by Shirley Baillif
From the Editor: For many years Shirley Baillif was an active member of the NFB of California and a leader in the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children. You can read a tribute to her in the obituary that appears in the Monitor Miniature column of this issue. Her essay, “Accentuate the Positive,” appeared in the very first Kernel Book twenty years ago. Its message is as true as it ever was. We reprint it here in further tribute to a selfless and dedicated Federationist. Here it is beginning with Kenneth Jernigan’s introduction:
How do you face the fact that your child is blind? How do you answer his questions? What advice do you give him? Where do you find hope? How much does your son learn from you, and how much do you learn from him? Here is how it happened with Shirley Baillif, who lives in California and who came to the state convention of the National Federation of the Blind to tell her story.
Years ago there was a popular song that said in part:
You've got to accentuate the positive,
Eliminate the negative,
Latch on to the affirmative,
And don't mess with Mr. In-between.
If I were asked to give one piece of advice on raising a blind child, that little ditty would express my philosophy. When our son became totally blind at age thirteen, one month before entering high school, we felt terrified--lost in a situation we knew little or nothing about. When Michael, who was an active teenager more interested in sports than academics, turned to me and said, "Mom, what will I do now?" The good Lord gave me the sense not to see a dismal picture of a young boy growing old, helplessly striving to eke out a living. Instead I answered him honestly by saying in effect, "Michael, I have never known a blind person well enough to know how the blind accomplish the tasks they do, but I have encountered a few blind people indirectly, and I know they have not only graduated from high school, but gone on to graduate from college, become professionals in various fields, or build their own businesses. Honey, if they can do it, so can you--you just have to learn how." And that is exactly what we set out to do.
As soon as Michael was released from the hospital, I called our local high school, explained the situation, and received a response of absolute dismay. This was a new situation to them. The few blind students they had had in the past came to the high school from the elementary program, where they had learned basic skills, and they had no idea how they would teach a blind student. Fortunately we found two positive-thinking special teachers who were able to help with Braille and mobility.
All through his high school years I was told that I should protest if Michael wasn't getting the help he should have. But how could I protest something I knew little or nothing about? I wish we had known about the National Federation of the Blind then. Our family was introduced to the NFB when Michael was searching for college scholarships. Michael is not a joiner. He made one exception, though. After receiving a scholarship from the NFB, he felt obligated to give back $5 of it and become a member of the Student Division. It turned out to be the best investment he ever made or ever will.
There is no way I can even begin to express how much the NFB has meant to our family or how much Michael has been influenced by the positive role models of the NFB leaders, both on the state and national levels. And I cannot tell you how much his peers within the Federation have become, not only special friends of Michael's, but like a close-knit family to his father and me. We watch their lives unfold as they strive for and accomplish their individual goals, overcoming the stumbling blocks that have been thrown in their paths.
I have learned so much since those days spent with Michael at UCLA's Jules Stein Eye Institute, and now I want to share this knowledge with other parents as they come face to face with the destinies of their blind offspring. This is why I am so excited about starting a support group for parents of blind children in our area. I have a young mother of a newly blinded child, whom I met through a mutual friend, to thank for showing me this need; and I have the NFB to thank for giving me the encouragement and positive attitude to meet it.