Future Reflections July/ August 1983, Vol. 2 No. 4
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by Ramona Walhof
I am blind, and I have two sighted chiLdren. When they started school, I found at necessary to work hard to guard them against corruption. I am not talking about drugs, vulgar language, crime, or any of the things with which all families must cope. My children faced a very special, if unintentional, kind of corruption.
It never occurred to my husband and me that blindness could be considered a reason not to have children. We were both blind. We did some research to find out whether our particular eye conditions could be passed on to our children, and we learned that my blindness might be inherited. We wanted to know the likelihood, but the possibility did not frighten us. We considered blindness a nuisance, but it didn't prevent us from living active and productive lives. We both had college degrees and good jobs. My husband was a rehabilitation counselor for the Idaho Commission for the Blind. I was teaching in tiie Head Start program. My class consisted of 15 four-year-olds from deprived families. The real problem of blindness was that sighted people much too often treated us as if we had no ability, intelligence, or skills.
After we were married, we worked hard to save enough money for the down payment on a house. We found one we could afford on a bus line in North Boise. It was old-fashioned and comfortable, and we bought it.
When we discovered that I was pregnant, we were delighted. Both sets of grand parents-to-be were also thrilled. We learned that when parents become grandparents, they are able to relax and enjoy the children. They are not expected to do the discipline. It must not have occurred to any of them that blindness could be considered a reason not to have children. But then they knew us pretty well, and they had learned some things about blindness as we learned them.
We bought a crib and borrowed a basket. I bought diapers, undershirts, baby blankets, and the like. I got out the sewing machine to make maternity clothes. We were still budgeting carefully. That session of Head Start ended in May when the school year ended, and we still had a month to wait for the baby. It was the longest month of my life. My husband and I always made plans to attend the conventions of the National Federation of the Blind over the Fourth of July weekend, but that year we stayed home. Our friends went camping, fishing, water skiing, etc; and we read books at home.
Finally, on July 9, Laura Kathryn decided to enter the big, wide world, and she didn't waste any time once she started. We arrived at the hospital at 9:35 a.m., and Laura arrived at 10:13 a.m. My husband didn't complain about not getting the boy he had wanted. He was extremely proud. I was feeling fine, and it became almost a race to see which of us could reach our friends first to tell them the baby had finally arrived.
The hospital where Laura was born had a practice of having new mothers assist with the bathing of the baby at least once before taking it home from the hospital. I had changed diapers and given bottles many times, but I had very little experience with a baby that weighed 7 pounds, so I was eager for some suggestions. I was lucky that the nurse involved did not get upset about the blindness. She just told me what to do, and I did it. Seldom since then has anyone been so matter-of-fact, and I appreciated it. Sight, as I expected, was not necessary. Babies are fragile and delicate, but they want and need to be touched.
After Laura and I came home from the hospital, my mother came from Nebraska to stay with us for a week. She was truly helpfuL She did the housework and most of the cooking and left the baby care to me. From her own experience she came up with some suggestions I found useful. By the end of the week I had most of my energy back, and Grandma went back to Nebraska.
Laura was a pretty baby, healthy and alert. She obviously was not blind. She responded to color and movement when only a few days old. We spent a few nights up--baby screaming with a tummyache. For the most part, however, everything continued to go smoothly.
By the time Laura was 3 months old, I began to grow restless. I wasn't used to staying home all day, even with a baby for company. Sometimes my husband had to be out of town for several days at a time in his work, so I began to look for some other things to do. Head Start was beginning a new program in November, so I applied for a teaching job. When I got the job, we started looking for a babysitter. We were happy to find a good one.
By Christmas Laura was crawling and pulling herself up on her feet. I have a picture taken of her at Christmastime crawling into the dishwasher. She had become quite a flirt by then also. She squealed at her daddy and played peak-a boo with her grandpa.
We knew that if we were to use a baby buggy or stroller we would need to pull it behind us, using the white cane in the other hand in front for safety. We found a buggy that converted into a stroller. This met the need, and we used it a great deal. It even folded up, so we could take it on the city buses. With a little practice we also became proficient at carrying Laura in an infant seat balanced on both forearms and one hand. We could dangle the diaper bag from an elbow, leaving the other hand free to use the white cane. Since Laura stayed with a baby-sitter during the day while I worked, I took her with me as much as I could. She seemed to like people; and I suppose what pleased me most was that people everywhere admired her.
