by Barbara Freeman

Mike Freeman, a blind computer analyst, and his wife Barbara (who is sighted) are long-time leaders in the Washington state affiliate of the National Federation of the Blind. When Mike and Barbara began the adoption process about four years ago, they were a little nervous. Not only did they have to deal with the usual bewildering mass of paperwork, interviews, and unexpected pitfalls associated with the adoption—especially overseas adoption—process, but they had to deal with questions and doubts about Mike's ability to care for a child. Why? For no other reason than the fact that Mike is blind. Fortunately, it is no longer rare or unusual for blind individuals successfully to adopt children. The National Federation of the Blind has been providing help and encouragement to prospective blind adoptive parents for over twenty years.

As a consequence, blind persons generally have fewer difficulties today in overcoming negative attitudes and ignorance about blindness among adoption social workers. So it was with Mike and Barbara, and eventually Shanthi joined her family in America. But a whole new set of challenges awaited Mike and Barbara. Shanthi, too, is blind, and for nearly a year she had been in a less than ideal environment. Here is Barbara's story of "Shanthi's First American Year."

My husband, Mike, and I met our new daughter, Shanthi Anne, at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on November 13, 1990. Shanthi, then aged eleven and a half months, flew to us from India. Our social worker had recommended this baby to us because she was outstandingly responsive and alert when she observed her on a trip to India the previous April. Shanthi is anophthalmic, this means she was born without eyes.

When Shanthi arrived at our home in November, she had changed little since she had been placed in the foundling home the previous April. She could not bear weight; she could sit up, but not get to a sitting position by herself; and she could roll, but not crawl or creep. She examined people's faces, hands, and clothing, but never reached out to find anything beyond the person holding her. Most disturbing of all, Shanthi did not know what a bottle was and could not use a cup or eat from a spoon.

Another set of parents had visited her foundling home and had observed the babies being fed. Because of a nipple-borne infection, the doctor had forbidden bottles. As a result, at every feeding one caretaker would hold the babies down and pry open their mouths while another caretaker would pour thick water-buffalo milk in from above. The babies would scream and gag the whole time. The social worker who brought Shanthi from India had been feeding her with a little medicine syringe. She would squirt formula into Shanthi's mouth while Shanthi sucked her thumb. Shanthi expected to be fed lying down, and never took her thumb out of her mouth. She got more formula on her than in her.

We drove home with our baby without any idea about how we were going to feed her. Upon the advice of our pediatrician, we decided to train Shanthi to a cup instead of back to a bottle. Our doctor also advised us to start feeding her a wide variety of foods immediately. Shanthi was underweight and had mild anemia. There was no time to introduce solid foods gradually. Shanthi's front teeth were coming in when she arrived so it was doubly important that she learn to bite and chew right away. A child who does not learn to use her teeth when they are coming in often has eating problems. A delay in learning how to eat plus the early trauma of forced feeding might very well have caused a life-long problem.

Thus began an extremely intense three weeks. My goals were twofold: first, to teach her how to eat a mixed diet and second, to give her control over her food intake as soon as possible. I bought training cups with lids that allowed the formula to flow when the cup was tipped. I wanted Shanthi to know that tipping the cup caused the milk to flow. Some training cups are so spill-proof that the milk must be sucked out.

I insisted from the first that Shanthi sit up to eat or drink. I sat her in my lap with my left arm behind her back so she could not lie down. By the third feeding, she was sitting in the highchair. When I gave her a drink, she learned she could control intake by pushing my hand away. I also got her to eat a little strained food but I had to chase her mouth as she moved her head back and forth. She also kept her thumb in her mouth most of the time and I had to catch her when it came out. I learned to keep the spoon in one place and let her come to it. Within ten days Shanthi could eat graham crackers and even a fig newton cookie. Upon the advice of an eating therapist, I stopped using baby-food the same day she learned how to eat the graham crackers.

I taught her how to pick up the cup by placing her hands on it and showing her what to do. After she learned how to pick it up, it took several more days to learn how to tip up the cup to get the formula. I placed crackers or large sticks of food in her hand and moved her hand from the tray to her mouth. Soon she could feed herself finger-food. As Shanthi practiced feeding herself, she slowly learned how to get smaller bits of food into her mouth. As soon as Shanthi discovered that she could feed herself, she refused to take anything from a spoon. She began to use a spoon again only when I showed her how to use it herself. Shanthi attended the NFB National Convention in New Orleans in the summer where she became much more aware of how adults drink out of open cups because she sat in our laps a lot while we talked with friends. She heard the tinkling ice in water, juice, and tea and started reaching for them. I would help her taste them. When we got home, I taught her how to drink from an open cup. I moved her hands from behind. Because she was having trouble moving the full cup to her mouth, I fed her a few times in just her diaper without a bib so she could feel right away what movement made the milk spill. She learned in four days.

We also began helping Shanthi with her motor skills shortly after she arrived. Shanthi began walking with us holding on with two hands in January, 1991, and could walk holding on with one hand by May. In early Fall, I taught her how to climb stairs while I held her hands.

As Shanthi's second birthday approached, she was rapidly developing new language, charm, and musical ability. Shanthi has quite a wide vocabulary now. She will ask her daddy to play the piano and says, "See book" when she comes across anything with Braille on it. She celebrated entering the "Terrible Twos" by singing the entire Star-Spangled Banner substituting "no" for each word.

Shanthi has great dignity. Her daddy and I hope to be able to teach her the skills she needs to put her proud independence into practice without crushing her spirit in the process. I have learned that if I am to teach Shanthi a new skill, we must both be ready. I will not always know just how I, as the mother, get ready to move with Shanthi to the next phase of development. I believe my membership in the National Federation of the Blind will continue to give me the faith to believe that if I teach, she will learn.