PHOTO/CAPTION: Jerry and Nancy Yeager with daughter Tracy in the rain forest near Cairns, Australia.
Love Is Blind
by Liz Corcoran
From the Editor: Lots of sighted people, and a number of blind ones as well, presume that no blind person could be a good parent. Thousands of successful blind parents make a mockery of this prejudice every day, but it is important to keep reminding the families of blind children and those who are just beginning to deal with their own blindness of the truth that blindness need have little to do with a parent's ability to rear well-adjusted, capable children.
The following article first appeared in the October 17, 1997, issue of Who magazine. Nancy and Jerry Yeager are raising their daughter Tracy with love and conscientious attention to her needs. They are active members of the National Federation of the Blind of Virginia, and their Federation philosophy shines forth in everything they say about the challenges and pleasures of parenthood. Here is the article:
For Nancy and Jerry Yeager blindness is no obstacle to having a happy family life. Tracy Yeager's parents are stricter than most. When they call their bubbly blonde daughter, she must answerno argument.
A simple move from the swings to the slide requires prior warning. Now she's six, she doesn't always have to hold their hands, though she often does anyway.
The rules have been imposed for good reason. Tracy's parentsJerry, forty-two, and Nancy, forty-five, are blind. "We expect kids to do things that are naughty sometimes," says Jerry, sitting at the dining table in the family's modern apartment in Alexandria, Virginia, "but if she does something because we can't see it, something she wouldn't try around another adult, I think we have to come down on her doubly hard."
Not that much escapes them. A barely audible sniffle from Tracy in another room sends Jerry grabbing for a tissue. When she bounds noisily through the apartment, Jerry laughs and exclaims, "Uh oh! Here's a girl with tap shoes!" before picking her up and flipping her through his arms.
In the kitchen Nancy is making breakfast. With half a finger in each cup she pours hot coffee until it hits the tip. Jerry puts Tracy down and reaches into the fridge. He picks up a packet and smells to check that it's bacon and fresh, while Tracy, anxious to get in on the action, lines a baking tray with foil. "She loves to help," smiles Nancy, feeling that the foil has made it to the edge of the tray, but, she adds, "only under supervision."
The Yeagers, who married in 1988, have worked hard to make life normal for their daughter. They are both congenitally blind, so there was a slight chance that Tracy would be born blind, but that wasn't their main concern. "We knew we could deal with that," says Jerry. Rather, they considered the difficulties they would face bringing up a child in a sighted world and how they'd juggle their full-time careers: Jerry as a contract specialist in the Department of the Navy in Washington, D.C., and Nancy as a payroll manager for the Farm Credit Administration.
They consulted other blind couples and decided they could pull it off.
"It's a learning project," says Nancy matter-of-factly, "an extension of the philosophy we had that most things you can do without sight. As I go along, there will be things I'm going to have to figure out. But I've been figuring out how to do things all my life, so it's not really different."
As a baby Tracy seemed to know that her parents couldn't see her. Nancy recalls that when her daughter was about two months old, she'd let them know she was hungry by putting her finger to their mouths. Unfamiliar objectsincluding a sticky caterpillar on one occasionwere dumped unceremoniously into her parents' palms for identification. "Nancy noticed it was wet," says Jerry, "so it had probably been in her mouth. That sort of grossed her out!"
The critter was mercifully intactbut what has proved "irksome," according to Jerry, is other people's doubt about their ability to cope. There were those who wondered at the beginning how, being blind, they could possibly care for a child; others who said to Nancy as Tracy grew that the couple were "lucky. I'm sure she's a big help to you."
Jerry laughs wryly at those "who give a five-year-old credit for much more adult-like knowledge and instinct than they would ever possibly have" and cites shopkeepers who give Tracy the change at the till, or passers-by who point to a destination and tell Tracy, not her parents, how to get there. Says Nancy: "I don't want her to have that kind of responsibility. We didn't have her to be a little guide. We had her because we wanted to nurture a child."
And nurture they do, making up for their lack of eyesight in other ways. Jerry concedes that "there are probably cute scenes that we don't see that other parents would think we're missing," but says he loves holding Tracy in his arms and reading to her from one of her Braille books. Nancy supplements Tracy's school lessons at home by helping her cut out shapes and sometimes visits the school to read to her class from Braille books. "All the kids want to feel my book," she says. "It's good for her and good for her classmates to see that her parents do the same kind of stuff that their parents do."
The Yeagers spend as much time educating others as they do Tracy on what it's like to be blind. "I don't want her to grow up thinking that she's amazing because she takes care of her poor, unfortunate parents," says Nancy. "Or that she's deprived and doesn't get things that other kids get."
There's little chance of that. Later that day the Yeagers take Tracy to a birthday party at the local Chuck-E-Cheese'sa kids' mini theme park. It is an aural and physical obstacle course for the Yeagers, who just manage to keep smiling while kids rush pass them and they try to negotiate the scattered tables and chairs. Tracy, on the other hand, is in her element, dragging Jerry around and shouting to him to let her go on more rides. Jerry obliges and slips her a token, but Nancy finds it all a little overwhelming and eventually steps in with an offer of dinner at McDonald's. "A little bribery never hurts," she laughs.
Later Jerry recalls something Tracy once said. "Out of the blue she said, `Daddy, I wish I was blind like the rest of my family.'" Blindness, he says, is something people fear most, second to cancer, "but it's clear from what she said that it's not negative for her." Nor for her parents. "I'm not going to tell you that I wouldn't like it if I could see," says Nancy, but "I was brought up with the idea that you got whatever you got, so make the most of it."