By Mother's Day Laura was walking. My father-in-law took us all out to eat, and here was Laura all dressed up in yellow and white, toddling around awkwardly and with a smile for everyone. My first Mother's Day was very special. For both my husband and me, it was a day we would always remember as ours.
In July of that year my husband and I did get to go to the convention of the National Federation of the Blind, which was in Houston, Texas. Laura celebrated her first birthday at her grandparents' house in Nebraska. When we returned there from the convention, she was thrilled to see her daddy, but mother was ignored. However, by the time the birthday cake appeared, she had hugs and kisses for me, too.
Shortly after that convention, there was a letter to the editor in the local newspaper--a letter that disturbed us. It was written in response to an article about abortions. The letter apparently was in favor of abortions, but what disturbed us most was the argument used. It said that the writer was personally acquainted with a blind woman. He had asked her if she wasn't afraid her chldren might be blind. Her answer had been that she really thought she could handle it if she had a blind child. It was clear that the writer of that letter did not believe blind parents could be good parents, and that he considered it totally irresponsible for anyone to have a child that might be blind. What an attitude toward blindness! Since I knew the man, I was sure he was talking about me. It didn't matter that our lives were going smoothly. That man really considered us irresponsible because we had a child! Laura was as precious and delightful as ever a child could be. That kind of attitude toward blindness was not new to us, but it hurt just the same. I had had trouble gaining admission to the student teaching program in college because of my blindness. I had been denied entrance to some rides and exhibits at the World's Fair in New York because of my blindness. In both cases it was because people didn't understand that blind people can function competently and independently.
All we could do was write our own letter to the editor. The president of the local chapter of the National Federation of the Blind also wrote a letter.
And we became more watchful of attitudes toward us, because of course we knew this man was not alone in his thinking.
We were expecting another child in the fall. My husband still wanted a boy, and I thought two children close together in age would entertain each other. They did and they do. They also fight.
I had been managing a cafeteria during the summer, and I quit in September to do some work at home before the new baby arrived. Among other things I wallpapered the kids' bedroom with a nursery print. Laura loved it. She would point to the various animals and figures happily. Gradually she learned to say their names. She would take guests by a finger and lead them upstairs to show them her pretty wallpaper with the pictures. She had been eating with a spoon since about 13 months. I didn't let her pick up food out of her plate with her hands, so she really wasn't as messy an eater as some small children just learning.
Our little boy was born on December 20, and we named him Christopher John. Chris was healthy, alert, cuddly, and always hungry. One evening just before we took Chris home from the hospital, one of the nurses stood watching me feed him and commented, "You handle him so well" I knew she meant that since I was blind this surprised her, but I only smiled at her and asked if she worked In the nursery. She said she did and added, "We had a blind woman in here a while ago who couldn't get her baby to nurse very well" So I knew there was more involved than the usual lack of knowledge about blindness. I figured that blindness had nothing to do with whether a mother had trouble getting her baby to nurse or not. I have several sighted friends who had trouble at first.
"That's interesting," I said. "I've known several people who had trouble getting started, but none of them were blind." Of course the nurse wasn't convinced. She gave me enough information that I realized I knew the woman she had mentioned. Her baby was about six months old by this time, still breastfeeding and doing fine. The trouble must have been very minor, because my friend had never mentioned it. I took note of an example of people attributing every problem a blind person has to the blindness. It just didn't seem fair. If my kids ever got hurt (and all kids do), would people blame me? I was forced to conclude that many would.
Chris and I went home from the hospital the day before Christmas. Luckily all the shopping was done, and most of the presents were wrapped. My mother-in law had invited us to their home for Christmas dinner, and I was glad to take it easy.
That Christmas Laura was the center of attention and was enjoying herself. She wanted to share everything with her baby brother whether he cared or not. In a way she thought he was one of her Christmas presents, although we had been waiting even longer for his arrival than for Christmas.
I could put Chris in the infant seat in the stroller with Laura beside him, and we could take short trips like that. There wasn't much snow that year in Boise; so often when we went out, Laura would walk. I could let her walk only if we weren't in a hurry, for she made lots of detours off the main sidewalk, and I would have to stop and wait or bring her back. My husband was glad to have a little boy, but his daughter really was his pride and joy.
