Braille Monitor                                                                  April-May 1985

(back)(contents)(next)

Blind Parents and the Courts

Some of the actions of the National Federation of the Blind are confrontational and dramatic, occurring in the glare of cameras and headlines. Others are equally effective but less spectacular.

Recently, for instance, a blind man living in the state of Washington was denied custody of his children by a court in San Diego, California. His blindness was cited as the reason. He contacted the National Office of the Federation. The National Federation of the Blind of California collected affidavits and made representations to the court. The case has now been satisfactorily settled, and the blind man has custody of his daughter. It is expected that he will soon be given custody of his son as well.

It is that simple and that compelling, but how did it happen? If the National Federation of the Blind had not produced informational radio and television spots, had not written and distributed to the general public vast amounts of educational material through the years, and had not on a continuing basis sought to raise the consciousness of the sighted and the blind alike, the blind parent might never have learned of us and might not have thought it worthwhile contacting us if he had. Moreover, if we had not laid the groundwork during the past several decades and brought about changes in the climate of public opinion, the custody case might never have been brought in the first place. This is true regardless of whether the principal participants have ever even heard of the Federation. There are other background elements which were equally essential to the unspectacular but successful resolution of the case. What if we had never built our state organizations and developed the habit of coordinating efforts and exchanging information? If we had not had a National Office, there would have been no National Office to contact. If Dr. tenBroek had not built wisely and well, his son would probably not have come foward; and if Nancy Smalley had not learned and lived her Federationism for the major part of her adult life, it is hard to know whether her boy would have been contacted and what he might have said. If Sharon Gold and the other members of the NFB of California had not worked day in and day out to strengthen the movement, what real likelihood is there that a trained lawyer would have been available to collect and present the evidence? If individual blind persons throughout the country had not regularly contributed to PAC and done other things to raise money, what are the odds that we could have paid the costs for phone calls and letters and lawyers?

What if-- But we did. When we did our work as Federationists in 1943, 1953, 1963, 1973, and 1983, we were preparing to protect the rights of a blind parent in the San Diego courts in 1984. So it is today, and there is no way to overemphasize its importance or remind ourselves too often. By the preparations we make today we decide the outcome of the battles of the decades ahead. Our struggle for freedom is long-term and deliberate. It will determine the quality of life not only for the blind of this generation but also the next and the next. The difference between the first-class status we seek and the second-class treatment we too often receive can be told in a name-the National Federation of the Blind:

Sacramento, California
February 25, 1985

Dear Dr. Jernigan:

In September, 1984, Jim Gashel advised me of a telephone call he received from Jim Tucker, a blind man currently living in Washington State. Mr. Tucker reported that he is a blind father seeking custody of his children through the courts in San Diego, California, and that the issue of his blindness was preventing the court from awarding the custody of the children.

Upon investigation I learned that in 1978 following a divorce from his wife, Mr. Tucker sought custody of his children when his wife became unable to care for them. A San Diego judge refused to award Mr. Tucker custody of his children because he was blind, and the judge apparently considered a blind person unable to raise children. Mr. Tucker did not know about the National Federation of the Blind, did not know of his rights, and apparently did not have funds sufficient to seek an appeal. Thus, the children were awarded to the maternal grandmother.

Recently the custody of Mr. Tucker's children again became an issue before the San Diego court, and again the issue of Mr. Tucker's blindness surfaced. I am advised that a social worker involved in the case reported to the court in reference to Mr. Tucker's daughter that were it not that Mr. Tucker is blind, she would recommend immediate placement of the child with her father, Jim Tucker.

At the request of Jim Tucker and his lawyers, the National Federation of the Blind of California filed declarations with the court in an effort to dispose of the concerns over blindness prevailing in the court record. The NFB of California contacted Nick tenBroek, son of Dr. Jacobus tenBroek, a blind father; and Kevin Smalley, son of Nancy Smalley, a blind mother. In the declarations filed on behalf of Mr. Tucker, these children attested to the normality of their upbringing by their blind parents. This was corroborated by Andrew Meisel, attorney for the National Federation of the Blind of California, who filed a declaration of his knowledge of blind parents and their successes in raising children.

Mr. Tucker has advised me that upon the filing of the declarations, the court dispensed with any further reference as to his blindness, and on November 30, 1984, Mr. Tucker was awarded custody of his daughter, and it is expected that he will be awarded custody of his son in the near future.

Cordially,

Sharon Gold
President
National Federation of the Blind of California

cc: Gary Mackenstadt, President
National Federation of the Blind of Washington

Declaration of Andrew H. Meisel

I, ANDREW H. MEISEL, declare:

1. I am an Attorney at Law, duly licensed to practice law before all courts of the state of California.

2. I have been involved in many cases involving custody of minor children of a blind parent. Through this involvement, I have come to know many blind parents and many children of blind parents.

3. Blind parents are just as capable as sighted parents when it comes to raising a family. The children in such families do not suffer any reduction in the quality of upbringing. Essentially, there is little, if any, difference between a family which includes a blind parent and one which does not.

4. Based on my work in this type of case, I have found that California law prohibits awarding custody to a sighted parent rather than a blind parent, where such award is based on blindness. I urge the Court not to consider Jim Tucker's blindness when deciding the custody issue in this case.

I declare under penalty of perjury that the foregoing is true and correct based upon my personal knowledge and belief. If called as a witness in this action, I could and would testify the foregoing is true and correct.

Executed this 26th day of September, 1984, at San Francisco, California.

Andrew H. Meisel

Declaration of Nick tenBroek

I, NICK tenBROEK, declare:

1. I am a resident of the State of California.

2. I am 32 years of age and have two children, ages two and a half years and five weeks.

3. My father was blind. He and my mother raised three children (I have a brother and a sister). There was hardly any difference between our family and other families. My father would do the same activities with his family as other fathers would do with their families. For example, he built us a swing set, slide, and complete playground in our yard when we were growing up. He supervised and looked after us in much the same way other fathers do.

4. I suffered no disadvantage due to my father's blindness. I never wished my dad was sighted.

5. There is absolutely no reason why a blind father cannot raise a child (or children) as effectively as a sighted father. A blind father would have no more difficulty raising a child who needs special treatment than a sighted father. By the same token, such a child would be at no disadvantage due to a parent's blindness.

6. I urge the Court not to consider Jim Tucker's blindness when determining the custody issue.

I declare under penalty of perjury that the foregoing is true and correct based upon my personal information and belief. If called as a witness in this action, I could and would testify the foregoing is true and correct.

Nick tenBroek

Declaration of Kevin Smalley

I, KEVIN SMALLEY, declare:

1. I am a resident of the State of California.

2. Presently, I am a student at Burbank High School in Burbank, California. I am fifteen (15) years of age.

3. My mother is blind. She is a single parent and has raised my brother and me since birth. My brother is eighteen (18) years of age.

4. I have experienced no disadvantage due to my mother's blindness. She cared for me, looked after me, and supervised me in much the same way as other mothers.

5. There is no reason why a blind parent should be deprived custody of a child due to the parent's blindness. A blind parent is as capable as anyone else when it comes to raising a family. The fact that a child may be particularly troublesome, or require special attention, does not hinder the blind parent whatsoever.

6. I urge the Court not to consider Jim Tucker's blindness when determining who should be awarded custody of his children.

I declare under penalty of perjury that the foregoing is true and correct and is based upon my personal knowledge and belief. If called as a witness in this action, I could and would testify the foregoing is true and correct.

Kevin Smalley