Future Reflections Summer 2009
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by Doris Willoughby
Reprinted from Future Reflections, January 1982, Vol. 1, No. 2.
From the Editor: Doris Willoughby is a longtime Federationist and the coauthor of the book, A Handbook for Classroom and Itinerant Teachers of Blind Children, a classic in the field. This article appeared in the second issue of Future Reflections. It still has a great deal to say about a topic that parents sometimes find hard to address.
"Will the other kids want to go on dates with me?" This question, raised directly or indirectly by a blind youngster, seems to be one of the hardest for parents to deal with. There is, of course, no simple formula for preparing any youngster for adult relationships; however, we will offer some suggestions which we hope will be helpful. I myself can comment from three viewpoints: as the wife of a blind electrical engineer; as a teacher of blind youngsters of various ages; and as a member of the National Federation of the Blind, which has 50,000 members from widely varying backgrounds.
First of all, consider how you would prepare a sighted son or daughter for dating and marriage. Talk with other parents, including those whose children are grown. Don't expect perfection from yourself or any parent -- remember the man who said, "I once had six theories about how to raise children. Now I have six children and no theories!" Consciously apply the same general approach to your blind son or daughter that you would use if he or she were sighted. Do this in regard to personal grooming and makeup, etiquette, homemaking skills, sex education, general personal relationships, and everything else. When there are areas in which you may not know how to teach certain skills, such as cooking, seek instruction through personal contact or written materials. Look for ways to build experience in all areas of life, and avoid the tendency to think, "He/she doesn't really need to do that." It is valuable for a person who doesn't drive to be able to feed a parking meter easily. It is important to understand the general pattern of a basketball game even if one is not on the team and does not see the game visually. It is valuable to gain experience with a variety of sports and games, such as swimming and chess. The more one knows, the more likely one is to be able to join in when a group chooses an activity.
Transportation, especially for a boy, is often a source of consternation. To some extent the solutions will be the same as in any family where the youngster does not have a license, or where there are not enough available vehicles. For the older blind youngster, however, it is very desirable that he or she have money available to pay for gas, use public transportation, or perhaps to pay someone for driving -- and thus not be simply dependent on others. In other respects as well, every youngster should always have enough independence to be able to leave a dating situation or a group if circumstances become undesirable or threatening. (We used to call it "mad money.") The blind youngster who is assertive and can use a telephone need not be at a loss for alternative ways to get home.
A young blind woman once told me of a teacher's saying to her, "You are an exceptional blind person. You are attractive enough to marry a sighted man." She and I analyzed that comment and thought of several implied statements within it:
--Most blind people aren't attractive.
--Marrying a sighted person is categorically much better than marrying a blind person.
--This young blind woman would be still more attractive if she were sighted.
--As this young blind woman gets older, she will probably be much less attractive and desirable as a partner.
The National Federation of the Blind emphatically disagrees with all these implied statements, briefly commenting as follows:
--Individual blind people are attractive or unattractive according to their individual characteristics and one's personal opinions.
--Since the majority of the population is sighted, it is to be expected that frequently a blind person will marry someone who is sighted. However, although sight is a helpful thing to have, it does not make a person "better," either in intrinsic value as a person, or as a partner in marriage. The blind individual is wisest to date a variety of people, and to choose the marriage partner (sighted or blind) who is best suited for him or her based on all characteristics. Also, the attitude of each partner toward blindness is far more important than the mere fact of being blind or sighted.
--We don't compete in life with what we might have been under other circumstances; we compete with others as they are. A blind person with a reasonable degree of poise and competence can fit in socially on the same basis as others.
--In a culture which tends to glorify youth, we all face changes in attitudes toward our physical appearance as we grow older. This need be no more of a problem for the blind than for others.
Having dealt with the statements implied by the teacher's remark, let us consider her original remark itself. No doubt you have heard many variations of the comment, "She does so well, we would never know she is blind." Although often one must accept such remarks in the spirit intended, it is well for you and your growing youngster to recognize the problem of the implied statements. (Compare the remark sometimes made to a sighted person, "You drive so well I almost forget you are a woman!") This type of remark is a symptom of the unfortunate social attitudes which still expect the blind to be inferior and incompetent. When possible, try to avoid statements such as the above, and say instead, "My, you are getting to be an attractive young woman!" . . . "That new hairdo looks great!" . . . "I'm glad you had so much fun at the party." . . . "You and Bob seem to be really hitting it off well." . . . "I think you showed a lot of social poise in that situation."
Sometimes, unfortunately, you and your youngster will encounter even more obvious and direct misunderstanding and prejudice. He or she may not be invited to certain social functions. A parent may object to a son or daughter dating a blind youngster. Friends may try to "mother" your youngster instead of including him as an equal. We suggest approaching this problem in two ways simultaneously. First, help your youngster to realize that all teenagers face problems such as these. James Dobson states that the current social environment makes all teenagers feel (1) ugly, (2) dumb, and (3) unloved (James C. Dobson: Preparing for Adolescence, Bantam Books, 1980). Many rejections are simply the same kind of thing that happens to everybody. At the same time, there are indeed specific misunderstandings and prejudice regarding blindness. It is most helpful for you and your teenager to talk with other blind people of various ages and discuss in detail how they handle such matters. The National Federation of the Blind will gladly put you in contact with blind people in your area, and also provide you with written materials about the subjects discussed in this article.
Help your youngster develop confidence and assertiveness so that he or she does not appear helpless. Encourage him or her to speak up in social situations, as when a waiter might expect others to order for the blind person and/or to pay the check. It is most unwise to try to avoid the problem by trying to hide the fact of blindness, as by leaving one's cane at home, holding a printed menu, etc. If this is done, misunderstandings and mistakes tend to grow instead of decrease, and the blind individual is unable to use important alternative techniques such as the cane for independent travel.
My husband and I met at a "Young Adult Fellowship." He brought a deck of Braille playing cards, since the group enjoyed playing "500" and Bridge. When we went on a camping expedition to the church's cabins, he repaired the stove in-between recreational activities. The next week he called me and said, "How would you like to go to a movie? If I pay for the gas--and of course the tickets--would you drive?"During the months when Curt and I were dating, someone said to me, "I think it's simply wonderful of you to date him." I had a vague feeling at the time that there was something wrong with that remark, but I really didn't know what to say or think about it. Today I would say something such as, "It is not a matter of my doing something for him. He is a terrific guy, and we both really enjoy each other's company." And I would realize the remark means that we have a lot of work to do in educating the public about blindness. As you help your blind youngster to enter the adult world of dating and marriage, you are helping to work toward the time when blindness will be generally accepted simply as one characteristic among many.
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