Shortly after we brought Chris home from the hospital, my husband began to have problems with his health. We saw a specialist who told us the condition would become stable with medication, but that didn't happen. I was glad both children were healthy, but I didn't have time to consider going back to work myself. My husband was in and out of the hospital for the next couple of months, and in April he died. It was a hard winter and spring.
Laura insisted on having some explanations, and I did my best to help her understand. Her daddy had come home from the hospital many times; and no matter how he felt, he always had a smile and a hug for Laura. She could not believe she could not see him anymore. It was hard enough for me to accept the whole thing. How could I explain it to a child 21 months old and help her to accept it? But I had to go on. I had two babies depending on me, and I would not let them down if I could help it.
Before my marriage I had worked as a teacher for the Iowa Commission for the Blind. My employer had been Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, who was also President of the National Federation of the BHnd, the organization to which we belonged and which was changing so many things for the blind in the 196O's and 1970's. I turned to Dr. Jernigan, hoping I again could find employment at the Iowa Commission. The jobs I had held in Boise hadn't paid enough money to support a family now that there was just one salary. Dr. Jernigan told me there would be an opening at the Commission in June. I thought I could be ready. I put our house in Boise up for sale, and it sold. We moved into an apartment in Des Moines, Iowa. A cousin of mine who was in high school came to stay with us for the summer until I could find a regular baby-sitter. I was ready to go to work by the second week in June.
The new job was a demanding one and a rewarding one. We settled in and started over. By October I had found a house and made the down payment. It had three bedrooms and a nice backyard. The day we moved into our new house, Christopher started to walk. He had been slow to roll over, sit up, and crawl, but not to walk. Our new house had all hardwood floors. His little tennis shoes got good traction, and he had a whole house to explore. He didn't sit down all day long, except for a nap. By the end of the day he was running. I had planned to let him stay in the playpen while I unpacked. That was one of those plans that get rejected by the next generation. He enjoyed walking so much, and he had so much space in the new house to investigate, I just didn't have the heart to coop him up in the playpen.
As might be expected, Chris' character was entirely different from Laura's. He could then and still can be very demanding. Laura got attention, for the most part, with smiles and flirtation. Chris knew how to do that, but he also made use of tantrums from time to time. Laura wanted to be where I was as much as possible. Chris, even when he was tiny, did not mind playing by himself for an hour at a time.
When the weather turned nice in the spring, Chris was curious to explore the neighborhood. I could count on Laura to stay in the backyard, but not Christopher! When he went outside that year, Mother went along. One day he climbed to the top of the iron grillwork on our front stoop. He couldn't get down, and I couldn't reach him. I said nothing but went into the house to get a chair to climb up and get him. He wasn't frightened, but I was glad to have him back on the ground.
I suppose Chris was too busy to talk much that summer. Only occasionally a word slipped out. Sometime in October--all of a sudden, just the way he learned to walk--he started talking. And he talked all the time. And then the questions began. Laura had been asking some questions, of course. But Christopher wanted to know everything: "Why, Mommy? When? How?"
By this time both children liked books. My baby-sitter read to them during the day, and I read to them at bedtime. I was able to borrow books for small children from the Iowa Commission for the Blind. The books had the text and pictures in both Braille and print. These are known as Twin-Vision books and are produced by the American Brotherhood for the Blind. I read with my fingers; others read with their eyes. My children grew up finding this quite natural and uninteresting.
By the time Laura was four, she began to ask, "When can I go to school, Mommy?" There were no children her age in the neighborhood, but she played with the children of friends. She knew the alphabet and numbers and had known them since the age of two.
Laura was a quiet child and sometimes a little overwhelmed by crowds, but if she found kindergarten frightening, she never let me know. She made many new friends; and for her, that was the best part of starting school.
Both children when tiny had accepted my blindness as normal and okay. I carried a white cane and used it to find steps, curbs, and other obstacles when we went away from home. We rode on buses and in taxi-cabs more than some people, because I did not drive a car. I read Braille with my fingers, while others read print with their eyes. That's about all there was to it. If the children had a toy to be fixed or a question to be answered, I was the first person they asked to do it. Sometimes I couldn't or wouldn't do what they asked, but most of the time I could and did.
