would learn. Rather than learning to be more careful, I apparently took from that experience that stitches didn't hurt much and that the occasional fall and even blood loss was an acceptable price for having fun. I say this because I have an extensive assortment of scars accumulated over the next ten or fifteen years, which usually arose from running when I was supposed to be walking, from roughhousing when I should have been studying, or from climbing when I was supposed to be sitting. Even if that may not have been the intended lesson, I wouldn't give any of it back, not one stitch.

I remember hearing that some people said that the furniture should never be rearranged in our home because it would disorient me. Fortunately my parents figured out that I needed to learn to live in a world that was constantly changing, which included rearranging the furniture when it seemed appropriate. Yet they went out of their way to encourage my interests. For example, my dad built a wooden frame, perhaps a foot square, which was filled with wax. My mother then carved a street map of the city with a butter knife for me since there were no Braille maps of our city. My Dad and I worked out ways for me to participate in family baseball games. When my parents weren't sure how to handle a given situation, they simply gave it their best shot rather than doing nothing, and I can't think of a time when it didn't work out.

In the mid 1950's there was very little mainstreaming in public schools outside of the very largest cities in Minnesota. At that time my hometown of Rochester was much smaller than it is today, and it had no special education classes yet. Since education was so important, my parents sent me to what was then called the Minnesota Braille and Sight Saving School in Faribault. I could never truly understand how difficult this must have been for them until I had kids of my own. When I think about it, it had to have been much harder on them than it was on me. It wasn't always easy for me either, and I can see that I missed some parts of family life, but as others will tell you, the students with whom one grows up in a residential school also become a kind of family. I received a solid education as well and got many of my academics in a joint program with the Faribault public high school.

In looking back, I now can see that my parents sometimes let me off a little easy since I was home only on weekends and holidays. I suspect that my brother and sister resented some of the attention I received when I came home, but I don't remember their ever showing it. Still I didn't get out of doing chores, and that was important. In particular I remember being assigned to take out the garbage; to wipe dishes; and to collect, shake, and then redistribute rugs. During two moves most of the moving was done by our family with the help of some friends. As the oldest kid I was expected to help, and I remember carrying beds, headboards, chairs, couches, and tables with my dad.

I recall being up on the roof with him when I was perhaps seven or eight because he needed someone to help hold a TV antenna that he was installing. There were certainly things I should have done that I didn't, but as a parent myself I understand that one must sometimes choose one's battles. Again, though, the expectation was that I would participate, and they did what they could to make it happen.

After graduating from high school, I attended Augsburg College in Minneapolis, and after expending considerable effort convincing the instructors that it could be done, I pursued a major in mathematics and earned a degree. This led me to computers, which have been a means of earning an income and also a source of enjoyment as a hobby. Still I would not have succeeded in math had my parents not planted the expectation that I would succeed and that, if I didn't succeed, it was my job to find another approach that would work.
Now here I am, a parent of blind children. I have experience to draw upon, good friends, a great organization to look to for guidance, and services that, while far from perfect, are more supportive than those available to my mother and father. Still, even with all that I don't always know what course should be followed, nor do I always have the magic answer. I am therefore amazed more than ever at how many things my parents did right without the experience, guidance, and services available to me.

I believe there are lessons to be learned here. Just as we must walk to strengthen our legs, as blind people we need to fall and then stand again to strengthen our resolve. As parents we can sometimes cushion the fall and extend a helping hand, but we can't and shouldn't prevent the falls. While we parent with our hearts, we must also sometimes temper our protective impulses with common sense. Sometimes love must protect, but at times love must also gently push. The world isn't an easy place, and we have to learn how to survive in it. Yet, if we master the skills we need, the world can be a good place, and we must remember that blind people have never had it better.