LOVING ELIZABETH

by Nadine Jacobson as told to Bill Holton

The following article first appeared in the "Profiles in Courage" section of Family Circle Magazine. Nadine and Steve Jacobson are leaders in the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota. They are not the first nor, regrettably, will they be the last couple to have difficulty adopting a child simply because they happen to be blind. Here is Nadine's story:

My husband Steve and I were so excited. There was a newborn boy in Arkansas, and after years of hoping and trying, it looked as if we were finally going to become parents. The private adoption seemed so certain, we started buying baby clothes and furniture for the nursery. But then, abruptly, the lawyer who was handling the adoption stopped taking our calls. "I'm sorry," he said when I finally got through to him, "but we changed our minds and decided to give the baby to another family." He explained that it wasn't because there was a problem with our home study or that Steve and I couldn't support a child financially. The lawyer made it perfectly clear there was only one reason we weren't getting that baby boy—because Steve and I are both blind.

Steve and I have known each other since I was six and he was eight. We were both students at the Minnesota State Academy for the Blind, where we pretty much grew up together. We started dating when he was fourteen and I was twelve. We played in the school band together and sang in the choir. I was a cheerleader; Steve wrestled on the school team. When Steve graduated and went on to college, I left the Academy and spent my last two years in public high school back home in Richmond, Minnesota, where I became involved in speech tournaments, had parts in several school plays, and graduated near the top of my class.

We were married in the spring of 1973 and set up housekeeping in Minneapolis while I finished college and Steve started turning his math degree into a career in computers. Like many couples our age, we always planned on having a family but decided to wait, wanting to become a bit more settled first.

Steve went to work for 3M, where today he's a lead programmer analyst. I got my master's degree in social work, and over the years I have licensed foster homes, done advocacy work for the elderly, taught Braille, and done career counseling at a private rehabilitation agency for the blind. About ten years ago Steve and I decided it was time to begin our family. Unfortunately, nature didn't agree. Fertility drugs, making love on a schedule, many trips to the doctors didn't help. Eventually, I underwent surgery to try to increase my chances of conception. When even this failed, Steve and I were forced to face the truth: I was probably never going to get pregnant.

We'd talked about adoption many times. It was always something we hoped to do after we had a baby of our own, but now that it looked like a biological baby wasn't going to happen. . . .

Walking into that first agency interview in June of 1989, Steve and I knew we had a lot of work ahead of us. Although social workers are educated to understand how the disabled function and adapt, all too frequently they harbor the same misconceptions and negative stereotypes as does much of the general population. We knew we were going to have to do a lot of educating, teaching them everything we knew about how blind parents function.

"Please, ask us anything you want to know," I encouraged the agency officials. They seemed open to what we had to say and asked a lot of detailed questions. For example, how would we know if our child were sick or playing with something that might be dangerous?

I explained to them that, like most parents who don't spend every minute of every day in the same room with their child, you do a lot of careful listening. If the child becomes too noisy or too quiet, then you know it's time to check. You become especially careful not to leave things lying about that a small child could hurt himself with or put in his mouth. Also as a blind parent you tend to spend more time with your child, sitting on the edge of the tub or standing right there beside the swing set. And as for illness, they do make talking thermometers, but what mother can't tell when her child is sick just by the sound of her breathing or a gentle kiss on an overheated forehead?

During the following weeks we filled out any number of forms, provided written life histories and philosophies of parenting and such, and prepared ourselves for that all-important home visit. Everything seemed to be right on track, and Steve and I started to feel cautiously optimistic. When the social worker who did the home visit asked how we would feel about adopting a blind child, we told her that we wouldn't have a problem with it but that, if we'd had our own baby, he or she wouldn't have been blind, so we didn't think eyesight should be a consideration. "Yes, well," she replied matter-of-factly, "I can't imagine we would even consider placing a sighted child with you."

Steve and I were disappointed by her attitude, but we understood it. In any placement the agency needs to keep the best interest of the child as its first priority, and apparently this woman simply did not believe the best interest of a sighted child could ever be served by placing him with blind parents.

Understanding her position, of course, didn't make it any less misguided. There are thousands of blind parents raising sighted children and doing a fine job of it. After all, it's not what you can or can't see that makes you a good parent; it's what you teach your child about love and life and living in the world.

(We later learned of another reason the agency wanted to limit our adoption to blind children. They were afraid that eighteen years from now a sighted child might sue them for forcing him to grow up with blind parents.) We tried to educate them, but it became clear that their minds were set: they would help us find a child, but it was going to be a blind child.

