LADDERS, MUD PIES, AND MILK BOTTLES

by Sharon Gold

The things that happen to us when we are children do much to determine what kind of adults we will become. All too often the blind child is permitted to engage in unacceptable behavior in some situations, while being strictly prohibited from doing the other perfectly normal things most children do.

For parents, finding the right mix can be difficult■particularly when well-meaning friends are critical. Sharon Gold, the President of the National Federation of the Blind of California, is grateful that her parents followed their own common sense in deciding what to permit and what to prohibit. Here is what she has to say about some of her childhood experiences:

My parents were devastated when they learned that their firstborn child was blind. Neither my mother nor my father knew a blind person, but what was even more devastating than the blindness was the way the doctors handled the situation.

They were kind men who didn't wish to upset my parents by telling them their baby couldn't see. You may be thinking that perhaps the doctors did not know that I was blind; and, of course, you may be right. However, my eyes were cloudy because I had congenital cataracts.

My mother noticed the cloudiness immediately and inquired about it. The doctors said that they would put drops in my eyes and the cloudiness would go away. In those days mother and child stayed in the hospital for several days, and each day the doctors put drops in my eyes and tried to avoid discussing my eye condition with my mother.

As I have already said, these doctors were kind and loving men. They meant only good for my parents, and they certainly meant no harm to this newborn baby. But however shocking and cruel it may have seemed to the doctors, it would have been more loving and kind to have openly discussed the actual condition of my eyes and my blindness with my parents.

This event took place fifty years ago, and I wish it were different today. Sometimes it is. However, there is still real reluctance to discuss blindness when it strikes a family. The tendency is still to by-pass the subject or to minimize the situation.

My mother concluded that it would do little good to cry over the fact that I was blind. She decided the sooner she and Daddy began to deal with the situation, the better it would be for all of us. Therefore, my parents made a conscious decision to raise me as they would have any other child. Children need to be encouraged, have their behavior molded, and be disciplined. I was no different.

One evening, when I was very young, my parents had dinner guests. It was their custom with me (and later with my sister) to include me at the dinner table rather than feeding me beforehand and excluding me from eating with the family and the guests. Mother always set a beautiful table, and this evening was no exception. I had my place setting, complete with a glass of milk. However, I wanted something in the middle of the table. Instead of asking for what I wanted, I took the child's shortcut.

Standing up on my chair, I leaned over the table to reach what I wished to have. In the process I knocked over my milk, spilling it all over the table and the floor. My mother picked me up with one hand (as only a mother can do) and swat-ted me on the behind with the other while firmly sitting me back down on the chair.

As she began cleaning up the mess, she noticed that the guests were very quiet. It became evident that they were upset when they voiced their intent to leave because my mother had punished me for spilling my milk. They reasoned that, because I could not see the milk, I should not have been pun-ished for spilling it.

Mother explained that I had not spilled the milk because I had not seen it but because I had been doing something I should not have done■standing on a chair and leaning over the table to get what I should have asked to have passed. Mother told her guests that, if I had been sitting properly at the table and had knocked over the milk because I did not see it, nothing would have been said. The milk would simply have been cleaned up.

Good parents demonstrate their love by teaching their children selfdiscipline and by expecting and praising good behavior. Withstanding the criticism of well-meaning friends and relatives can be very hard for parents, especially parents of blind children. Yet like sighted children blind youngsters need standards for self-discipline and good conduct, and bad behavior should not be excused away by blindness.

All children have dreams. Some are realistic and some are pure fantasy. Almost every child has dreamed of being a fireman or nurse or doctor. Scurrying about the floor, racing to an imaginary fire, gathering up the hooks and ladders, and putting out a raging fire are all part of a child's play, and that play translates into growth and development.

Similarly, children play nurse or doctor and cure the worst ailments with the magic contained in the doctor or nurse's kit. This type of play is expected of sighted children, but as soon as the blind child starts down the hallway with a toy fire truck, some adult is likely to squash the fantasy by the not very subtle reminder that, since he or she is blind, putting out fires would be an impossibility.

My mother thought that choosing a toy was an important part of every child's education and development. When I was still too small to reach the counter, mother would put each toy in my hand for me to see so that I could choose the one for us to buy. When I grew large enough to reach the counter, I independently walked up and down the aisles in the dime store and carefully inspected each toy so that I could make my choice.

Many times children find their own toys. One day, when I was about eighteen months old, I found a ladder that a painter had left leaning against the side of the duplex in which we lived. Being a curious child, I climbed straight up it. When my mother discovered where I was, she was fearful that, if she called, she would startle me. Ultimately she decided to take off her shoes and socks so that she could quietly climb the ladder and carry me down to safety without frightening me.

Another day I found an open gate and rode my tricycle out of the yard and into the big world. I was found blocks from home, having a wonderful time exploring on my own.

Mud is always a fine and inexpensive toy. How many mud pies do we all recall making as children and eating, too, for that matter? When I was a child, all milk bottles were glass, and the empty bottles lined the back steps waiting for the milkman. I added to the fun of making mud pies by taking the bottles from the step and carrying them to my outdoor kitchen. I thought it great fun to fill one bottle with water and pour it from one bottle to the next.

However, when a neighbor happened to observe this activity while visiting my mother one day, she admonished mother for allowing me to play with the glass milk bottles. Mother's response to her criticism was that, if I were to drop one of the bottles and cut myself, I would heal. In the meantime I was learning valuable lessons, including how to pour water from one bottle to another without spilling it.

In the early 1940's children were more likely to go out and find their own toys. When we didn't have anything to do, we climbed trees or walked along walls. There were no televisions or electronic games. Today toy manufacturers look for ways to build what they call educational toys that will take the place of the coordination we developed from wall walking, tree climbing, and the countless other things we found to do when we were children.

Visual toys are also an important part of a blind child's growing up. We live in a world in which most people see, and it is important for blind children to learn that fact at an early age. One time someone sent me a machine that showed pictures which were in a roll inside the machine. There was a crank on the top which, when turned, changed the picture.

Since I could not see the pictures, an adult described them to me. I made up a story about each one and set about presenting picture shows to the smaller neighborhood children. This was excellent stimulation to my imagination, which needed little encouragement, and it also taught me much about pic-tures. However, it also taught the neighborhood children that blindness made no difference to the quality of the picture show and the stories that went with it.

As you can see, my childhood was not much different from that of other curious children. Mother and Daddy never believed in "can't." Mother was fond of saying that "I can't" never did anything, but "I'll try" can do many things.