WHAT'S A SPITBALL?

by Barbara Pierce

Every year the National Federation of the Blind conducts a seminar for the parents of blind children at its National Convention. Often parents attending the seminar have never met successful blind adults and have not had the chance to talk with other parents of blind children. It is a time for offering encouragement and advice, a time for sharing hopes and fears. Barbara Pierce has been blind since childhood and is the mother of three children, who are now adults. Her is what she had to say to parents of blind children at our recent parents' seminar.

My last child graduated from high school, which means that, for better or worse, I've done what I can as a parent--except for paying the college bills and worrying. I'm in effect finished with what I can do to shape my children, which in turn means that I will necessarily begin to forget all the touch times. This makes me an expert, but I hope you will take what I have to say seriously, despite my now lofty status.

One of the most important jobs that parents have to do is to set standards and to communicate those standards to their children. We do that all the time. Probably the most frequently used and least effective method we employ as parents is nagging: "Tuck in your shirt." "Keep your mouth closed when you chew." "Have you written that thank-you note?": those kinds of things.

Far more pervasively and more effectively, we establish standards in our children's lives by example and by expectation. This is certainly true in every area of life, but it is nowhere more evident than in teaching blindness-connected skills and attitudes. For after all, your blind children, whether they be your students or your own youngsters, are surrounded by some pretty lousy standards and some pretty low standards.

Your job is to wave the flag and to make sure that the expectations and the standards they adopt as their own are high. What your attitudes are will, in significant measure, determine what your children think about blindness and think about themselves as blind people. So you've got to be careful and watchful and mindful at all times about what it is that you are doing and saying and demonstrating and communicating to your child.

You should keep a close eye on what sighted children of your youngster's own age and ability level are doing. Are they choosing their own clothing in the morning? Then your child ought to be learning that stripes and plaids--whatever those are--don't go together, that red and orange are not a happy combination, that Bermuda shorts are not the appropriate thing to wear to church on Sunday morning. Blind children need to learn those things, and they don't learn them by having the clothes plunked down on the bottom of their beds every morning for them with the instruction to climb into them.

Do you expect your other children to do chores around the house? Then don't give the blind child the easy ones. The way to make siblings dislike a blind child is always to give him or her the easy things to do or always to let the blind kid off:

"But it's hard. I didn't get the window clean because I can't see it."

"Go back and do it again, kid." As a parent or a teacher, you've got to keep your standards high.

I remember being twelve. My mother didn't know other blind children. It was I who discovered that my friends all washed their own hair. At that time we set our hair and slept on curlers. Remember? They were all doing that for themselves. I wasn't, and I brought this to my mother's attention.

I hope that, as alert parents, you would be the ones to notice this and bring it to your child's attention. She simply didn't have any way of recognizing that gap, but she had the wit and the good sense to say, "Here's the shampoo. I think it'll be easier for you the first time to go wash it in the basement than in the bathtub. Shout when you think it's clean, and I'll check you." That was the last time she had anything to do with washing my hair. You've got to be alert to that sort of situation.

When a blind or low vision person drops something and doesn't see where it lands, it is appropriate for that person, in an orderly, efficient way, to search the area. It is no more inappropriate to search with the hands than it is to glance around and survey and area to see where the thing landed and pick it up. You do not benefit the child by always handing back things that have been dropped. A child will not be discouraged from dropping a stylus on the floor constantly if you always retrieve it.

Worry when your child comes home in the fifth grade and says, "Teacher says I don't have to take spelling tests." Since when was it okay for your child to have fewer grades in spelling than everybody else? The message given is that spelling is not important for a blind child. Object.

Worry when your high school sophomore dreads for an entire semester the assignment of the research paper and then comes home higher than a kite because she's just been told by her English teacher that he realizes research would be extremely hard for her, and therefore if she will do a little bit of research and then sit down and tell him about it on a cassette tape, that will be sufficient. That child has just lost seventy-five percent of the value of the research paper.

A an old English teacher and as the wife of an English professor, I can tell you that the discipline of organizing your thinking, and shaping it into paragraphs, finding the right words, spelling them accurately, punctuating them correctly, and then figuring out a way of getting them legibly presented for consideration by the teacher is a significant measure of the discipline. Since when did your child not need that kind of practice in order to succeed in life?

Be careful when you see your child trying to use blindness as an excuse for getting out of punishment. Now it's confession time. I hadn't thought about this story in years. I was in the seventh grade when somebody in my home room sent a spitball toward the homeroom teacher, and he didn't know who the offender was. The guy didn't stand up and confess. Nobody would rat on him, so the teacher said, "All right, you stay in for detention until somebody tells me who did this." Whenever I missed my school bus, I had to take the streetcar unless I worked it out with my mother that she'd pick me up from school. I wasn't certain of the route home on that streetcar. I was nervous about it. I didn't want to have to stay after school for detention. It wasn't convenient or helpful to me.

I walked up to that man and said, "I don't think that I was guilty of doing whatever it was, but would you tell me what a spitball is?" The man should have known that any twelve-year-old knows what a spitball is, even if she's not certain about how to propel it through the air at the speed with which one had come at him.

He should have said to me, "You'll stay a week longer than everybody else does," but he didn't. His eyes misted over, and he told me that I certainly didn't have to stay. I am ashamed to admit this to you.

Here is another one. Your youngster brings to you the English assignment that has just been laboriously typed on the typewriter, and you discover that the two-year-old was messing with the keyboard and flipped the stencil key or that the typewriter ribbon ran out. What do you do then? You don't say, "I'll write a note tomorrow telling the teacher that you really did it, but that, because you are blind, you didn't notice that the print wasn't on the page."

Independence is going where you want to, when you want to, and doing what you want to do by yourself, organizing what you want to do and getting it done. If you can do that, whether you're using readers or taxis or canes or a dog, you're independent. It is important that you understand that that's what constitutes independence.

Your job is to teach your child and the people around your child the value of some of the things that are so very important about blindness: why it is necessary for a blind youngster to master Braille and to be able to use a slate and stylus efficiently, rapidly, and effectively and why it's important for your child to be doing all of the schoolwork.

How do you know what the most important things are? You look around you. You find blind adults who are the kind of people you would like to see your child grow up to be. And you can be sure that if that person is the kind of person that you hope your child will be, then the standards and the attitudes that person has are probably the ones you want to instill in your youngster. You read the National Federation of the Blind's Braille Monitor and Future Reflections (its magazine for the parents of blind children). You read the articles and ponder them in your heart.

Your child will grow and begin to have the solid, strong attitudes about blindness that will result in his or her living a full and productive life, and your job will be complete.