by Eric Duffy
Reprinted from the Buckeye Bulletin, the newsletter of the NFB of Ohio, Spring/Summer 1997.
Editor’s Note: Sometimes I get calls from frustrated teachers who are discouraged because they don’t seem to be making any progress with a student because of overprotective parents. The independence they encourage fades quickly because there is no parental follow-up or reinforcement. Eric Duffy, a long-time leader of the NFB in Ohio and a tireless advocate for blind children, understands and has a message for you: Don’t Give Up! You see, he once was one of those children. Here is what he has to say on the subject:
Having been a parent for almost two years now, I understand more than ever what parents mean when they say, “I just want what’s best for my child.” I now also understand that parental impulse to protect the child at all cost. One wants to protect him or her from normal bumps and bruises, more serious injuries, and even hurt feelings. All of this, of course, is quite normal.
Like all parents I struggle with the temptation to overprotect. My son is entering the trials of the terrible twos, which are mostly for the parents. When he is about to fall, my immediate reaction is to grab him. When logic prevails, I permit him to fall, provided that the fall is not likely to cause serious harm. Otherwise, how will he ever learn the consequences of his actions?
I have often said to teachers, parents, rehabilitation counselors, and others that without the opportunity to fail, one does not really have the opportunity to succeed. Therefore, whatever role we play in the lives of those whom we wish to protect, we are obligated to allow for the possibility of failure. It is only then that we create the opportunity for success. I now find myself in the position of having to practice what I preach. I know that, as John grows older, this will be even more difficult to do. As he grows older, he will take greater risks. Thus the consequences of his failures will be more severe.
I have found that the desire to overprotect is greatly enhanced in parents of blind children. The reasons for this are many and vary from parent to parent. Most parents feel some sympathy for their blind child. “Let’s make life a little easier for Johnny. After all, he’s blind.” Others feel a sense of guilt over their child’s blindness. “It is my fault that Johnny is blind, and I must do all that I can to protect him from his blindness.”
It is this sort of thinking that prevents many blind children from having normal childhoods. Johnny is not permitted to run and play like most children because he might get hurt. Many parents hold the hand of a blind child while walking down the street long after the sighted sibling is permitted to run ahead. Many blind children are not asked to engage in chores required of their sighted brothers and sisters.
Whoever said, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions,” surely had the blind in mind when he said it. Despite the best intentions of the protector, every time that a blind child is prevented from engaging in the normal activities of childhood, he or she is forced to take a step down that well-paved road to hell.
I am sure that this sounds like a rather strong statement to many parents, but I cannot overemphasize the harm that is done to blind children by well-meaning but over-protective parents. As a young child I did not use a cane. At that time young blind children simply weren’t given canes. Therefore, whenever I was in an unfamiliar environment, I had to be guided by a sighted person. Someone else was always in control of where I went.
Today, when I see children like Kaylee Arthurs and Macy McClain running ahead of or walking freely behind their parents and using their canes, I am grateful for the National Federation of the Blind. I am glad that their parents have heard our message and expect their children to travel as well as their sighted peers. I think of how much better my travel skills might be today had I been as fortunate as Kaylee and Macy.
I also think about the children whose parents we have been unable to reach. I see children age ten and older clinging to their parents. These children do not yet know how to explore new territory and orient themselves to a new environment. Kaylee and Macy are light years ahead of them in developing travel skills. I feel sorry for these children.
In many cases these children have canes. They are receiving travel instruction, and they and their parents have been exposed to good blind adult role models. Many of these children still go to the restroom with the parent of the opposite sex. Imagine how these kids must feel when their parents are giving them the unspoken message that they are not even capable of going to the restroom by themselves. I don’t have to imagine. Despite their best intentions, that is the message I got from my parents while growing up.
Even when I was a senior in high school, my parents would carry all of my possessions from the car to my room at the Ohio State School for the Blind. I was perfectly capable of carrying my fair share of the load, but it simply wasn’t expected of me. After a while, if anyone ever commented on this fact, I made a joke of it. Of course the joke was my coping mechanism.
I began thinking about some of these things shortly after the workshop on Braille and orientation and mobility sponsored by the National Federation of the Blind of Ohio this spring. During the workshop several teachers commented on how absolutely frustrating it is to work with parents who simply will not allow their blind children to grow up. I told the teachers to keep encouraging these parents to let go, to make sure that the children never forget that the adults in their lives expect them to be normal. I told them that even though it may seem as if they’re wasting their energy on the parents, the effort will have a positive effect on the child.
My oldest brother Bob lived in California during most of the time that I was growing up. When he came home for a visit, he spent a good deal of time telling me that I needed to be more independent. At meals he insisted that I serve myself as everyone else did. I remember that he was the one who taught me the proper way to hold silverware. When I resisted what he was trying to teach me, he said that if I did not learn these things I would grow up to be helpless, hopeless, and hapless.
He very often had to struggle with my parents to get them to allow me to do certain things even when he was there to supervise. But, as one might guess, things went back to normal the day he left. Of course he was aware of this and came up with a solution to the problem. He wanted to take me to California to live. I was both delighted and terrified at that prospect. I did not go to live with my brother.
However, to this day, I remember that he expected me to live a normal life. I could go on at length about how my parents’ desire to protect me has negatively shaped the person that I am today and will continue to do so for the rest of my life. However, I have made the point to the best of my ability given the limited space in this newsletter.
To parents of blind children, I say, think about what you are doing to your blind child the next time you want to make things a little easier for him or her. To those pushing parents to let go, I say, don’t give up. The child will remember that you had high expectations even if Mom and Dad did not.