Future Reflections Convention Report 2011
by Mary Fernandez
From the Editor: Mary Fernandez is a senior at Emory University in Atlanta, where she majors in psychology and music. She serves on the board of the National Association of Blind Students (NABS) and was a mentor for blind children at the Jernigan Institute's 2010 Junior Science Academy.
For both the sighted and the blind, social skills are an essential component of success. Following are some issues and tips that I discussed with parents of blind children at the 2011 NFB national convention. By no means am I the go-to expert on social skills. However, all of the situations I have outlined come from my personal experience and from the experiences of others. As a blind person, I have faced many of these issues myself. The tips I share here come directly from what worked for me and for others.
In this seminar I have tried to be direct and honest. As parents, you will probably realize that you have done some of the things I discuss. But that's okay! By sitting here today you are taking steps to help your blind child become the best adult she or he can be. Do not blame yourself for anything you may or may not have done. You are a wonderful parent, and you are doing the very best you can for your child.
So your child is blind. What do you do? Here are some steps that might help you deal with this new challenge in life.
Get connected with the NFB! Just by being here you have taken that first step. This organization offers great resources and information. Whether you need to know about Braille and mobility or just want to talk to another parent of a blind child, this is the place to find what you need. The information that is available through the Federation comes from the true experts on blindness--blind people who live with blindness every day. Ask yourself what you want for your child. Once you determine that answer, you can decide where to get the best information.
Talk to blind people. The NFB has plenty of blind people to pick from. Meet some professionals, some parents, some students. You are not supposed to know everything there is to know about blindness, so ask questions of those of us who are blind.
Finally, do not underestimate your child. Do not set any lower expectations for your blind child than you would for a child who is sighted. Expectations shape us and our desire to succeed. If you want your child to develop a healthy sense of worth and self-esteem, set the bar high. Let your child know that he or she can accomplish anything with your love and support. One of those expectations should be that your child will have appropriate social skills.
Why are social skills so important?
From an early age we begin to socialize. We interact with our parents, our family, and with other children. Although your child is blind, he or she has the same need to interact as anyone else.
Help your blind child develop as normally as possible. How would you react if your child were to throw a tantrum at an inopportune time? Would you let it go because he is blind, or would you discipline him as you would any other child? Blind or sighted, every child should be disciplined appropriately. In this way parents start to teach their children what is and isn't appropriate public behavior. Blind children also learn that they are not entitled to misbehave simply because they are blind. Discipline is especially important if your child has siblings. Picking favorites among children is never a good idea and will damage the relationship between the blind child and his or her brothers and sisters.
Exploring the World
Don't be afraid to let your child walk, run, climb, and tumble. All toddlers fall, and all babies run into things as they explore their world. Let your blind child do the same. When she falls, she will get up again. It's okay to have normal fears about children's safety, but just as you conquer your fears with your sighted children, you need to do the same with your children who are blind. Don't delay your blind child's development because you don't want her to get hurt.
The use of a cane will help your blind child learn to move about freely and comfortably. If a cane is a foot long, that is another foot of the world that you are opening up to him. Put a cane in your child's hand early on, even if he only bangs it around. Giving him more space to explore will help him later on with mobility and independence.
Speaking of exploration ... Touch is one of the primary ways in which blind people experience the world. Let your babies and toddlers touch everything they can. Show them what things look like by letting them touch and explore thoroughly. It's fun! Later on you will have to teach that it may not be acceptable to touch things in some settings away from home. But wherever it is possible, let your child touch.
Another important issue as your toddler grows up is to address blindisms early on so that they do not become habits. Blindisms are behaviors like rubbing the eyes constantly, rocking, swaying, head-nodding, etc. Put a stop to those behaviors before they become deeply entrenched.
One of the problems that parents face is how to help their blind children have friends. First, realize that though there are many things you can do to facilitate this process, you can't do all of them. Creating and maintaining friendships is a skill we develop over a lifetime. It can be a difficult process for adults, and it is important that your children learn to make friends on their own.
With that said, what are some things you can do to help?
