Future Reflections Spring/Summer 1993, Vol. 12 No. 2
IT TAKES MORE THAN LOVE
by Kevan Worley
[PICTURE] Kevan Worley
From the Editor: When I was growing up I never thought much about what it takes to be a good parent. If and when I did, I believe I thought about it in terms of maternal instinct. I assumed that like other mothers in the animal kingdom “the hen with her chicks, the fox with her kits, the dog with her puppies” human mothers just instinctively knew what to do. And if there was a problem which couldn't be solved by maternal instinct (after all, we were a little more complex than the rest of the animal kingdom), well, everyone knew that love conquers all. No mother who truly loved her child could ever do anything to harm that child.
Fortunately, a stint of raising rabbits as a child taught me that my romanticized notion of the maternal instinct did not exist even in the animal kingdom. (If you don't know anything about the nastier side of maternal habits in rabbits, look it up in the library or call your local pet store.) Other ordinary life experiences soon taught me that love alone doesn't automatically provide the answers to all of life's problems. I knew by the time I had my first child that this parenting business was something I was going to have to work at; maternal instincts were unreliable and love wasn't enough.
Love isn't enough when you are raising a sighted child, and it most certainly isn't enough for a blind child. In fact, terrible damage may be done to a blind child by the most loving and protective of parents. But if love isn't enough, what is? And can the average parent provide it? Federationist Kevan Worley addressed those very questions in a speech he gave at a NFB seminar for parents in Springfield, Missouri, a few years ago. The following article is based upon the remarks he made during that presentation. Every loving and concerned parent should carefully ponder Kevan's message.
As a young man I volunteered at a school for the blind. There I met a little boy named Johnny. Johnny walked down the hall with me stooped and slow, like an old man. He clung to my arm with a tight shaky grasp while fearfully trailing the wall with his
other hand. Verbally he seemed so bright and alert. What did a child so young have to be afraid of? I thought. He's so light if he hit something he would just bounce off. And if he fell down, how far could he fall, how hurt could he get? This ran through my mind as I remembered all of my bumps, scrapes, and stitches. Kids will be kids--but not Johnny. When we reached his room, I helped him off with his coat, and when I handed him a hanger to help him hang it up, he ran his hands over it incredulously asking me in genuine awe, “What is this? Kevan. What is this?"
Johnny was seven years old. He had never been made to dress or undress himself before coming to the school for the blind. Fear of simply walking down a hall had been instilled into him. And he had never even seen a clothes hanger. Johnny was seven years old, he was blind, and he was in real trouble. Unfortunately Johnny wasn't, and isn't, alone. I left the school that evening feeling sorry for Johnny and those like him, and anger toward his parents. I had and still have a very strong sense of loyalty and allegiance to Johnny.
You see, we share blindness, Johnny and I. We share a heritage and
we share a future. I know his parents must have loved him very much; but, oh, what they had done to him in the name of love!
Over the years my anger has given way, somewhat, to understanding and a kind of empathy. Parents, after all, are human, too. They suffer from the same ignorance, prejudice, and preconceived notions about the blind so prevalent in our society. Parents of blind children do not magically have increased awareness about what blindness is and is not. No automatic metamorphosis occurs dispelling the mysteries, rebuffing the myths, or rebuking the misconceptions.
Thirty years ago, Dr. Jacobus tenBroek, founder and first president of the National Federation of the Blind, made a statement about society's view of the blind. Unfortunately, what he said then in large part remains true today. He said, “Civilized society has always misinterpreted the character of those who lack sight in their eyes. On the basis of that misinterpretation, civilized society has created the handicap of blindness. Many of us in this room know that blind people are simply people who cannot see.
Society believes that they are shorn of the capacity to live normal, useful, productive lives and that belief has largely tended to make them so.”
The all-pervasive misjudgments of the blind's true character and capacity to learn, to participate, and to achieve is why there are still too many Johnnies who can't dress themselves at seven years of age. It is also why, today, another little boy named Jack sits on the floor doing Elvis impersonations all day long. He is not challenged to eat with a fork, to read Braille, or to travel independently. Even though he is five years old he never runs, skips, jumps, or plays with the other children. His mother answers my concerns by saying, “Oh, he's ok, he's my little buddy. He's got a great little sense of humor. He wants to be Elvis, you know. He's so cute.” I cry inside because he isn't very cute, and he won't be cute when he is 15, or 25, or 50. He will be lonely, isolated, and pathetic. And who will be his buddy and take care of him then? His mother loves him no doubt, but that isn't enough.
I believe that the blind can compete on terms of equality. That is what I believe, and that is how I try to live. That belief is the cornerstone of the philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind. Blind people-including children like Johnny and Jack-can compete on equal terms with the sighted; provided we have the proper training and opportunity. This is a very large proviso, I grant you, a proviso which for the blind of yesterday was very rarely met and a proviso which today is all too often not met.
