Future Reflections                                                                                         Summer/Fall 2005

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Watertown Mom is Inspired by Her Children

by Renee Wahlen Tillema

Reprinted from the December 2004 issue of InSpire Magazine.

Editor’s Note: The Wisconsin mom featured in this article--Judy Lehman--may be inspired by her children, but I think you will also agree that she is quite an inspiration and role model herself. Lehman’s two blind daughters--now young women--are both active leaders in the NFB.

Judy Lehman poses for a picture with her grandson, Stephen.
Judy Lehman poses for a picture with her grandson, Stephen.

Jennifer wrote the article preceding this one, and Melissa lives and works in Baltimore, Maryland, with her husband, Mark Riccobono, the Director of Education Programs for the NFB Jernigan Institute. The Riccobono’s did ask me to clear up one slight error in the article: Mark Riccobono did not meet Melissa as her ski guide, he was one of the blind skiers on the trip and they met over breakfast. Here is the story about Judy Lehman and her children:

Not much gets Judy Lehman down; she has been challenged with some unique situations as a mother to her four children, but she has met them all with humor and common sense. Judy is the accounts payable secretary for the Watertown Unified School District and her family is well known in the Watertown area. Judy and her husband Tom welcomed their first child, Jeff thirty-five years ago. Their daughter Jennifer, who will be thirty-three, followed soon after. Judy explained that Jennifer was born with crossed-eyes and she remembers that the baby would rub her eyes a lot.

“As a mom I always thought something was wrong,” Judy explained. “At six months old we went to a specialist in Madison and found out that she had been totally blind from birth. By that time she was sitting in a high chair and her communication skills were very advanced. She talked very, very early.”

Judy and her husband underwent genetic testing and it was determined that the blindness was a genetic disorder. Judy explained the odds were that if she had one hundred children, four of them would be blind and it could occur in either boys or girls. It just so happened that two out of their four children were born with this disorder and they both happened to be girls.

“By that time I was pregnant with Mark and the doctor wanted me to have an abortion because he thought this baby would be born blind, too,” Judy remembered. “I got up and walked out of the room. I didn’t think blindness was that horrible. I said this baby was created in love and it didn’t matter if he was blind.”

Melissa and Mark Riccobono
Melissa and Mark Riccobono

Mark, who is now thirty-one, was born without any vision problems, but Judy laughs that he didn’t talk until he was almost three-years old so they started to wonder if he was deaf. “I said, oh, Lord, a blind child and a deaf child, what else is next?”

But Mark had been relying on Jennifer to do his talking and he eventually started to talk on his own. Judy was learning to adapt things to help Jennifer learn and over the years has come up with some unique and creative ideas. Things were going smoothly at the Lehman household and five years after Mark was born, Melissa joined the family.

“Every night after her prayers when Jennifer was about six or seven she would say, ‘Jesus if you have any baby sisters up there that nobody wants, please send her down.’ We didn’t know Melissa was blind, she had more light perception and everyone said that she could see. At three months she went to the specialist and I said that I thought she was blind. He really wanted to prove me wrong, but Melissa had the same disease as Jennifer. Mark always had a hard time believing his sisters were blind because they were treated normal. I asked him if it was alright that she couldn’t see either and he just said, ‘Well, she smells the same.’ Jeff had a harder time accepting it.”

Judy said the number one goal was that they never considered the girls as handicapped; they were treated as equals and everyone had to pick up their toys. Judy learned to adapt what they had around the house and explained that for Christmas gifts she would line the images in coloring books with glue so the girls could feel where they needed to color.

“We had Braille cards which we did ourselves,” she explained. “We had a terrific neighborhood too; the kids loved to play games at our house because they were so different. They would bring things to Jennifer so she could feel them and they would explain what it was. There was one time we went to see the Circus Train. People in the neighborhood still talk about this. I always said we were like the Pied Piper; we did a lot of walking because the girls had a better sense of where they were when they walked. So we heard the Circus Train was coming and we started walking; other kids in the neighborhood joined in and by the time we got there, we had about twelve kids with us. The train came and the kids were trying to explain to Jennifer what they saw. One girl made the comment that although she had seen the train before, she really saw it by explaining it to someone who couldn’t see.”

Judy and her husband made the choice not to send the girls to Janesville where the Wisconsin Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired is located. Instead, they attended school in Watertown.

Jennifer Wenzel out for a stroll with two of her sons.
Jennifer Wenzel out for a stroll with two of her sons.

“The Watertown School District is the best in the whole world.” Judy said. “Both the girls went through a regular classroom and the teachers would adapt. The girls were very good in school, their memories are fantastic. Both didn’t want to miss school because they enjoyed that interaction. They both are high achievers and did everything the class did. They had the technology and because of their intelligence and outgoingness those doors were opened. But they worked at it and never sat on their duffs. Tom and I never expected them to.”

Judy said that the girls were given encouragement that they could accomplish whatever they wanted to do. She remembers when Jennifer said she wanted to be a taxi driver and Judy told her she would be the best taxi driver ever. Melissa wanted to be an airline pilot and she was told to go for it.

“We never told them they couldn’t,” she said. “They bowled, swam, cross-country and downhill skied, and I know through stories that they have even driven a car and a boat.” Melissa went to Atlanta, Georgia, in 1996 to compete in the Paralympics as a runner and Judy said the whole city and school showed their support though letters and encouragement.

“I don’t think she went down there for a medal; I know she was there for other kids to see that you don’t need sight to be a winner.”

Melissa is now twenty-five years old and earned her master’s degree in psychology. She is a guidance counselor in Baltimore, Maryland. Melissa met her husband Mark Riccobono when he was her “eyes” as she cross-country skied. Mark is slowly losing his sight to glaucoma.

Jennifer graduated from college and moved to Colorado to work for the Federation of the Blind. Jennifer and her husband, Dan Wenzel, recently moved to Janesville with their three boys. Jennifer is a stay-at-home mom and takes care of her young children all on her own during the day. Dan works for the Wisconsin Center for the Blind and Jennifer does some Braille work for the Oshkosh Correctional System.

“I’ve often thought of writing a book about me as a sighted mom raising two blind children and Jennifer as a blind mom raising sighted children,” Judy said.

Son Mark lives in Minnesota with his wife Lisa and their two-year-old son. Mark is a therapeutic recreation director for a long-term care facility. Jeff works for the Watertown School District as a vision teacher and the EBD program for learning disabilities. His wife Kathy is a teacher in the Beaver Dam United School District; they have three children.

“Yes, I love my children and deeply care about them,” Judy said. “Everything has a
reason and everything has a rhyme. My job was to raise these four and sort of let them go. Everything came from good old common sense; the girls have such a sense of humor and everyone has a story because the whole city of Watertown watched then grow up. People still come up and ask how the girls are. We were blessed and really do believe that. I tell parents who just found out their child is blind to just hold them, love them, and let them explore.”

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