Future Reflections         Special Issue: The Teen Years

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It's Okay to Be Blind

by Parnell Diggs

Parnell DiggsFrom the Editor: Parnell Diggs is a member of the Board of Directors of the National Federation of the Blind. He is an attorney with a general practice in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. In this article he describes his experience as a blind teen growing up in the 1980s.

Shortly after I was born, my parents noticed that smiles and funny faces, gestures, bright colors, and cute stuffed animals did not attract my attention. I could track light, but I did not recognize the faces of relatives or notice when someone quietly approached my crib.

When I was about six months old, my grandmother saw a peculiar movement in my pupils. Her discovery launched me on a long odyssey of doctors' visits. Local ophthalmologists quickly referred us to regional programs, and ultimately my parents consulted with nationally known experts. Professionals agreed that my diagnosis was congenital blindness due to detached retinas. No one knew how or why my retinas had detached.

My parents were young and scared. They had no idea how to raise a blind child. They did not know about the National Federation of the Blind, and they thought that blindness was the worst thing that could happen to anyone. They had met only one blind person before, a piano tuner who lived in their small southern hometown. He shuffled from place to place without a cane or a dog guide, and everyone in town knew to watch out for him. My parents did not want me to turn out the way he had.

In the fall of 1975 I entered first grade in the public school system of Charlotte, North Carolina. A few weeks after school started, my parents and I flew to Boston, where I underwent a relatively new procedure called laser surgery. Today laser treatments are available in communities throughout the country, but during the seventies only a few hospitals offered this option. I had two unsuccessful laser surgeries, one while I was in first grade and one a year later. By the time I finished second grade, it was clear that nothing could be done to give me sight.

Once they realized that I would never be able to see, my parents struggled toward their own philosophy of blindness. As far as they knew, blind people did not vacuum, make beds, wash dishes, rake the yard, or take out the trash. They reasoned that although I couldn't see, I did not have to "live like a blind person." They resolved to teach me all of the things that they believed blind people didn't do. If I learned to be independent, my parents hoped that I would not have a life like the shuffling blind man from their hometown.

At home my parents expected me to do my share of household chores. They also encouraged me to play outside. I rode bikes and played football. At the same time, my parents tried to prevent me from behaving in any way that called attention to my blindness. They sent me the clear message that my blindness was shameful and ought to be hidden whenever possible. "Don't put your hands out; it looks blind," they often told me. I was warned not to touch things to find out what they were, even though exploration by touch would have given me invaluable information.

Parnell Diggs playing a guitar.My parents were convinced that if I avoided looking blind I would be accepted as "normal." Unfortunately, however, few sighted children or adults regarded me as normal at all. Even my friends and their parents treated me differently from the way they treated my sighted peers. One Halloween night, for example, when I was still very young, I went trick-or-treating with some friends. We were being supervised by their parents. I didn't have a cane at that point in my life, and I tripped over a curb and almost fell. After that minor mishap the parents in the group insisted that I trick-or-treat with my mask off--as if I would see better without it. When we were unsupervised after school, my playmates sometimes picked on me as the only blind kid on the playground.

As we grew, my younger brother, Holland, began to notice how our peers perceived me. He decided that if I learned to look sighted, perhaps I would fit in more easily. He set out to teach me how to pretend to look around at things and even how to use certain hand gestures to show my dissatisfaction with others.

I remember walking on the beach at night, as a teenager, holding the end of a wire in my hand. Holland held the other end so that no one would see me holding his arm. Incidentally, let me confess that the wire was my idea. We were looking for girls, of course, and most girls did not think it was cool to date a blind guy. (I didn't know it then, but those days would pass quickly. But back to the story.)

By the time I reached tenth grade, I had discovered a talent for singing and playing guitar. I excelled in the chorus at my high school and made the South Carolina Honors All-State Chorus with one of the better scores among tenors across the state. On the day of our concert, a buddy managed to convince me that my name had inadvertently been left off the program. No one disputed his claim, and I wonder to this day if he was pulling my leg. I still don't know whether the other students felt pressured not to ruin the gag. Since I couldn't read the printed program, I couldn't verify his claim, so I took his word for it.

Later that year, Holland and I auditioned for our school's production of The Music Man. We had rehearsals four times a week. I was also on the wrestling team. I found that I had very little time for homework. I attended wrestling practice in the afternoon, went home to shower, and headed out to play practice.

Sadly, no one insisted that I concern myself with taking books home or even carrying them to class. I slid by as much as the world would let me. Most of my books were audio recordings, and I had very little exposure to Braille during junior high and high school. Fortunately, I had learned Braille in first grade and used it throughout elementary school. I was able to pick it up again when I needed it in college.

It is very important to insist that blind students work as hard as their sighted peers in school. Blind students should be treated like typical students their age. I was allowed to coast as a teenager, and I milked my blindness to get out of schoolwork as often as I could. As a parent or teacher, don't fall for it!

When I was sixteen, I dropped wrestling and All-State Chorus because I had been hired to sing and play guitar at a restaurant in Columbia, South Carolina. (We relocated to Columbia when my father enrolled in law school there.) While my sighted peers were ringing up groceries at the local supermarket for $3.35 an hour, I earned two hundred dollars a week singing in a lounge three hours a night. Occasionally, a patron offered to buy me a drink, but at sixteen I was too young to accept. My age didn't stop me from learning the music of all of the favorite artists of my parents' generation: Simon and Garfunkel, Harry Chapin, Cat Stevens, and many others.

As a singer I was popular enough to be invited to perform at school pep rallies and at my high school graduation. However, I was never invited to those weekend parties I always heard about on Monday mornings. At sixteen and seventeen, most girls still thought it was awkward to be seen socializing with me too closely. Nevertheless, by the time I reached eleventh grade, I had a girlfriend who was a freshman at the University of South Carolina. Kim Gossett graduated from my high school at the end of my tenth-grade year. We began dating in May, just in time for me to attend her senior prom. I went to the prom as a high school sophomore, which put me several jumps ahead of most of my sighted peers.

Although I tended to have issues with girls, most boys were not concerned about any social consequences of hanging out with a blind guy. I had my share of friends throughout school. I attended sleepovers, had friends over to my house, went to ball games, and rough-housed with the best of them.

I graduated from Irmo High School in 1987 and enrolled at the University of South Carolina. USC has a sprawling urban campus with lots of traffic and plenty of busy street crossings. I decided that a long white cane would be helpful if I planned to live through college. I also started using Braille when I studied for my exams. Today Braille is an invaluable tool in my law practice in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

As a member of the national board of the NFB, I have the privilege of traveling across the country to speak with groups about blindness. I believe that the average blind child has the potential to become anything he or she wants to become. Sometimes blind children make mistakes, just as sighted children do. Like their sighted peers, blind kids and teens must have the opportunity to explore the world and grow from their mistakes as well as their successes. Blind children must be encouraged to put their hands out and explore. They need to absorb the message that it's okay to be blind.

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