But that is why we are here today at this seminar: To ensure adequate training and to increase opportunity for our children. Without training and opportunity, the blind children of today will be lost, like so many of the blind of yesterday and today, to the indignity and embarrassment of illiteracy and immobility. Feeling no hope and no way out, they, too, could be condemned to endure a social and economic isolation as real as any prison cell. But this doesn't have to happen. There have been changes, and those changes have been brought about largely through the efforts of the organized blind movement along with sensitive and dedicated professionals. The parents of today's blind children have every reason to dream of, work hard to create, and expect nothing less than a future full of bright tomorrow for their blind child.
We all have dreams, and it is important that we do. We dream of the life we will have. We dream of the home we will own, of the career we will build, and the children we will raise. But if a father learns that his son is blind, what dreams can he have for him? He may cry out, “Oh, no, dear God, no, not blindness! How can he be blind? How will he play football as I did, or become a doctor, or fly an airplane?” For these are the dreams fathers are made of. Do not allow blindness to shatter your dreams. Dream that he will run like the wind in cross-country track, or wrestle in high school and college. Dream that he will earn a doctorate degree, or that he will someday own his own airplane. Indeed, he might play football as you did, if he is big enough. Believe it or not, Dad, there are documented cases of blind guys starting on high school football teams.
Blindness need not turn your dreams to dust, parents. Dream that your child will fulfill whatever his or her potential may be regardless of blindness. Whether your child becomes a doctor or a dishwasher, dream for him or her a full life with as much happiness as possible. Many of your dreams can come true, if you first start by trying as hard as you can to wipe away those nasty, negative, stereotypes of the blind as inferior bumblers destined only for mendicancy, broom making, and welfare roles. Then you must inspire your blind child with stories about the achievements of the blind, and there are many. Those of us in this room would be delighted to share our own stories of achievement with you.
You must, of course, also be an advocate for your child for his or her right to a proper education. From the start you will have to advocate for your blind child's right to participate even in everyday, normal activities. When I was about six years old, my family lived on the fourth floor of a building located on an Army housing area in Germany. Now my parents tried, as much as they knew how, to raise me as a normal child. I was made, therefore, to take out the trash. Once I accidentally spilled some on the stairs. Someone complained and an Army Colonel came to our door to chastise my father for letting his blind kid take out the trash. But my father would have none of it. He didn't know it, but he was advocating for my rights. He explained that I had to learn how to do things, such as take out the trash, or what would become of me as I grew older? And besides, all the other kids spilled stuff, too. So his blind kid would take out the trash, or ride a bicycle in the neighborhood (there had been complaints about that also) or do any of the other normal things sighted kids were allowed to do. It is vitally important that you advocate for your child's right to do those routine day-to-day things. Challenge your child to grab hold of life, and to be ready to meet the challenge from those who will try to deny him the right to live it fully.
You must seek and exchange information with others as we are doing here today. I urge you to stay in touch with positive blind role models and to become active and work through the National Federation of the Blind to ensure a climate of real opportunity. The more than 40 members who make up your local chapter here in Springfield, Missouri, are an outstanding local resource for you; take advantage of it.
Finally, set the same goals for your blind child as you would for your sighted children. You must have the same expectations of both. When I was about ten years old, my father set my younger brother Paul and me to work pulling weeds in the backyard. Well, kids will be kids, and the work got hard and it was hot, so we weren't doing too much pullin'. My Dad came around the house and said, “Come on Paul, get the lead out! Hustle! We don't have all day!” Paul said, “Well, Kevan's not doing nothin' either.” “Don't worry about Kevan,” Dad said. “He's doing the best he can.” He made allowances for me out of love. He made allowances for me because in his mind it was perfectly understandable that I, totally blind, wouldn't be as productive as Paul, who was 15 months my junior. I must say, my parents very rarely made this kind of loving mistake. But it doesn't take many times to teach the lesson that a very little effort results in a whole lot of praise if you are blind. I urge you to have normal expectations for your blind child. Doing dishes, making beds, pulling weeds, mowing lawns, having a paper route, all are realistic expectations for blind children.
Today we have focused on ways to free the next generation of blind people from the traditional forms of bondage which blindness often brings: The imprisonment of the blind to a life of incompetence through society's ignorance, low expectations, and lack of quality training. If Jason, who is sighted, takes out the trash at age seven, then why not Lisa who is blind? What the blind today strive for above all else is to live the same kind of life as everyone else. We want understanding, acceptance, and above all, equality. We don't have it yet. We must build it into the tomorrow of our children's future, and the time to start is now.
I truly meant it when I said that I believe blind people can compete on equal terms with the sighted, provided they are given training and opportunity. And that goes for blind kids, too. This is the only way we can forge the kind of future we dream of for our children. Our dreams can be realized if they spring from a foundation of hard work, equal expectations, and a new understanding of the real character and capacity of the blind.