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by Judi Walter Dyer
(Editor's Note: Judi Walter-Dyer is the Secretary-Treasurer of our NFB Parent's of Blind Children Division in Michigan.)
I've been asked by a few of my friends in the National Federation of the Blind of Michigan to write an article that perhaps can be helpful to parents who are now being challenged with raising a blind child. I've taught my daughter Joseli to be independent, trusting, and hopeful. I've let her be first a child, and secondly, a blind child.
Joseli is seven years old now. She was born with congenital blindness. She was my first born, and never being around infants before, I did what all parents do, naturally! I threw her into the air and caught her. We wrestled on the floor and did summersaults. We went to zoos, circuses, parks and carnivals.
Joseli began her formal education at three months of age, with a home teacher coming in twice a week. At two years of age, the special transportation bus came to our door and somewhat reluctantly and tearfully, I watched my "baby" leave for pre-school...she had her stuffed bunny in one hand, and a diaper bag in the other. As sad as I felt, and as scary as it was to have to trust other people with the care of my daughter each morning, I knew that if she was going to have a chance to make it, she needed to begin learning to trust others at a very early time in life.
My own lack of knowledge and fear of blindness was short lived. I found that with the help of the National Federation of the Blind, and with my years of helping her gain self-confidence, she could not only be an independent child, but a thriving, happy child as well. By teaching her the nature of her blindness, she can now enter into a group of children and in one moment answer their questions of "what's wrong with your eyes?", and in the next moment be totally accepted in their games-- riding on the merry-go-round, making sand castles, etc.
Joseli travels the entire neighborhood with her cane and friends. In school she is mainstreamed into a regular second grade classroom. She leaves the class twice a day, once to learn her Braille skills and the other to work on mobility skills. At seven years of age, Joseli has been going to school for six years! For four of these she has had mobility training. Her skills in cane use have come to the point that her instructor has run out of things to teach her as an elementary age child. She reads at her age level in Braille and has conquered both regular math and Nemeth code. This semester she helped the regular classroom teacher teach her classmates compass skills, something she learned a few years ago in mobility class. She travels with her resource teacher to other elementary schools in the Lansing area to put on plays to teach other children about blindness. She answers their questions and is always accepted.
Some days it is easy for me to overlook her blindness. Recently, a child from her class had a sleep over party and invited Joseli. As I dropped her off, it became apparent that the mother of the child hadn't been told of Joseli's blindness. To that child, the fact had been accepted long ago and Joseli was just...Joseli! As I gave her a good-by kiss, the mother caught my eye with an, "Oh No! What am I going to do?" look. As we walked out to my car I told her just to treat Joseli as she would treat the other girls. Joseli and the girls showed her that it was really no big deal and by the time I returned to pick her up the next morning, Joseli was honestly told to come back again.
Sometimes things don't work out as well. Reality brings tears caused by insensitive remarks, sarcastic looks and teasing. Her tears from too much homework and basically having a bad day, sometimes cause me to feel like keeping her home where she could be safe from the "seeing" world. Instead, we cry together and mourn, then with a kiss and a hug, Joseli takes off again.
Parents, hold onto your child, but know when to let them go. Introduce them to the world. Take them swimming and horseback riding. Go to nature camps and pajama parties. Yes, take them to planetariums and to circuses. Teach them what you expect from them. Discipline them and reward them. Tell them your dreams for them as they grow up--like going to college and having families of their own. Under safe and watchful eyes, let go of them to learn about the world on their own.
In conclusion, please know that I'm just like all parents. There are no experts on raising blind children. We learn by using common sense and taking chances. Please remember that it's O.K. if at times it all seems overwhelming.
It's O.K. to be angry and confused. We all want what is best for our children. Seek help from the schools, your church, social workers, and parent groups. It's O.K. to pick out and use role models. Some of the best are available from our own N.F.B. members. That's what they are there for. To provide help and support in any way possible.