by Michael Bullis
From the Editor: Michael Bullis is executive director of the Maryland TAP (Technology Access Program) and a leader of the NFB of Maryland. He is also a devoted father. In the following article he raises an issue that has become dear to his heart. It is a nightmare that lurks in the shadows for every blind parent. This is what he says:
It might seem that no personal right could be safely taken more for granted than the right to parent. It is so central to our social contract with one another that it isn't written. Our forefathers didn't even bother to enshrine it in the Constitution. For the most part the right to parent is conferred on an adult until or unless he or she demonstrates some incapacity. Most parents begin the task of raising children with no training and little actual experience. It is truly an on-the-job training program that usually results in children who grow up to be functioning adults.
Yet that right is daily brought into question in the experience of blind parents. Each young and deliriously happy blind mother or father discovers that a shadow is cast over what should be a joyous experience. These parents must be prepared for the possibility that, based on fear alone, some hospital worker, nurse, or doctor will question their ability to parent.
The questions begin innocuously enough. "How will you change your baby’s diaper?" "How will you know if your child is in pain?" "How will you know if the baby stops breathing?" "Suppose you drop the baby or strike its head against a door jam?"
You might respond that every parent, blind or sighted, probably asks him- or herself these questions. But, if you are blind, the questions can result in a visit from county social workers or state officials with the power to take your child, whether you have had any difficulties or not. In their minds you are guilty until proven innocent, a victim of their own fears of how they would manage a baby if they couldn't see. Far too often, well-intentioned social workers take the children of blind parents or, short of actually removing the child from the home, require parental training or the supervision of a sighted person.
Those familiar with the work of the National Federation of the Blind are aware that thousands of blind parents raise their children without difficulty every day, finding alternative techniques for solving parenting problems just as most sighted parents do. As with most things about blindness, starting with a positive attitude and the belief that a problem can be solved usually leads to a more than satisfactory solution. But, when you're in that hospital and the county social worker has the power to take your child from you, positive solutions can seem a very long way off. When you're in an unfamiliar environment and are asked to demonstrate your ability to bathe a newborn, the task can seem daunting indeed.
It doesn't stop with newborns. If you're a blind parent, a concerned neighbor may call child services officials at any time and raise questions about your parenting skills. As the children grow older, teachers may question your ability to help them with their school work. If you were a sighted parent and issues were raised about your ability to parent, complainants would have to provide actual evidence of your incompetence. But, if blindness is the central issue, nothing at all has to have gone wrong. Just the supposition that you as a blind parent can't possibly control your child can be enough for placement in state custody.
Finally, there is one more area in which your ability to parent can be questioned: divorce. If you and your spouse have the misfortune to divorce and if that divorce is contentious, you may find that your right to unsupervised visitation or custody is in question. Your spouse may say that you are unable to parent adequately. Lawyers tell us that challenging a blind parent's ability in a divorce case is often a matter of tactics rather than fact. Raising the specter of having one’s right to parent questioned in a divorce is often enough to force a blind parent into a quick settlement on less than favorable terms. Blind parents report that they feel humiliated and helpless in this situation. Far too often these cases never reach the ears of the local Federation chapter because the parent is unable to face a long and sometimes bitter court battle.
When social workers are involved, one might be quick to call upon the local NFB affiliate for assistance. But in a divorce, blind parents may be hesitant to turn to the Federation, feeling that the divorcee is somehow their fault in the first place and fearing that the case will devolve into their word against their spouses’. Family court is a messy business. If the divorce is contentious, accusations emerge on both sides having little to do with blindness. How the NFB can help under these circumstances is not an easy matter to discern. It's hard to know in the beginning just how much of a given case will be blindness-related, and, even if we prevail, the likelihood of a judge ordering the other side to pay legal costs is negligible.
In the fall of 2006 I found myself in this exact situation. Although I had raised our daughter, providing daily care since her birth, one of the accusations in my divorce was that I was an unsafe parent and should not have unsupervised visitation. I confess that some part of me couldn't believe this was happening to me. Yes, I had heard of such cases, but surely this couldn't happen to somebody who worked with children professionally every day, had babysat for his friends’ kids, and had stayed home to raise our daughter for the first year of her life. No, surely no such accusation would be allowed to go to trial.
But two years, fifty thousand dollars, and a ten-day trial later, with the help of the NFB, I found out that as blind adults we are guilty until proven innocent. The judge’s final declaration that I was a mature and responsible parent who should be allowed visitation without interference was vindication of a sort, but our daughter had lost two years of life with her daddy, and I was ruined financially.
We must leave a legacy to our Federation family--the blind adults who will live on after we are gone. Our legacy should be the right to parent on the same terms as those with sight without interference, without extra scrutiny, and without the nagging fear that our children can be taken away. My proposal is simple in concept but will require the efforts of all of us.
1. We must collect the stories of blind parents throughout the country who have been subjected to discrimination in their right to parent.
2. We must pass legislation in all fifty states that enshrines our right to parent in law, declaring that we are competent adults until proven otherwise by evidence rather than fear of blindness.
3. We need a team of battlers ready to step in whenever and wherever a blind parent's rights are questioned. This team would evaluate the situation and take immediate action through the press and local community when necessary. We need to persuade every lawyer of questionable ethics who intends to use blindness as a bargaining chip that the consequences of such a tactic will be swift, sure, and unpleasant.
4. Public education and education of the blind community are critical to the long-term success of our efforts. No law, however just, can stand in the face of continued public ignorance. We need to educate judges, lawyers, and the general public about our capabilities and normalcy.
I believe this is a battle worth fighting and ask like-minded Federationists to join me in winning it once and for all. In 2008 Maryland passed legislation prohibiting social service agencies from discriminating against blind parents, and we hope to secure legislation in 2009 covering the family courts. But each state needs such legislation, and I stand ready to work with any affiliate willing to take up this task. Please contact me with your suggestions, stories, and willingness to help. Together we can change what it means to be a blind parent, now and for generations to come.
Michael Bullis can be contacted at <[email protected]> or by telephone at (410) 323-4884.