Future Reflections Summer 1991

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PARENTING OUR BLIND CHILDREN

by Shirley Baillif

Reprinted from The Blind Citizen, Fall 1990; a publication of the National Federation of the Blind of California.

The following speech was presented by Shirley Baillif during a panel presentation by parents of blind children on Saturday afternoon at the 1990 NFB of California Convention. Mrs. Baillif is the mother of Michael Baillif, who is the past president of the California Association of Blind Students and is the current president of the Student Division of the National Federation of the Blind. Michael is also a second-year student at Yale University School of Law.

Years ago there was a popular song that said in part: "You've got to accentuate the positive. Eliminate the negative. Latch on to the affirmative, and don't mess with Mr. In-between."

If I were asked to give one piece of advice regarding our topic this afternoon, "Parenting Our Blind Children", that little ditty would express my philosophy. When our son became totally blind at age 13, one month before entering high school, we felt we were in an abyss-lost in a situation about which we knew little or nothing. When Michael, who was an active young teenager, more interested in sports than academics, turned to me and said, "Mom, what will I do now?" the Good Lord gave me the good sense not to see a dismal picture of a young boy growing old, helplessly striving to eke out a living. Instead I answered him honestly by saying in effect, "Michael, I have never known a blind person well enough to know how the blind accomplish the tasks they do, but I have encountered a few blind people indirectly and I know they have not only graduated from high school, but have gone on to graduate from college, become professionals in various fields, or have had their own businesses. Honey, if they can do it, you can do it-you just have to learn how." And that is exactly what we set out to do.

As soon as Michael was released from the hospital, I called our local high school district, told them the situation, and received an answer of absolute dismay. This was a new situation to them. The few blind students they had had in the past came to the high school district through the elementary district where they had learned basic skills. They would have to get back to me. Michael was fortunate enough to then be contacted by two positive-thinking special ed teachers-one for instructing him in handling his classroom studies and one for mobility.

All through his high school years, Nancy, his classroom special ed instructor, kept reminding me of the fact I should protest if his IEP's (Individual Education Plans) weren't what I thought they should be. How could I protest something I knew little or nothing about? Michael was progressing in his skills and doing more than quite well academically. In retrospect, however, I can see where Michael missed out on some phases of his special education. His teacher insisted he learn Braille, which he did, reluctantly. He felt Braille to be old-fashioned, outdated by tape recorders and talking books. You see, he was never introduced to the slate and stylus, so he saw no practical use for Braille. How this opinion has changed and how we have learned!

Also, Michael never ate in the cafeteria during his high school days, so this phase of mobility was never touched upon. He missed more than one meal during his first year of college. This happened whenever he missed contacting a friend who would help him with his tray and, so Michael would not trip someone with his cane, his friend would guide him through the crowd to find an empty table. I learned about the technique used to independently accomplish this feat through a video shown at an NFB Convention involving elementary school children! They made it look so simple.

Our family was introduced to the NFB when Michael was searching for college scholarships. Michael is not a "joiner" just for the sake of being part of a group. He has to be interested in it for one reason or another. He made one exception though. After receiving a scholarship from the NFB of California, he felt he was obligated to give back $5.00 of it and become a member of the Student Division. It turned out to be the best investment he has made or ever will make.

There is no way I can even begin to express how much the NFB has meant to our family or how much Michael has been influenced by the role models of the NFB leaders, both on a state and national level. And, I cannot tell you how much his peers within the Federation have become, not only special friends of Michael's, but like a close-knit family to his father and me as we watch their lives unfold as they strive for and accomplish their individual goals, overcoming the stumbling blocks that have been thrown in their paths.

I have learned so much since those days spent with Michael at UCLA's Jules Stein Eye Institute, and now I want to share this knowledge with other parents as they come face to face with the destiny of their blind offspring. This is why I am so excited about starting a support group for parents of blind children in our area. I have a young mother of a newly blinded child, whom I met through a mutual friend, to thank for showing me there is this need; and I have the NFB to thank for giving me the encouragement and positive attitude to meet this need.

Mary Willows asked me to read the flyer I have made up to be passed out through the school system to the parents of blind children. It reads: "A Support Group for Parents of Blind Children is being formed in North County. First meeting" (then the day, date, time, and place will be given). "You are invited to come as we share our concerns, experiences, problems, and victories. Our goal is to see that our children will lead full, independent, and productive lives. For further details, please contact:" (then I listed my name and telephone number and the name and number of one other person.) The day before I left to come to the Convention, I received a phone call verifying permission to use the fellowship hall of our church as the meeting place for this group. When I get home, I will call the young mother in Oceanside who will be a contact person in that area, and we will set the date for our first meeting. Whether there are four or forty in attendance, we will, in true Federation spirit, relate to them that:

"You've got to accentuate the positive. Eliminate the negative. Latch on to the affirmative.And don't mess with Mr. In-between."

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