Future Reflections                                                                                     Spring/Summer 2004

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Clothing, Grooming, and Social Acceptability: Part 2

by Stephen O. Benson

Steve Benson
Steve Benson

Editor’s Note: The following item is an expansion and continuation of Barbara Pierce’s article, “Clothing, Grooming, and Social Acceptability: Part 1,” which appeared in the volume 22, number 2, issue of Future Reflections. Stephen Benson, the author of Part 2, is a long-time leader within the Federation. Well-known for his impeccable grooming and professional manner, Mr. Benson tackles some topics of particular importance to young men. Here is what he has to say:

Raising a blind child is in many ways the same as raising a sighted child; however, as Barbara has already pointed out, parents of blind children must recognize several different but important strategies and skills. My mother and the parents of many blind adults today had to learn from firsthand experience. Today’s parents of blind children are in a unique and exciting position because many blind adults who participated in our own parents’ learning process are now willing to help and committed to sharing our experience. I am a firm believer in not having to reinvent the wheel, so I am happy to share some useful information.

Several years ago I addressed the second grade classes in an affluent elementary school in suburban Chicago. I did the usual dog and pony show, demonstrating Braille reading and writing, travel with the long white cane, use of the abacus, and a few routine daily activities. My purpose was to eliminate myths and misconceptions. When I had finished my brief remarks, I fielded questions. The first was: “How do you tie your shoes?”

I demonstrated. Then I said, “When you get home from school today and change into your play clothes, close your eyes and untie and tie your shoes.” Of course I knew what would happen next. I heard a rustling in the classroom as all of the children untied and retied their shoes with their eyes closed. “See,” I said, “it can be done quite easily.”

This anecdote illustrates that all of us grow up learning the same thing about blindness: if you are blind, you can’t . . .; you can’t do even the simplest tasks—tie shoes, dress, comb hair, prepare a meal, care for a child, change a tire—the list is disturbingly long. While blind people certainly cannot do some things, things that by their very nature require sight, mastery of what are called alternative skills or techniques enables us to do the overwhelming majority of day-to-day activities as well as sighted people. Most of these alternative skills are matters of good sense, mostly simple, sometimes innovative, but definitely not frightening, obscure, or mysterious.

It is critical that parents of blind children keep this in mind as they begin the very interesting, exciting, sometimes challenging task of raising a blind child. This anecdote also illustrates that second graders know how to tie shoes. Those kids didn’t learn that routine task the day I met them. Blind children should learn to tie their shoes at the same time sighted children do, despite the ubiquity of Velcro shoe fastenings.

Clean Clothing and Good Grooming

As I say, my mother knew nothing at all about raising a blind child, So her instructions regarding clothing, the need to “look nice,” and everything else that went into steering me through childhood were, at least initially, based on tradition and social convention. I don’t remember precisely when hygiene, appearance, good grooming habits, and physical fitness became of interest or concern to my mother or me as blindness-related issues. It certainly didn’t all sink in at once.

I remember my mother patiently teaching me how to tie my shoes—the same process I went through with my son. The difference was that I used my hands to examine each step in the process while he observed each step visually. I also remember observing my mother wash clothes in a wringer washer and telling her that I wanted to do it too. She was always concerned that I would get my fingers caught in the wringer, and I was certainly a bit afraid of the thing. But, when I grew tall enough to operate the washing machine, she carefully taught me how to operate it, explaining all the parts. She wanted me to use a stick to feed the wringer, but I explained that I wouldn’t know whether I was putting the clothes in the right place. The wringer never captured me. Oh, by the way, I also had to learn how to hang clothes on the backyard lines correctly, which also required that I be a certain height in order not to drag clothes on the ground.

Operating a wringer-washer was a task that could be and was learned by a blind child. Operating a modern washer and dryer is no more complicated. One difference is the necessity to use Braille or some other labeling system to identify various functions and settings of the equipment. This is just one more practical and very effective use of Braille.

Joining Boy Scouts was a kind of turning point in managing my own clothing and grooming. Friday night meetings required appearance in uniform, including polished shoes. I took a genuine interest in polishing my own shoes and in making sure my uniform was clean and pressed. It was probably then that I learned to iron and also learned to detest it. But the important point here is that I learned to iron clothes properly at the age of eleven.

 Now polishing shoes means that you get your hands and the floor around you dirty unless you have the foresight to spread newspapers liberally around and under you. It is most helpful to have all the right tools: applicators, brushes, rags, and of course the shoeshine box. Specific techniques for applying polish and buffing vary according to individual preference. I won’t describe specific techniques because this is not a manual of techniques. It is a clear and perhaps bold statement of the possibility, the necessity, and the desirability of blind children doing this and hundreds of other tasks independent of parental supervision.

Polishing shoes may not be the most important skill to have, but it is one chore that contributes to overall good grooming and the well-groomed appearance our society considers important. By the way, polishing shoes also gets one’s hands dirty if it is done properly. Thorough hand washing afterwards is an essential part of polishing shoes.