Were we equally set against adopting a blind child? Of course not. Steve and I don't think any less of ourselves or each other because we happen to be blind. How could it make a difference in the way we would feel about a child? But we didwant to adopt a child, and fewer than 1 in 200 children in the world are born blind. And many of those babies also have severe physical problems that make them unlikely candidates for adoption.

We had chosen this agency because they specialize in finding children in Korea and South America, where there are far more babies waiting to be adopted than adoptive parents. We figured the larger the pool of potential children, the sooner we'd find a baby who was just right for us. But then the agency tells us that for us the only right baby is a rare, blind baby.

So rare that, after a year and more of searching, the agency hadn't been able to come up with a single potentially adoptable child for us.

Eventually Steve and I began to look elsewhere. We ran up huge phone bills calling other agencies in other states as well as attorneys who specialize in private adoptions. There were agencies that would agree to help us, but then we'd never hear from them again. Even though attorneys were more straightforward, they couldn't help us either.

By the summer of 1992 Steve and I were despairing. And then we were introduced to a social worker from Washington State named Barbara Freeman. Barbara and her husband Mike had experienced many of the same roadblocks to adopting a child as had Steve and I.

It had taken them five years to find a child, particularly discouraging since Barbara wasn't blind; only her husband was. Barbara told us of an agency in Oregon called Holt International Children's Services, which specialized in placing children with special needs. We contacted them at once.

Again we were asked if we'd mind adopting a blind child. Again we explained that, blind or sighted, it didn't matter to us—what we wanted was a baby, a precious new life to love and cherish and raise as our own.

It was a few months later, in September of 1992, when we got a call back. "We think we've found a baby for you. A five-month-old little girl from Korea named Kang Soo Jee." Steve and I tried not to get too excited. We didn't want to get our hopes up, only to have them dashed again. Sure enough, a few weeks later we got a call. "We don't think thischild is going to work out for you after all," the woman apologized.

"What's the problem?" I asked, my stomach tightening into a knot.

She explained that Kang Soo Jee wasn't totally blind, and they were worried that a partially sighted child might be too much for Steve and me.

Back to square one. I explained to her that I had been partially sighted as a child, so I knew what it was like. I understood the sort of things Kang Soo Jee needed to know in order to make the best use of her limited vision and how techniques used by the blind could help her avoid the dangers of partial-sightedness.

The agency representative promised to take what I'd told her under advisement. Six weeks later we received their decision: Steve and I had been approved for adoption. Though the waiting wasn't over —there were papers to be filed, a passport and visa to be secured, and about a million last-minute things that could go wrong■it began to look as if Steve and I were finally going to get the baby we'd been praying for.

Our daughter arrived in this country at 1:45 p.m. on March 25, 1993, five days after my fortieth birthday, and eight days before her very first. "Oh, Elizabeth!" I wept, accepting my baby girl from her escort and using the new name we planned to give her. Steve was right there by my side, a proud new papa. She was so tiny, so beautiful, and after all these years of wanting and waiting, I could hardly believe she was really mine.

When she first came to us, she was mostly crawling, and she could only speak a few words of Korean. Just today she was chasing the cat around the house with one of the arm protectors from the sofa, calling, "Kitty, night-night! Kitty, night-night!" Later, while I was fixing dinner, she sat on the kitchen floor with most of the pots and pans out, banging the lids and saying, "`abeth cook too!"

Elizabeth loves watching Barney on TV. She sings along, and when it's time for the "I Love You" song, she always runs over and gives me a great big hug. After Barney, we often go to the little park up the street.

Sometimes I take her in the stroller with the handle that reverses so I can pull it with my right hand while I cane with my left, or else I fasten a loose string tether around our wrists and let her use her own, smaller cane. She does pretty well with it, too.

I stick pretty close to Elizabeth in the playground and usually dress her in a pair of shoes with tiny bells on the off chance she decides to go exploring. After dinner the three of us go for a walk, and Elizabeth gets to ride in her daddy's backpack. Elizabeth loves her daddy. She loves listening to him read to her from one of her picture books with the text transcribed into Braille, or helping him put together one of the many puzzles I've Braille—marked on the back so I know which picture we're working on. I've similarly marked the colors of many of her toys, because no one is ever going to say my little girl doesn't know green from orange because both her parents are blind.

I hope, though, that we'll be able to teach Elizabeth more than just the colors of the rainbow or how to read Braille or use her white cane to negotiate her way across a busy intersection. If Steve and I are truly to succeed as parents, we're also going to have to impart to Elizabeth everything we know about growing up to become a decent and responsible human being. We'll have to show her how to enjoy each day of her life to the fullest and, most important, give her the support and confidence to recognize that there isn't anything in this whole wide world she can't accomplish if only she sets her mind to it.

But then, aren't these the very same beliefs, values, and ideals that parents everywhere hope to instill in their children?