Future Reflections Winter 2012
by Barbara Cheadle
From the Editor: Barbara Cheadle is the founder of the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children (NOPBC) and served as its president for nearly thirty years. She was also the founding editor of Future Reflections. As she explains in this article, she has a solid respect for the use of nonvisual techniques.
Was this a bruise on the apple? Frowning, I slipped off my glasses and brought the apple up close to my eye. Just then, I heard a soft chuckle and the teasing, deep voice of my adult son, Chaz. "Use your hands, Mom. Use your hands."
When parents are raising children, they never can be sure that what they say and do is getting through. Only years later, as their children strike out on their own, do parents find out the lasting impression their lessons have made. As I sat with the apple in my hand, I recognized one of those joyous moments of vindication. It happened in my kitchen, while I made a special family meal with the help of my partially-sighted, legally blind son, Chaz.
"Use your hands, Chaz, use your hands," was our gentle mantra during Chaz's early years. We never intended to discourage him from using his impaired (but often useful) vision. However, we encouraged him to use and trust his unimpaired (and almost always useful) sense of touch. We wanted our son to grow up feeling that his limited vision placed no restrictions on his pursuit of any interest or career. We wanted him to be at ease with himself, unafraid of losing more vision and confident that he could handle whatever came his way. We had learned from our partially sighted friends in the National Federation of the Blind that Chaz really needed to believe that it's okay to be blind. He also needed academic tactile skills such as Braille.
From our observations at conventions and other NFB events we had learned that Chaz needed to trust his tactile sense and to use it every day in order to achieve true independence and competency. We had seen many partially sighted adults clumsily trying to use their vision for tasks such as finding a keyhole and unlocking a door, tasks that their totally blind friends accomplished smoothly and independently. We wanted our son to have the best of both approaches. We wanted him to use his vision when it was efficient and useful, and to use his sense of touch when it would serve him best.
My husband's first career as an auto mechanic had taught him the value of using touch. Many are the times when a mechanic cannot get into a tight spot to look at a part that needs work. He or she must often work solely by touch. It was easy for my husband to teach Chaz to use tools by touch and to locate dropped objects by sound. Did he need a straight-edge screwdriver or a Phillips head to get a screw out? He didn't have to get his face up close to see the screw at the top of the window. He could feel it and tell what it was; then, using touch, he could unscrew it and take it out. If he had tried to do such tasks visually, with his face right up close, he would have been very clumsy. Often he would have failed, and he might have concluded that he didn't have enough vision to do most handyman jobs.
To help Chaz around the house, I asked my blind friends how they cooked, cleaned, and handled other chores by touch and sound. We practiced pouring liquids using touch to determine the fullness of a glass. We used touch to make a smooth bed, to pick out the best fruit, to check whether the dishes were clean, to peel a potato. We explained why it was not safe to put one's nose down on the stove burner to adjust the flame. By passing his hand quickly above the surface and listening, Chaz could feel and hear to make the adjustments he needed.
Chaz also learned nonvisual techniques by modeling the blind and partially sighted friends who were in and out of our house and whom he saw regularly at NFB chapter meetings and other events. They helped him accept the use of touch and sound as normal and natural ways of doing things. I did not know then, but know now, that we were trying to make touch a natural part of Chaz's way of being. And our efforts paid off.
After the "Use your hands, Mom" incident in the kitchen, I've had several conversations with my son about how he uses touch in his everyday life. At first it wasn't easy for him to tell me because he hadn't thought much about it. He simply does what he wants to do without any internal dialog about whether or not he'll use vision, touch, or both for a particular task. For example, once he was employed for three months as a cook on a ship that sailed up the Hudson River. The ship provided educational programs for schoolchildren. Chaz told me that his shipmates were astonished when they realized that he wasn't looking at his hands or watching what he was doing as he cooked. He chopped vegetables, mixed salads, stirred soups, and drained hot pasta purely by touch and sound while he talked with his watching shipmates.
Chaz uses his partial vision effectively and extensively in many ways, especially with computers and print. He brings his face close to his work, and it has not been a problem in his career as a computer information specialist. At the same time, he does not regret having learned Braille. He uses Braille when he has to give a speech or a presentation, and he taught a close friend Braille so she could write letters to her beloved blind uncle.
Chaz is still working out alternative nonvisual methods to accomplish some tasks. He and his wife have bought a thirty-five-foot sailing boat which now serves as their home. Chaz has repaired the engine, built new cabinets, and refinished the wood trim without any problems. Raising, lowering, and tying off the sails are easy tasks--those jobs are all very tactile. But Chaz is still learning, he told me, to navigate and steer using sound and touch. He is still developing and testing his techniques.
Due to a central cataract, Chaz does not see well in bright sunlight or in conditions of glare. He sees best in twilight conditions. Because he has incorporated the use of touch as part of his natural way of doing things, he does not avoid glare conditions or restrict his activities to conditions that are optimal for his vision. Chaz loves the sea, even though the glare requires him to wear sunglasses most of the time he is out on deck, further limiting his amount of usable sight. He follows his interests, wherever they lead him.