Future Reflections         Winter 2011

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Advocacy and Independence

by Lenora J. Marten

The Marten family in front of a Universal Studio movie and ride called Disaster!From the Editor: In public places those of us who are blind frequently are offered special accommodations. Sometimes these accommodations grant us access that would not otherwise be possible; for example, we may be allowed to touch objects in a museum that may not be handled by sighted visitors. At other times accommodations may be pleasant and convenient, but are not essential to our access to an event or activity. When should we accept special privileges, and when should we insist on being treated like everybody else?

As parents of blind children, we often are forced to make complex choices. When should we encourage our children to be independent and to demand the same treatment that others receive? When should we advocate for or accept special accommodations? The way we choose to handle a given situation can lead to heated debate.

Furthermore, we face the daunting task of educating the sighted public about blindness. Wherever we go, we are aware that our children make a lasting impression. People remember the feeling our children leave with them far more readily than they retain our straightforward explanations. We must teach our children when to insist on independence and when to advocate for accommodations, and we must remain sensitive to those around us in the process. All of these issues seem especially prominent when we visit an amusement park.

My husband and I have three children, a girl and two boys. Our daughter, Christen, is sighted. Our son John is just beyond the threshold for legal blindness, and our other son, Eric, is almost totally blind, with only a small amount of usable vision. We never felt that John needed a special pass to experience an amusement park. He stood in long lines with the rest of us, talking to the people he saw around him and observing the images, writings, and architecture specific to each ride. John was fortunate enough to experience Disneyland for the first time with his Uncle Allan, who also is legally blind. Every child struggles to find the patience to stand in line on a hot summer day. The struggle is even greater for a child who must wait to see what's coming up in front of him, especially when his older sister is chattering excitedly about everything she sees. Allan helped John learn to be patient with his vision loss while Christen and I worked on ways to make the long wait more interesting and fun for him.

A few years later, Eric and I found ourselves with an afternoon to spare in Hollywood, where Eric was auditioning for a role in a McDonald's commercial. After stopping by the Braille Institute to say hello to some friends, we made our way across the freeway to Universal Studios. Eric had just started using his cane a few months before, and he still had some anxiety in unfamiliar places. However, he had recently discovered Nickelodeon on our huge 62-inch screen, and I was confident that he would be motivated to take on this adventure.

As we stood in line to purchase our tickets, Eric showed me how he was going to use his cane on the tour. Out of the corner of my eye I saw an official-looking gentleman making his way toward us. He said hello to me, introduced himself to Eric, and asked us to follow him to Customer Service. "No, ma'am, there isn't a problem," he said, reading the concern on my face. "Please, just follow me."

After the fights I had fought for so many years, my mind automatically began to race. I geared up for yet another battle. Were we about to hear that Eric would not be allowed to take the tour, that we must appreciate the liability issues, that this refusal was really for my son's own good?

As we entered the Customer Service office, the gentleman welcomed us to Universal Studios and asked Eric if he had been to the Braille Institute. Eric's face lit up as he talked about the friends he had met at the Braille Olympics. The gentleman went on to explain that we didn't need to stand in line. Eric did not have to pay to get in, and I would get in for half price. Finally, if we wished, he would assign a staff member to us for the remainder of the day. Our guide would explain the park to Eric and answer any questions he might have. Universal Studios became Eric's very favorite park. He was truly "King for a Day."

During another visit to California, we spent the day at SeaWorld San Diego. At that time, Christen wanted to be a marine biologist when she grew up. She had been talking about dolphins nonstop for days. I was concerned that the color of the dolphins would blend too much with the water, making it difficult for John to see them. I knew that Eric wouldn't be able to see them at all, but I wanted John to see as much as he could. Naturally I did what all good moms do in such a situation--I sent Dad early to save us a spot. The park was extremely busy that day, and I was taking no chances.

While Larry waited patiently, workers cleaned the bleachers and got ready for the next show. One staff member chuckled and made a comment about Larry being there "a little early." Larry explained that his wife had sent him, and waiting was safer than arguing; besides, his boys needed a really good spot from which to see the dolphins. They went on to talk about visual impairment, blindness, light sensitivity, and color contrast. It turned out that Larry was speaking to a man from SeaWorld Orlando who worked with the search and rescue team. He invited us to meet him at a training pool at the back of the park. The kids had the chance to touch, play with, and instruct a dolphin. At one point as they sat on the side of the pool with their feet dangling in the water, the dolphin buddied up right in front of them and they could touch it from head to tailfin. They got to feed the dolphin and even gave him hugs and kisses. They especially loved it when he flipped his tailfin into their laps and waited while they explored.

When we moved to Florida, one of the biggest decisions in our house was which park to choose first for those wonderful Florida Resident Annual Passes. That year, Busch Gardens in Tampa was opening a new roller coaster called Shiekra. Eric was tall enough to ride roller coasters, and the higher and faster they were, the happier he was. Much to his dismay, we decided to wait a few months until the crowds diminished. In the end he found that the wait was definitely worthwhile. The park was still pretty busy when we visited, but it was no longer necessary to stand in line for three hours to give the Shiekra a try.

SeaWorld, Disney World, and other Florida parks offer two special passes to visitors, the fast pass and the gap pass. A person who purchases a fast pass buys the right to use the fast-pass line once per ride. If the visitor wishes to ride a second time, he/she must stand in the regular, sometimes longer than long, line. The free gap pass allows a disabled person and his/her family or friends to use the fast pass line. The Cadillac of all passes, it allows the disabled person's party to ride any ride as many times as desired.

The option of the gap pass brings us back to that gray line between independence and advocacy. When we enter Disney World, SeaWorld, or Universal Studios, do we teach our children to demand the same treatment that any sighted person is given? Or do we teach them to advocate for what they need in order to have the ultimate park experience? Each family must decide for itself.

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