Future Reflections                                                                                 Volume 20, Number 1

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Rights, Life, And Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwiches

by Seth Leblond

Reprinted from the February 2001 issue of the Braille Monitor, the monthly magazine of the National Federation of the Blind.

Editor’s Note: Seth Leblond, a Maine high school graduate, came to the 2000 NFB Convention as one of the year’s 30 NFB scholarship winners. This was not, however, his first convention or his first experience with the NFB. His parents have been active in the NFB for many years. At the parents seminar in Atlanta Seth took part in a panel presentation by blind young people of various ages. His remarks were very much to the point and contained excellent advice for all parents, but particularly for the parents of blind children. This is what he said:

     Freedom, Rights, Responsibilities: these are three concepts with which all children must inevitably become familiar before they may properly enter the world of adulthood as contributing members of society. It is natural for anybody to assume that, since parents are the primary caregivers to their children, parents should be responsible for teaching their children about these basic concepts. But we live in a world in which a good many professionals in the field of work with the blind believe that, since they have been “specially trained” to work with blind children, they are better equipped to raise them than their own parents. Many of them are kind, compassionate, intelligent individuals. Nearly all of them mean well. But all of the courses they may have taken, all of the books they may have read, and all of the warmth they may feel are no substitute for parenting.

     Several years ago I attended a seminar for parents of blind children in Massachusetts. During the course of the meeting, a panel of parents and a professional or two in the field of work with the blind assembled to discuss raising blind children. After the members of the panel had made brief speeches, the members of the audience began asking questions. One woman raised her hand and asked in a somewhat frightened voice, “Who’s going to teach my son how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich?”

     I had consciously to keep myself from laughing as I recalled my own first foray into the world of culinary arts, which was, coincidentally, the making of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I could practically see my mother hovering over my shoulder, watching as I flailed my knife around, trying to transfer the sticky peanut butter from the dull blade onto the bread. I remembered her calm voice, filled with amusement, telling me that I would have to clean up the enormous mess I had managed to make all over the counters and cupboards of the kitchen. I remembered painstakingly cleaning up that mess. I remembered how good my peanut butter and jelly sandwich tasted when I finally seated myself and began to eat. I fairly beamed with pride when my mother calmly informed the scared mother at the seminar that she should be the one to teach her son how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

     As I got older, I came to realize that life itself is really much like cooking. Nobody in this world lives a perfect life. People, by their very nature, make mistakes, regardless of their background or circumstances. Sometimes we even make enormous messes of things. But it is the way we as individuals deal with our mistakes and clean up our messes that defines us as human beings.

     In my experience people often exhibit a strong tendency to make mistakes and then try to place as much blame on factors outside their control as possible, thus diminishing or eliminating the blame due themselves. Since a good portion of the public does not understand blindness in and of itself, it is often extremely easy for us to blame certain of our errors or objectionable actions on our lack of eyesight.

     In the spring of 1997 I received a letter from a friend that illustrates the tendency of many sighted members of the public to allow us to do just that. The person who wrote the letter, having been stopped by some friends in the hall of her school, arrived a few minutes late for a class. Ordinarily, this would have been an offense warranting detention at the school in question. However, the teacher informed my friend that she would not, in fact, have to spend any of her time staying after school. Since she was blind, he told her, he could understand why she might be late for class as a matter of course. He would simply overlook the incident. Being a responsible individual, however, my friend told him that she wanted to serve her detention because that is exactly what was expected of her peers. The teacher couldn’t understand, but he let her stay after school at her insistence.

     I keep the letter describing this anecdote where I can easily find and read it. It serves as a reminder to me that the blind of the world may never receive equal treatment in society unless we also accept equal responsibility in society. It also serves as a reminder to me that I have at least one truly great and responsible friend.

     The question some might ask is, “What’s in it for us?” We as blind citizens clearly have certain responsibilities in society, but what are all these rights I mention? Perhaps Jefferson said it most succinctly at the beginning of the Declaration of Independence when he wrote that “All men are created equal” and are endowed with certain rights such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Most of us are all too familiar with the stories of blind people denied employment solely because of blindness. We have seen agencies for the blind deliberately try to keep blind clients from choosing their own destiny. The more responsibilities we take, the more quickly will we, the blind of America and of the world, achieve true equality in society. The more we do to help ourselves, the more clearly will the public recognize our potential. As we assert our voices, those few who still seek to repress us will realize that we are not wrong when we say that we are their equals.

     So what of your children? What can you tell them? Tell them that they are responsible for dealing with their own mistakes as best they can. Tell them that, whenever they can, they ought to take the responsibility to educate the public about the true abilities of the blind. Tell them to share what they learn about doing this with their colleagues and their children. And, when they make their first peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, make sure they clean up the mess.

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