My mother and I didn’t have a lot of money when I was a kid, but somehow she always managed to buy attractive, durable, properly fitting clothing and shoes for me. My mother’s admonition, “You always want to look nice,” was and still is sage advice. Because I have hard-to-fit feet, my shoes were always more expensive than those of other kids. They still are. It was important that I take particular care of my shoes, and I suppose that carried over to the rest of my wardrobe. Somehow or other my mother and other adults around me imbued me with the idea that the clothes one wears are a visible statement of who and what kind of person one is, so I paid particular attention to what I wore to school.

When I enrolled in high school, I immediately got into the thick of things socially. I began dating when I was fourteen. It became apparent immediately that looking good—and not just apparel—was important to the opposite sex. Proper use of deodorant, attention to hairstyle, clean hands and fingernails, and oral hygiene were things of which girls were aware. The first time I shaved was a real adventure—I used a straight razor.

Fortunately, I didn’t cut myself, but I never used a straight razor again; the safety razor was my tool of choice until I was in my mid-forties and began using a Microscreen electric shaver. How does a blind man shave? Nobody gave me any formal lessons that I can recall, but I did go to the barber and paid attention to what he did. I then emulated his blade angle and shaving strokes as well as I could remember them. It worked.

Good grooming and proper hygiene are highly valued in our society. Nobody wants to interact socially with some schlump with dirty hair and clothes, shoes that look as though they’ve just come through a swamp, or breath that would start an outdoor grill. In addition to appearance, one’s health is equally affected by proper hygiene. All this applies to blind kids as well as sighted kids, and parents should be no more tolerant of inattention to these details by a blind kid than they would by a sighted kid. It sometimes seems that one spends unimaginable amounts of time reminding kids to brush teeth, comb hair, pick up clothes and properly store them, but when dating starts, it all begins to change. Then a parent sometimes has to take a number to get into the bathroom. Ah well, better that than the alternative.

Fitness

As a child I always participated in games that involved running, climbing, throwing, strength, and skill. Of course those activities also had application in elementary school classes. Tumbling and calisthenics were added, and all of us were required to participate in gym classes unless we had a doctor’s excuse. Even some of the kids who were excluded for medical reasons participated in the rough and tumble of gym and recess. As I reflect on the gym classes at Alexander Graham Bell School, I realize that they established a very important life lesson and habit, staying fit. Fitness is as essential for blind kids as for sighted kids, and a lot of us have been and probably still are excluded from gym class.

Being involved in kids’ games in my neighborhood was important to me prior to attending Bell School. I was used to action; it was as much a part of my life as waking up in the morning. It was also a lot of fun. While I had a little vision as a kid, it was not enough to follow the path of a thrown or batted ball and not enough to see clearly another player in motion. I relied on my ears and knowledge of whatever game we were playing. One could anticipate how another player would move.

My experience in high school was different. Blind kids were excluded from physical education (PE) classes on the assumption that we would get hurt. I have described elsewhere the experience my blind classmates and I had in high school ROTC. We participated in physical training and every other aspect of the military preparedness program, including swimming in the same pool as the PE classes. We did not get hurt. Today blind kids have greater opportunities than we did; for example, I have recently heard of blind kids participating in wrestling; weight lifting; some gymnastics; and, for kids with a little vision, cross country and track. These are competitive sports.

At about the time I joined Boy Scouts I also began swimming lessons. Not only did I earn a swimming merit badge and initiate work toward the life-saving merit badge, I developed another physical skill that enabled me to participate in group activities, splash parties, beach parties, and the equivalent of sand lot competition. It was fun, but it also kept me fit.

The importance of social interaction and the ability to compete are, for good or ill, enormously important. If a blind person is to be a part of the society in which we live—really a part of it—it is essential that he or she is fit enough to enjoy all of the social opportunities waiting for us. The opportunities are there; it is up to us to seize them. Only early involvement in physical activity can adequately prepare blind children for adult opportunities.

The health issues surrounding fitness and weight control are the very same for blind children and adults as they are for sighted children and adults. Americans spend far too much time passively sitting in front of televisions, computers, and electronic games. Our health depends upon our getting off our chairs and moving. Blind children must be encouraged to do just that, as opposed to taking the easy way out and telling blind kids, “It is easier for Jeff to do that,” or “You could get hurt.” As a matter of fact, as a kid and as a young adult I did get hurt playing one kind of ball game or another, but so did my sighted friends. My rate of injury was no higher than theirs. It is all part of being alive and part of social interaction. I won’t say that getting hurt was fun; however, as the old adage goes, no pain, no gain.

Having said all that, let’s look at the other side of the coin. The stereotype of the obese, slovenly dressed blind person with gravy stains down the front of his shirt is an image that still haunts us. It is hurtful enough as a stereotype, but it is most damaging when it is a reality. This is an image all of us should do everything we can to change. Barbara Pierce’s inclination to dress upward is a very good example to follow. We are changing what it means to be blind, and improving image is an important—no, an essential part—of that change.

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