by Ramona Walhof
(Editor's Note: Mrs. Walhof is the blind mother of two teenage children. She is now a businesswoman but has an extensive background in the rehabilitation and education of blind persons.)
Most kids come across John Paul Jones in junior history or before. His bravery and determination as his ship is sinking and he says, "We have just begun to fight," are admirable and inspiring. But how many of us can really understand how he felt and why? The soldiers and the revolutionary army knew that they were fighting for their freedom, for their lives in a very real sense--the kind of lives they wanted to live.
Not long ago I came to understand better how it must have been. I was working with a blind five-year old and his father. We met during a crowded meeting in a large hotel. The father brought his son (we will call him Jake) to meet me and to show me some of the things he was learning. Jake knew the Braille alphabet and numbers. He was beginning to learn words, he was right where a five-year-old should be in learning to read--far ahead of most of us a generation ago. Both Jake and his father enjoyed working with the Braille cards they brought with them. Independent travel was a different story. Jake was intelligent and observant. He was full of energy and excitement. As we walked through crowded corridors, he literally bounced up and down. The adult conversation was too far above his head for him to hear, so Jake made his own observations. He told me when the air conditioner turned on and off. When we passed an open balcony, Jake thought the movement of the air was a fan, but was most interested to know that there might be an open door on the upper floor of the building. He, knew better than to let go of my hand. He would have been lost or knocked down. It was clear to me that this child needed some independence and a tool with which to explore. I offered to let him try a child's white cane. While we waited for the cane, Jake did not run around as other children his age would have done, although we were no longer in a crowd. Jake rocked back and forth and talked about the hotel and the people he was meeting, a good five-year-old conversation, but it was again plain that he was restricted, not by his lack of vision, but by his lack of skill to explore and move about. One could imagine the many experiences Jake must have had that made him cautious and kept him close to his chair. A large playground would have been frightening. The combination of adult fears around him and no tool with which to find landmarks or explore had already limited Jake seriously. He needed to be turned loose and encouraged to walk and run and learn and think. Jake used his senses and his mind. I thought of some children I have worked with who developed more and more bad habits (rolling their heads, ignoring what other people were doing and saying, daydreaming beyond the point of reasonableness). Jake showed signs that he might withdraw into some of those things. But it was not too late for him to go a different way.
When we gave Jake the cane, he was cautious but ready to go. He followed the wall with the cane and his hand; then with the cane alone. He listened to the sound of the cane against the carpet, against the paneled wall, against the solid wood door, and against the metal table leg. he walked across the hallway by himself with a little fear and plenty of satisfaction. I told Jake he must not rock while using the cane for the motion would confuse him. He stopped rocking, he was concentrating and learning.
What a good thing it seemed to me for Jake to have that cane for the summer to explore and learn. He could gain both discipline and freedom. I said to the father, "You may take this cane home and let Jake practice using it around your neighborhood." The father wanted to say yes, but he didn't. He hesitated. Then the answer came apologetically. "I am afraid I can't," he said. "Jake's teacher thinks I ask for things before he is ready. She wants to teach him pre-cane techniques. I am afraid it will hurt Jake in school if I do something she doesn't like."
I couldn't argue with him--not then. It wouldn't have done any good. And I knew from personal experience (perhaps better than he) how children can be punished when they or their parents do not follow the PLAN of the "expert".
In time some blind adults can make friends with Jake and his father and gradually help them take advantage of the cane and other things they need. We must hope and pray it is not too late. Jake needs that cane! In another year there will be more bad habits to break and eroded confidence to restore and a lack of social progress. And Jake is only one of thousands of children who is not receiving what we know how to give.
Yes, Jake helped me understand how John Paul Jones must have felt when he said, "We have just begun to fight!" That is why we must be able to sit in the exit rows of airplanes and fight the agencies that try to run the lives of the blind. It is for Jake and thousands of children and adults who will sink like the ship under enemy fire, albeit charitable enemy fire, if the members of the National Federation of the Blind do not do things which are unpleasant and rock the boat over and over again.
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