[PHOTO/CAPTION: Anna Miller]
The Miracle of Dallas
by Sally Miller
From the Editor: Sally Miller is President of the South Carolina Parents of Blind Children division. She was elected to the Board of Directors of the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children at its Annual Meeting in Dallas in 1998. It was her first National Federation of the Blind Convention. With her energy and organizational skills she made quite an impression on her fellow parents. The NFB Convention also made quite an impression on her. What follows is the report she made to the 1998 NFB of South Carolina Convention about her experience in Dallas and what it did for her and her daughter Anna. It is reprinted from the Spring, 1999, issue of Future Reflections, the quarterly publication of the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children. Here it is:
I'm glad to have the opportunity to tell you about our first NFB National Convention experience and about the work of the Parents of Blind Children of South Carolina (POBC of South Carolina). When our family attended the State NFB Convention last year in Charleston (where we live) we didn't know much about the POBC or the NFB. My husband and I were asked to speak during the Parents Division meeting; we were to tell "Anna's Story." Little did we know that this experience would change our lives!
Our daughter Anna, who just turned ten, is adopted. She was born into a family that wasn't equipped to deal with the fact that she was blind. Her biological family equated blindness with mental retardation. In the birth mother's words, "She's blind. She can't learn." Early intervention would have been helpful in teaching Anna the basic skills all children need to develop, but because her family believed she couldn't learn, attempts to help Anna were repeatedly shunned. Anna wasn't stimulated in any way. She was taught nothing. There were no expectations for her life.
Anna came to live with us as a foster child when she was four, and we adopted her a year and a half later. She still wore diapers, had intestinal parasites, had lice in her hair, and did not speak. We didn't know whether she could hear or if she would ever talk. She banged her head constantly on concrete, doors, walls--anything hard. She laughed away the pain. She was existing in a world she had created inside her head and was shutting out the rest of the world.
But we believed that any child smart enough to find an internal life to live when she had been given nothing else must have intelligence and potential--it just needed to be set free. We held her, sang to her, rocked her, and loved her. She eventually came out of the cocoon she'd wound around herself. She's learned to accept love, to give love, to have fun, and even to work (although that's not one of her favorite things). The baby who couldn't learn did learn, is learning, and will continue to learn and develop.
Anna talks, initiates conversations, and teases her Daddy and her big brothers. Our boys, ages twenty-three and eighteen, have taught their little sister all the important things about life that big brothers teach little sisters, like how to make really disgusting bodily noises. The latest one is how to burp louder than anyone else.
Anna's learned what emotions are and that she can have an opinion and isn't afraid to express hers. She's learning Braille and uses a white cane. She's taken gymnastics lessons, horseback riding lessons, and adaptive swimming lessons. She roller-skates, rides her bike, and has wonderful audience skills, which she employs at concerts and other programs. She helps me cook, and she goes to summer camps. This is the child who couldn't learn because she was blind.
Anna and I were recently interviewed for a magazine article, and pictures were taken of us looking at the photo album I created for and about her. When Anna was asked what her favorite part of the book was she replied without hesitation "The part where we went to court to see the judge, and she told me that I'm Anna Catherine Miller, and I could throw away my old name." This is the child who couldn't learn because she was blind!
In our search for answers to our many questions about raising a blind child, we found the NFB. At the State Convention last year I was elected President of the POBC of South Carolina. When I was nominated, I almost fell off my chair. When it was seconded and voted upon, I was numb. I was so rattled I could hardly stand to acknowledge the faith they were putting in me. With a smile on his face my husband commented, "I guess I'll have to call you `Madam President' now."
For the first few weeks after the NFB of South Carolina State Convention I walked around in a daze, asking, "Why me? I don't have the answers to the questions parents are going to ask me. I barely know anything about the NFB. How can I help others when I sometimes don't know how to help my own daughter?" And then it hit me. I could do this. I had lots of questions, but who better to ask questions of than the people who know the most about blindness--the blind people of the NFB?
My attitude began to change. I'm a mother and an educator. I'm not afraid to ask questions, do research, or any of the thousand and one tasks that would be necessary to do this job. My biggest asset is that I love my child, and I want the best for her, like every other parent.
I've learned so much, yet I have so much more to learn. I've talked to a lot of people, and I still have more to meet. I've asked questions, and there are that many more again to ask. I like the NFB and the POBC, and I have come to like my role in making the connections that will give our children the information, the respect, and the opportunities they deserve. The person for whom I do this, my daughter Anna, has had her life changed. Everything I do has an impact on her life, and ultimately she's the winner.