When Laura started to school, she began to hear some different things about blindness. I can only guess what happened. Someone must have said to her, "I bet you're a big help to your mommy, aren't you?" At first she must have smiled and nodded proudly. Then she began to understand they were saying that something about her mommy was different. Someone must have pointed her out on the playground and said in a whisper, "That little girl's mother is blind." And soon I became aware of a change in her attitude toward my blindness.
One day when Laura was helping me find a spool of red thread in the sewing machine drawer, she said to me, "Mommy, I wish you could see."
"Well, so do I, if I ever think about it," I answered. "But why do you bring it up?"
"Well--" She couldn't quite find the words to say what she meant. "Well, then I might not have to help you so much."
I began to understand what was happening to her. I thought a minute; then I took her on my lap.
"I have some Braille labels for the thread and for the cans of fruit and vegetables in the kitchen," I told her. "We can put them on, and then you won't have to help me with those things anymore." Chris and Laura regarded it as a real privilege to choose fruit or vegetables for dinner, so she didn't like that idea very much. Laura was a little confused.
"I just wish you could see like other people," she said. It had never bothered her before, so something or someone at school, it seemed to me, must have made Laura think blindness was a problem. I gave her a hug and told her not to worry about it.
"You know better than most people," I said, "that blindness isn't really as big a problem as people think it is." I knew, though, that I needed to get busy and help the people at school learn some things about blindness.
The PTA scheduled an ice cream social in October. I baked brownies for it, and we went. When we walked in the door, no one knew what to do. One woman tried to drag us through a line backwards. Another was so worried about how we would get our ice cream and cake that we could hardly get her to sell us tickets. Others ignored us completely when we tried to get directions. I felt like a ghost or a body from outer space. No one was able to converse with me like a normal human being. But we did get our ice cream and cake. We sat down and ate them and left. I knew I must do more than that if my children's attitudes about blindness were not to be totally ruined.
At the end of the first quarter, parents go to the school for conferences. Laura's teacher said my daughter was doing fine--there were no problems in school. The teacher was a little uneasy about the blindness, so I asked her if she would like me to come and talk to the class about Braille and blindness sometime. This pleased the teacher, and she also wanted Laura to bring a book with Braille in it that she could show to the class. This, I thought, would help Laura understand that people who know little or nothing about blindness are curious. It did.
By the time I actually went to the school to talk, the project had broadened, and I was asked to speak to the entire school, two grades at a time. The students loved it and had lots of questions--things their teachers would have been embarrassed to ask. "Why do your eyes wiggle?" "Do you have school books in Braille?" "How do you get to work?" I assumed the teachers were listening, and I told the kids what I wanted them and their teachers to know.
I told them, for instance, that the fact that I (and others) are blind is not a big problem, that the problems we face are a result of the fact that so many people who can see think blind people cannot do all kinds of things that we really can do. It made good sense to the kids, as is often the case. It helped the teachers also, and they were genuine in their thanks for a presentation that was helpful to the kids.
Since then I have been to the school many times. I am much better acquainted with the teachers and parents and many of the kids. Many of them think of me as the blind lady, but they don't worry about it. We have had birthday parties and Easter egg hunts at our house. I have helped with Laura's Blue Bird Club, and we had a club meeting at our house. Kids float in and out regularly, especially when the weather is nice.
Chris is now in kindergarten, and Laura is in second grade. Some things are very much different. After the first few weeks of school, Chris came home and told me, "My teacher says I can bring a Braille book to school tomorrow if I want to." This is the same teacher who taught Laura in kindergarten. Chris was pleased to be asked to do that.
Somehow, the whole neighborhood seems more friendly.
I have always tried to teach my children to respect their teachers and baby-sitters. Now I must teach them that, at least with respect to blindness, they have more knowledge and experience than many adults they will meet. It is risky to tell chiLdren that is so about anything at such a young age. Yet it is important to me and to them that their thinking about blindness remain what it is. Laura helps me with the grocery shopping, just as she helps clean up her room. Chris helps take care of the dog, just as he helps sort socks in the laundry. Blindness is a characteristic It is not to be forgotten or ignored, but it is only a characteristic
Mothers make their kids keep dirt outdoors (if they can). Mothers prepare meals. Mothers don't like kids to fight. Mothers sometimes have money kids can help spend. Sometimes mothers make rules kids don't like. Sometimes mothers help make kids feel better when they have a problem. Blind mothers are like other mothers. My kids know it, and their friends know it.
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