Braille Monitor                                                    January 2008

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In Praise of Exploration

by Fred Wurtzel

Fred WurtzelFrom the Editor: Fred Wurtzel is president of the NFB of Michigan. He and his brother George, who earned his living for many years as a professional carpenter, grew up playing and exploring like other normal kids, even though they were both blind. All this excellent firsthand experience has given Fred decided ideas about what’s good for blind youngsters. Here are his advice and his explanation of why he makes these recommendations:

I will begin by admitting my lack of formal credentials to write an article on parenting. I have no degree in child development, psychology, or education. I am not a researcher, educator, or bureaucrat in a child protection agency. So why, you ask, would such an uncredentialed person write an article offering advice to parents of blind children?

I have been blind since birth, having been born with retinitis pigmentosa. I am a parent. Mary (also blind) and I have three wonderful children, ages thirty, twenty-six, and eighteen as I write this in 2007. My educational experience includes attendance in a self-contained classroom for visually impaired children, a full-inclusion classroom, and graduation from a residential school for the blind. In addition, I have earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees after attending a number of colleges and universities.

My experience as president of the National Federation of the Blind of Michigan and a founding board member of Opportunities Unlimited for the Blind, a nonprofit that operates Camp Tuhsmeheta, a camp for blind kids, has allowed me to observe a variety of blind kids and their peers in a natural setting. I do not intend to preach to you. We all get too much of that finger-wagging, judgmental stuff. My intention is to pass along thoughts and opinions gathered as a blind adult about things that helped me appreciate a broad range of interests and activities. I hope that some of these will help you provide experiences that will enrich your child’s learning.

My primary suggestion is to help your child spend unstructured and minimally supervised time outdoors each day. Of course you need to keep your child safe. But my observation is that most families would do well to give children more personal space and time to explore independently. The child’s age will dictate the boundaries of your supervision, but I am quite confident that most parents would do well to give their children more freedom, even at very early ages. Practice resisting the temptation to save your child from the smallest bump or collision. Stretch your comfort zone a little by allowing your child to discover new things and new ways to explore. One simple rule of thumb is to allow your blind child at least the same freedom of movement as you do your sighted children at the same age. In my view many parents would benefit all their children by loosening up and encouraging them to go outside to play for a while.

As background reading I recommend Privileged Hands by Dr. Geerat (Gary) Vermeij. Dr. Vermeij is a world-renowned blind scientist. Privileged Hands is his autobiography. Gary’s descriptions of growing up blind in Holland and later in the United States are highly instructive. He talks about the importance of allowing blind children to explore with their hands, ears, noses, and even their tongues, tasting things they encounter. Don’t be too horrified; he has survived intact with little negative effect and a MacArthur Fellows Program Award (generally known as the “genius award”) to his credit. Privileged Hands, as well as his more academic books, is available from Amazon.com and Recordings for the Blind and Dyslexic. Privileged Hands was also recorded by the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped.

Backyards are a treasure trove of opportunities to discover what the world is like. They include all kinds of textures, smells, critters, and sounds to enrich any child’s life experience. This exploration cannot start too early. Infants benefit from being outdoors. Certainly toddlers begin to understand the vastness and variety of the outdoors by encountering trees; bushes; grass; weeds; tilled soil; and man-made objects like fences, sheds, lawn sprinklers, garden tools, and so on ad infinitum. Allow yourself to suppress your normal inclination to protect your child enough to let him or her touch rose bushes and find the sharp thorns. Children will not be seriously injured and will learn how to explore carefully, knowing that some things can give them a prick.

Such expeditions are a perfect time for children to practice using their canes to explore the environment. Age is no limit. The very youngest children can learn to use the cane to identify things, experience new textures, and locate objects.

My early childhood included having free run of three acres of mostly unimproved and unmanaged ground. Weeds grew taller than my head. Bugs and worms crawled out of all kinds of places, and flying insects buzzed around me. My father had salvaged piles of used bricks from demolished buildings. I could climb on two giant underground storage tanks. Imagine pounding on the drumlike end of an eight-foot-tall steel tank and hearing the deep reverberations--amazing. My father owned an excavation business, so we had tools and machines around. The more cultivated area around our home included cherry trees; a huge pear tree; a peach tree; and, my favorite, a young walnut tree suitable for climbing by a small boy. I loved climbing trees. I never remember falling, nor did my brother.

My brother, also blind, had his share of scrapes and bruises, but no broken bones or serious injuries. He was a little more rambunctious, so he did get a few stitches but is none the worse for wear today. I am not making the same claim for our parents.

In our teens we had the run of eighty acres near Traverse City in northern Michigan. When we moved to this home, it had an old barn that was falling down from lack of care. My brother and I dismantled the building. We salvaged the barn siding and beams and sold some of it and bartered some for services to remodel the house. Our mother gutted the old farmhouse totally, and we helped, learning a lot about building construction in the process.