In July Anna and I had a great adventure. We attended the NFB National Convention in Dallas, Texas. It was our first National Convention, but it won't be the last. We were overwhelmed by the experience. We met parents, grandparents, and children from all over the U.S. and from other countries. We got to talk with them, play with them, and learn about their successes.
However, Anna was upset when we first arrived at the hotel in Dallas because there were so many white canes bumping into her. But the kind people with those canes took the time and effort to stop and talk with her a few minutes. They reassured her that it was okay to bump into other canes and people. They were blind too. All she needed to do was say, "Excuse me," and go on her way. By the second day Anna decided she could be independent too, just like her new friends. I was pulling a luggage cart with my purse and briefcase. Anna stopped in the hotel lobby and said: "Mommy, I want to do it by myself. I want to use my cane and pull the cart. I want to do it by myself!" And she did. She let me give her verbal directions, and I stayed close in case she needed me, but for the most part she did it by herself. This was the child who couldn't learn because she was blind.
Everyone who's seen Anna since our return has commented on the fact that she carries herself differently and that she has matured in that short time. Her self-confidence has soared. She wants to use her cane on her own although she still wants verbal directions sometimes. And she's speaking up louder and more frequently. Before the NFB National Convention Anna had her life categorized as 1) before adoption and 2) after adoption. Now she's making another distinction: 1) before National Convention and 2) after National Convention.
Anna also had the opportunity to shine during the convention when the NFB Camp kids went to a ranch. Anna has been taking riding lessons for four years with Charleston Area Therapeutic Riding. She used her skills to show other children how to ride horses. It was a good experience for her because she got the chance to show the things she can do. This is the child who couldn't learn because she was blind.
Last week Anna informed us that she wanted to get her hair cut short. She has been wearing it very long. When I asked her why, she said, "So I can take care of it myself." Wow! This is the baby who couldn't learn because she was blind.
I could go on and on telling you of the experiences Anna had, but I want to tell you what happened to me too. A year ago I knew very little about the NFB and nothing about the Parents Division. So I was stunned when I was elected president of the POBC of South Carolina. It took me months to recover enough from the shock of it to start reading and learning about the Federation and its philosophy. I thought I was getting it down pretty well, but I still wasn't prepared for the NFB National Convention experience. In my wildest dreams I could not have thought it possible to be in a situation in which there was so much live energy. The attitude of Federationists toward themselves and others--the sheer power it exerted--swept me off my feet. Dr. Jernigan said, "My generation of blind adults must work to help today's blind children . . . have better opportunities than we had when we were growing up." I saw these words in action at the convention.
Among the many workshops I attended was the IEP workshop, where we parents discussed the new IDEA regulations. We viewed some of the videotapes in a series called "How to Avoid an IEP Disaster," which is put out by the NOPBC. (It's great, by the way.) We also had the privilege of hearing from some great parents and educators and were able to ask questions of them. By the way, more teachers are embracing the philosophy of the NFB, and we need to foster this so that we can continue to find common ground with them to work together for our children.
I now know how working on behalf of the children to improve their education has helped to dispel the myths of blindness. At the NFB Convention I saw the difference in every generation. I saw it in the young adults with their families (raising both blind and sighted children), being rooted in the philosophy themselves and teaching it to their little ones. It was a joy to watch the college-age students, poised, confident, filled with self-esteem, and sure of where they were going and how they were going to get there. And the teens were delightfully full of themselves. There was no groping with their hands, for they used their white canes. They didn't have to have someone reading to them, because they were reading Braille. And the younger children, like my daughter Anna, were learning about blindness from the real experts--the blind adults of the NFB--experts who valued them and who were helping them to understand that being blind is okay.
The National Convention was a turning point in our lives. I saw the results of those years of effort for myself in Dallas. It happened for my daughter. I know it works.
It's hard for parents always to know what is the right thing to do for their blind child. They need help from the day the baby is born. The school-age children and their parents desperately need us right now. They need to know that we are here for them. To find the children and their parents, to educate and surround them in the right attitude and understanding of blindness is a tall order. But look at the difference the NFB has made in the life of one child, my daughter Anna--the child who couldn't learn because she was born blind. I wish every blind child could have the same chance Anna's had. I want as many blind children as possible from South Carolina to attend the National and the State NFB Conventions with their families next year. It takes a lot of money, but speaking from personal experience, it's worth it.
Because of the NFB Convention Anna has matured a few notches, and I have caught the commitment that goes with the attitude and understanding.
The outstanding work Federationists have done to prepare the way for a younger generation was breathtakingly obvious and beautiful in Dallas. For more than fifty years you've successfully advocated for the blind, all the blind, including the children. It's because of your commitment that I am here today as a member of the POBC of South Carolina, a partner in this exciting mission.