Future Reflections Winter/Spring 2006

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Fire Trucks and Christmas Elves


by Parnell Diggs

Parnell DiggsEditor’s Note: “Treat your blind child just like you treat your sighted kids.” If you were lucky, a doctor, a teacher, or somebody else gave you this advice shortly after your child was diagnosed with blindness or vision loss. But the advice can be confusing. What exactly does it mean? Sometimes questions like this are best answered through examples; and that’s what Parnell Diggs does in the following real-life story from his childhood. Diggs, by the way, is blind. He is also a family man, a lawyer, and the president of the National Federation of the Blind of South Carolina; one of the largest affiliates of the NFB in the country. Here is what he says:

When I was five years old, my favorite television show was a program called “Emergency.” This series, which aired on Saturday evenings, told the story of two paramedics who worked at a fire station. Whenever an emergency arose, personnel at the fire station (including the two paramedics) were called upon to do all sorts of heroic things such as saving people in imminent danger and, of course, putting out fires. I was impressed by the work of these paramedics and their fellow fire fighters. My favorite part of the program was when the fire trucks raced through the city streets, sirens blaring, to the scene of an emergency. In some episodes, the paramedics--(the stars of the show) even solved crimes. Everyone in their “TV land” town admired them; so did I.

On one particular Saturday evening, I was watching an episode of “Emergency” at my grandmother’s house. A call for assistance came into the station, and as the fire trucks departed and sped to the rescue in another crisis situation, I walked over to the sofa and said to my grandmother, “I want to be a fireman when I grow-up.”

“Parnelli, you can’t be a fireman when you grow-up.”

My smile faded just a little. “Why not?” I wanted to know, somewhat surprised by her reaction.

“You’re blind,” she observed, “and there are some things blind people can’t do.”

I am three years older than my brother who, incidentally, is sighted. When my brother reached five or six years of age, he began to tell relatives what he wanted to be when he grew up. He wanted to be a Christmas elf. He wanted to ride on Santa’s sleigh and fly around the world giving toys to children. No one told my brother about the practical problems with his career aspirations, there was no need to. He would change his mind a thousand times before growing up, but so would I. What, then, was the difference? Why was my brother allowed to indulge his fantasy, but I was not? Was my dream job of being a firefighter any more impossible or outrageous than his dream job of being a Christmas elf?

The difference is that sighted children are, by and large, permitted to grow up and figure out on their own what jobs they are suited for, while blind children are told early, and repeatedly, what they can’t do.

As a five-year-old child, I had an enormous imagination. I loved to ride bikes, play, draw, and color as much as any other five-year-old. I had never thought of myself as being different than other children until my grandmother told me so. If my grandmother had not asserted that a blind person couldn’t be a fire fighter, the issue never would have crossed my mind, and I would have continued believing there was no distinction between blind and sighted children; but there is a distinction.

This distinction is not blindness itself, but rather it is in the way sighted adults assess a blind child’s potential to grow up, get a job, have a family, and otherwise participate in the activities of everyday life. Sadly, many families are like my grandmother; they figure the potential for the average blind child is pretty low, certainly lower than his/her sighted siblings or peers.

My brother had an impossible dream, but he was allowed to hold on to it until he was ready to let it go. I believe that blind children should be treated the same way. If blind kids are treated like other kids--given responsibilities, chores, respect for their dreams, and the opportunity to learn about their own strengths and weakness--they will grow up with as much capacity as anyone else to successfully manage their own lives. I had the same ability to learn, mature, and figure out what I could and could not do, and to separate reality from fantasy, as my brother did; but my grandmother thought that she had to treat me differently because I was blind.

But the average blind child does not have to be destined for a miserable life of low achievement, futility, and failure. If blind children are encouraged to set goals and have dreams, they can aspire to the same things sighted children may aspire to; and with talent and hard work, they can achieve those dreams.

Given proper training and opportunity, the average blind person can do the average job as well as the average sighted person. This is the philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind. To parents and teachers I say this: embrace this philosophy; hold the same expectations for your blind children or students as you do for sighted kids. It will make a difference.

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