A granary leaning from decay was attached to the old barn. One day I was dismantling the building alone when I used my wrecking bar to remove a short brace, maybe six inches long. I was amazed to have the whole building crashed down as soon as I pulled off the board. Fortunately I was at the corner of the building and escaped with only one scratch on my back and a ripped shirt when a board grazed me as I dodged the big crash. This experience was a great life lesson, with many metaphors to be drawn from that insignificant-looking board holding up the whole structure. Since that exciting experience, I have been more conscious of investigating and planning before starting projects. I have a healthy respect for safety precautions in construction areas.

With all the scrap wood available, we built platforms in trees in the woods on the property. We salvaged a trolley mechanism used to move hay inside the barn and mounted it between the platforms in the woods, creating a way to move aerially from one platform to another. With ropes and pulleys we could lift heavy objects up to our platforms. We learned a lot about mechanical advantage, leverage, and compound pulleys and their usefulness in making work easier. Taking time to sit quietly on a platform in the woods brings peace and an awe in the presence of creation not available on television or a computer.

My father and uncles were hunters. I learned about guns, hunting, cleaning game, and the natural environment. We ate wild game and went into the fields and woods with our father on hunting trips. We fished and learned to clean fish. I can remember my mother showing me the bladder from a fish. She explained that the fish used this bladder to increase buoyancy to rise or reduce buoyancy to sink deeper. This concept transferred to swimming, fishing, and understanding how submarines work. I was probably five or six years old when she showed me the fish innards.

I learned about parasites the day my father brought home some fish from Saginaw Bay. The fish were soaking in our sink when worms began emerging from them. We did not eat the fish. My parents told me that the pollution in Saginaw Bay made fish sick. This was another good early object lesson.

My mother was a forager. She would take me along with her and some of my aunts as we gathered wild berries. I can remember five-gallon pails of blueberries and red and black raspberries. Asparagus grew wild along the roads near our house. My mother is gifted with amazing eyesight that can spot asparagus or morel mushrooms growing off the road while driving forty miles an hour. You have not lived till you’ve eaten fresh wild morels sautéed in butter. It doesn’t get better than that.

Bob Burnett was a wonderful science teacher at the Michigan School for the Blind. We studied chemistry and biology. Since these were subjects not ordinarily taught to blind children, we had no up-to-date accessible textbooks. In addition to learning the sciences, we learned how to reproduce books. We had a special copy machine that would enlarge print, and I cannot begin to guess the number of thermoform pages that I made of our Braille textbooks. Yes, we made our own books--another great lesson useful to me the rest of my life.

In science we learned to work with dangerous chemicals such as acid. We dissected specimens. By graduation I was prepared for college science classes. Mr. Burnett took us outside to discover what the things we were learning about looked like in nature. This made science come alive for me. He took us on canoe trips in northern Michigan in every season from New Year’s Day to midsummer. Canoeing or floating on an inner tube allows a blind child to find out what a river is really like. I can remember feeling river bottoms made of solid clay. It was an amazing sensation to feel large, very slippery ridges of clay cut at a diagonal upward toward the riverbank, or alternatively, finding a whirlpool with the river flowing upstream on one side and downstream on the other. Unless I had been in the water, I would not have been likely to understand the complexity and variation of rivers.

I was and remain excited about and interested in all areas of science, though I do not yet fully comprehend quantum mechanics. Don’t let weather be a deterrent. Some of my most pleasant memories are being outside in the rain, standing under the eaves as rainwater streamed off the roof. Living in northern Michigan allowed me to be outside in the coldest, snowiest, and most invigorating weather. To this day I still love walking in a howling blizzard just for the physical stimulation of the experience. Your children will learn to love climate changes if they learn to appreciate them at an early age.

I love swimming. I especially love swimming in swift rivers and in Lake Michigan when the waves are as high as my head. I have water skied in Grand Traverse Bay in early spring just after the ice went out. (I did wear a wet suit jacket.)

Parents have a tremendous influence on the rate of progress that their children make toward first-class citizenship. Creating a routine that includes time outdoors during all seasons and in all weather conditions goes a long way toward developing an interest in our wonderful natural environment. The technology that provides access to the Internet and gives us Braille notetakers is a fabulous tool to express and communicate our knowledge. But such technology will never substitute for opening the door and walking into the backyard to play in the grass, dig in the garden, or climb a tree.

Last summer I was a mentor at the NFB Jernigan Institute’s first Youth Slam. I hope I passed on, even if in a very small way, the gift my parents and Bob Burnet gave me by providing outdoor experiences. The Slam planners integrated structured-discovery learning, a core belief in the abilities and potential of blind kids, and the conviction that the first blind astronaut may already have been born. I hope parents can adopt and instill these beliefs in their blind children. The simple and perhaps courageous act of sending them outside can help them reach this important goal.

Consider a Charitable Gift

Making a charitable gift can be one of the most satisfying experiences in life. Each year millions of people contribute their time, talent, and treasure to charitable organizations. When you plan for a gift to the National Federation of the Blind, you are not just making a donation; you are leaving a legacy that insures a future for blind people throughout the country. Special giving programs are available through the National Federation of the Blind (NFB).

Points to Consider When Making a Gift to the National Federation of the Blind

Benefits of Making a Gift to the NFB

Your Gift Will Help Us

Your gift makes you a part of the NFB dream!

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