Talk to your child about the boys and girls at school. What are they like? Do they play on the playground? Allow your child to invite friends over for a playdate. This will make it easier on the other parent, who might not be educated about blindness and probably would not know what to do with your child. Invite your child's friend to your house, and also invite the parent. Let the parent see how the children interact and talk about blindness in the context of your children's friendship. This will help the other parent feel more at ease. If there is an invitation for a playdate at the friend's house, let your child go.
Friendships are often tested on the playground. Blind children are sometimes seen standing alone while everyone else plays. If your child is still very young, it would be okay to talk to the teacher about this. Friendships start inside the classroom and not outside on the playground. If your child and another little girl and boy are good friends in class, the teacher may guide your child to where those children are playing. Many six-year-olds forget about everything else when they see slides. Boys are a bit more challenging than girls, because they tend to run around a lot more. Encouraging friendships outside school will make the process of playing at school a lot easier.
Sharing and Caring
From an early age most children are taught to share toys and snacks, to comfort others when they are sad, and to "do unto others as you would have them do unto you." You need to be as diligent teaching these concepts to your blind child as you are with your other children. In doing research for this presentation, I came across some ridiculous articles claiming that blind children cannot learn empathy because they don't see facial expressions. This premise is utterly untrue. Empathy comes not only from seeing people but from voice clues and the things that people say. How do you know that your sister is sad when you talk to her on the phone? Your blind child is entirely capable of learning to have empathy for others. However, if your child comes to view others as personal servants whose purpose in life is to wait on him and do his bidding, he will fail to understand that people have their own needs and feelings. Blind children should never be given a sense of entitlement because they are blind.
Some blind children have trouble with the concept of personal space. What constitutes personal space varies from one culture to another. In the United States we generally expect people to stand at least an arm's length away from us when we talk. People become uncomfortable when someone stands too close for no apparent reason. A blind child needs to learn how to stand at a comfortable distance from others. Also, it is not appropriate for your child to touch people's faces when they meet.
Finally, teach your child to eat properly with a fork, knife, and spoon. She will be clumsy at the beginning like any other child, but she'll get the hang of it, never fear!
The Teen Years
Someday your child will become a teenager! You will face the same challenges that other parents of teenagers face. Even during this difficult phase you should truly encourage your child to get out of the house and meet people. Encourage him to join school clubs, do community service, get a summer job, or attend an NFB summer camp. If he wants to be in the marching band, talk to blind people who have been in marching bands and find out what techniques worked for them. I'm a singer, and I sang in choirs all through high school. I took part in national competitions in other states and made a lot of friends that way.
Most teens struggle to figure out who they are and what they want to become. As a blind young adult, your child may sometimes feel alone, as though no one else understands. It is important for your child to meet other blind people. When your child meets blind adults with careers and families, he will realize more fully the possibilities for his own life.
Inevitably, your child will want to date like other teens. Naturally you will demand that your child act according to your beliefs and values around dating. Today it is common for teens to engage in PDA, or public displays of affection. You will see teenagers kissing in parking lots, malls, and other public places. It is important for your child to know that people are always watching, and that PDA really is public.
Blind teens should be age appropriate when it comes to personal hygiene and fashion. Boys and girls should do their own shaving. Girls should wash and arrange their own hair, apply their own makeup if they choose to use it, and dress according to their own sense of style.
Fashion is very important in your child's quest to have friends. Don't insist upon dressing your child according to what you wear yourself. If you do so, most likely your child won't be wearing what other teens wear. Take your child to a clothing store and have him or her talk to a personal shopper. Also, let your child shop with friends. Learn what current styles look good on your child. Let your child know what colors, cuts, and styles suit her best. Although you may not want your fourteen-year-old daughter to wear makeup, she should know how to put makeup on before she goes to college. Blind people use certain techniques for putting on makeup, so learn them and help your child learn. Many blind women in the NFB are more than happy to pass on their tips and tricks, so please ask!
Every child is different, and you know your child better than anyone else does. Raise your child as you see fit, but always set high expectations. All of the successful blind people I know have parents who are supportive and loving. They have parents who, at one time or another, have told them to get it together and get a life. Thanks for listening and considering these points. And congratulations on being an exceptional parent.