Future Reflections Winter 1986, Vol. 5 No. 1

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by Mary Ellen Reihing

An Old Fable: Long ago there lived a man who had three sons. The man was a farmer who had, through hard work and crafty management, accumulated a nice bit of property. The farm, if left intact, would provide a comfortable living for all three sons. However, if the property were divided or some of it sold off, the sons would soon end up in poverty and all the father's long years of hard labor would be for naught. These three sons, however, were constantly quarreling. They complained that they had nothing in common with each other, and each insisted going his own way.

One day, the father grew seriously ill. he had lived a full life and was at peace, except for one thing. He was worried about his sons. He knew that without him, his sons would have a falling out, loose the farm, and soon sink into poverty and want.

The father loved his sons and did not want this to happen to them. He thought and thought. Finally, he called a servant and instructed the servant to gather together three large bundles of sticks and to tie each bundle securely with a good strong rope. He then called his three sons to his side.

The father ordered the sons to each take up a bundle of sticks. He then commanded the sons to break the bundle with their hands. The brothers grunted and groaned as they strove and struggled to carry out their father's command. But try as they might, the bundles would not break.

The father then bade the sons to untie the bundles. They did so, and the sticks were one by one soon broken with ease.

"My sons," said the father, "you are like these sticks. If you refuse to see your common interests and are divided by petty differences, you will be weak and easy prey for those stronger than you. However, if you band together and do not let yourselves be divided, you will always be strong and you will all prosper."

The father died soon after. The sons, having learned the lesson of the bundle of sticks, did indeed prosper and became the most wealthy and powerful men in the land.

A Modern Tale: When I was a small girl, my parents joined with others in our town to fight for the establishment of a class for blind children in the local school district. After much political maneuvering, the "Braille class" became a reality.

Parents had to contend with administrators who physically evicted them from the Superintendent's office and told them that blind children were lucky to have a special school and they did not belong in class with sighted students. It is not surprising that positions hardened and emotions ran high. My parents felt that making it possible for me to be educated locally was a test of their ability to provide for my future. The battle was finally won with emotional appeals. "There is no substitute for a mother's love."

When I was four or five I met another blind child my age. She lived in a small town sixty miles west of us and she came to spend a few days with our family. I overheard our parents talking. It seemed that she lived in a place that was too small for a special class. Therefore, she "had to go" to the school for the blind. I remember feeling sorry for her. I could stay home with my family. She had to leave hers. I could go to school with "normal" children. She would be in classes with other blind children, who were not "normal." Her parents had no choice. It was not their fault.

Later I met children who could have attended the same classes I did but whose parents chose instead to send them to the school for the blind. I felt even more sorry for them. Unfortunately, I never discussed the situation with my parents. They would have been shocked and horrified at my childish reasoning. I assumed that, since my parents kept me home because they loved me, parents who sent their children to a school for the blind must not care about their kids.

I believed I was getting a superior education because the other kids in my class were not blind. I was "making it in the real world." The kids at the school for the blind were being "sheltered."

In high school I got to know some kids who attended the school for the blind. I was astonished when they refused to acknowledge my obvious superiority. They saw things differently. Some of them even went so far as to say that they were receiving the better education because blind kids in public school were "babied" by teachers and parents. Because students at the school for the blind were taught by teachers who did not feel sorry for them, they got grades that were a better barometer of their achievements. They also took physical education, wood working, home economics and other courses designed to teach them skills that simply were not taught to blind students in the public schools. They felt sorry for me because their parents loved them enough to make the sacrifice of sending them to the school for the blind. My parents were obviously selfish and overprotective. It is hard for me to recapture my fervor in defense of the public schools and the viciousness of my attacks on the school for the blind. Now I cannot tell which school a blind friend attended without asking and I rarely think to ask. Some of the people who attended schools for the blind came from homes where parents did not care. Some of the people who attended public schools were not expected to compete on equal terms with the sighted children. Sometimes the stereotypes were reversed and the students from the school for the blind were allowed to slide by while the blind public school students lived in homes where no one cared for them. Of course, students from both places often grew into competent adults whose families cared deeply about them and who had expected them to pull their own weight. The deciding factor was not the location or style of their education. It was the attitudes of parents and teachers and the attitude the blind person ultimately adopted.

I started school in a self-contained class for blind children. It was called the "Braille class" because everyone in it read and wrote Braille. As soon as we were proficient in the basics of Braille, we were sent to class with sighted children. We called it going to "out class." We gained status in direct proportion to the amount of time we spent in "out class."

Somewhere over on the other side of town was a class called "sight-saving." This was the euphemistic and inaccurate term for the class where blind children with a little vision learned to read large print. The "sight-saving class" was on the east side and the "Braille class" was on the west side. Rarely did the twain meet. Once in a while a "sight-saving kid" would lose more vision and be transferred to our class. Sometimes a "Braille kid" with a little vision would be switched to the other school. If these students had moved to another planet, they could not have become more remote.

When I was in junior high school there was a move to combine the classes for the two groups. My parents fought against the idea vigorously. They were afraid that blind students who read Braille would become subordinate to the large print readers who outnumbered us. Though we were segregated in class, we sometimes attended social activities organized by the .local society for the blind. My parents had observed that totally blind children were permitted to do more when children with a little more vision were not around. Unfortunately, whenever something needed to be done that required moving around independently, the child with the most vision was asked to do it. Since we were segregated in school and there were no "partials" around, totally blind students had a chance. My parents were afraid that combining classes would limit my opportunities.

The parents of children in the "sight saving class" did not care for the idea of combined classes either. These parents knew that their children were "a little hard of seeing," but they were certainly not blind. Except when they were hunched over a large print book with a magnifying glass, "sight-saving kids" could "pass" for sighted. They believed that putting them in a class with totally blind' students would stigmatize them unnecessarily.

Now that I am an adult I have discovered that the average employer, and even the average person on the street, sees through our petty distinctions and self-deceptions. Blind people with some sight have as much trouble finding work as their totally blind colleagues. Since they have often been deprived of the chance to learn alternative techniques of blindness, they are often less efficient than they could be. Once again, it is not the amount of sight but the attitudes and skills of the individual that make the difference.

If there is one question I am asked most about my blindness, it is whether I was born blind or lost my sight as an adult. People cannot tell. Yet, when I was growing up, I thought that the age at which a person became blind defined his or her personality.

Until I was in my teens, I knew only one man who became blind as an adult. His blindness was due to the complications of diabetes. He had a playroom in his basement with a lot of neat toys, but I did not think he was very neat. He didn't do much for himself. His wife had a job and he stayed home. She liked kids but he would not play with us at all. Sometimes he was downright grouchy. I knew sighted adults who were sometimes grouchy and did not like kids, But I attributed this man's behavior to the fact that he became blind as an adult. Somehow I got the idea that people who became blind when they were older were necessarily weird and maladjusted. Because they had seen at one time and later lost their vision, I thought they could not avoid being emotional wrecks. I did not want to be like that, so I avoided blind adults. Much later I learned that the man I met when I was small was slowly dying of kidney failure. It was no wonder that he had little energy for playing with children. It was no wonder that he did not work or that his wife took care of him.

It is also no wonder that I deliberately excluded all but a few blind people from my life. After all, there really are not all that many people who were born totally blind and attended public schools. My notions were silly and destructive, but I clung to them tenaciously for years. At the bottom of it all, I wanted to avoid the responsibility which comes with recognizing the blind--all of the blind--as colleagues who share my problems, hopes and aspirations. It was far easier to define my interests so narrowly that I could avoid any inconvenient obligations. But it was also less useful, less interesting, and much less fun.

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