Future Reflections                                                                                               Winter 2001

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NFB Chapter Reaches Out to Parents and Blind Teens

by John Bailey

Editor’s Note: As I reflect back on the days when my blind son was a child, then a teen, (he’s now in his 20’s and finishing college) it is ever more clear to me the importance of the times we spent socializing with blind adults. Through the informal dinners and parties, our family learned to be comfortable around blind people. We made friends with whom we felt at ease asking the personal, and sometimes embarrassing, social questions – “How does a blind woman know if her lipstick is on right?” Often, we did not need to ask the question. Merely being with blind people and observing how they handled social situations gave us the answers we needed to properly guide and train our son in blindness techniques.

We did all this, of course, through activities within our local and state affiliates of the National Federation of the Blind. Well, that’s how it began, anyway. After we developed the friendships, we did what all friends do. We planed dinners out, or took turns going to each other’s homes. We went bowling, skating, hiking – even vacationing – together. Very soon, learning about blindness was not primary – it was merely a side benefit of wonderful friendships. But all this began by joining our local chapter of the NFB, and going to chapter functions and social events.

The following short item is about one of our local chapters in Virginia that organized a pool party in order to give families of blind children and teens an avenue to form those important social bonds and connections with competent blind adults. There is a saying that if you want to win, you gotta play the game. Of course, you may not win even if you play, but you most certainly will not win if you don’t play.

So it is with friendships and role-model relationships with blind adults. If you want it to happen for your blind kids, you gotta find ways to meet blind people! Here’s one way one NFB chapter made this possible last summer for parents and blind kids in their area:

Saturday, July 18th turned out to be a great day for a pool party. Several months ago, the Fairfax Chapter of the NFB of Virginia decided to make increasing its membership a major priority. During that time, it became more and more obvious that there was really a need for an organization like the NFB. In particular, we discovered that there are many teens in our area who are having a difficult time coping with growing-up along with also having to adapt to blindness.

So, the Chapter decided to reach out into the community of young people and invite them to a social event designed just for them.

Long-time Federationists Billy Ruth and Alan Schlank, offered their home, kitchen, and pool to the chapter for a Saturday of fun. Cathy Schroeder (Chapter Secretary) planned the event along with doing most of the work. She and Billy Ruth prepared all of the hamburgers, potato salad, desserts, etc. Cathy’s husband, Fred Schroeder (former Director of the Rehabilitation Services Administration under President Clinton) volunteered to grill the burgers and dogs. (All of these chapter members, by the way, are blind and were once blind children.)

During the afternoon, many long-time NFB members arrived, along with several first-time guests, including several families of blind children. It was the perfect environment to meet, talk, eat, and build friendships. Needless-to-say, the children and teens splashed in the pool while their parents were able to relax and enjoy the wonderful weather.

In between working the grill, Fred Schroeder talked about the benefits of the NFB affiliated training centers in the country. He spoke in particular about the children’s program at the Louisiana Center for the Blind. He gave the center high praise for teaching blind children mobility and literacy skills, and also teaching them the living skills and confidence they will need when they eventually venture out on their own.

While the parents did adult-stuff, the kids had fun. Carl Knoettner offered the use of his spine to youngsters who wanted piggyback rides. Three-year-old Christian (a future swimming gold medallist) kicked, splashed, and squealed with glee while paddling his feet in the water. Everyone ate too much.

Among the guest were several families who had just discovered the NFB. They brought all their children – blind kids and sighted siblings – who played and ate while they (the parents) took the opportunity to talk with other parents and with blind chapter members. It seemed that every possible issue was discussed to some extent. However, there was one item that generated the most comments and emotion: the topic was “How can I raise my child to be accepted socially?”

Everyone knows how uncomfortable it can be when others consider you different. This can be particularly painful during the adolescent years when our image of ourselves and how we fit into society is being formed. The blind are certainly not exempt from experiencing this rite-of-passage.

 Someone at the barbecue told me a story. They spoke of a similar party they held at their home a few years earlier. They had invited both sighted and blind children to share their pool. During the afternoon, the sighted kids played, interacted, and had a good time with one another. One blind boy did not participate. He stayed at the opposite end of the pool. He played by himself and interacted with no one else. It would probably be easy to go around-and-around as to whether the sighted kids were avoiding the blind child, or the blind boy was avoiding interacting with everyone else. Whatever the case, both sides lost out.

One of the founding ideas behind the National Federation of the Blind is that the average blind person is just as capable as his/her average sighted counterpart. What are needed are the proper attitude, training, and opportunity. In short, blindness is a physical characteristic no more consequential than red hair, black skin, or any other such trait. We call these concepts, “The Truth about Blindness.” In many cases, the NFB struggle for equality can be compared to the civil rights struggles of other minorities. For example, to overcome the negative images of blacks in the culture, black parents organized to make sure that their children did not grow up believing those stereotypes.

How can I raise my blind child to be accepted socially? In some respects, the answer is simple. First, blind children must accept themselves. They must not believe society’s negative images of what the blind can and can’t do. Parents can help by supporting their children and by teaching them the skills they will need to compete in society. Then, parents must give their children the opportunities to use those skills. As the children master those abilities and put them into practice, they will develop a more accurate self-image. The result will be a self-image built on having successfully overcome obstacles – not one based on prejudice and
ignorance.

Raising a child is a family affair. Children don’t live in a vacuum. They will adopt the beliefs of the caregivers in their lives. So, it is very important for the parents and role models in their lives to believe the truth about
blindness.

Where can parents learn more about raising a confident child, and the truth about blindness? From your local chapter of the National Federation of the Blind. That’s where.

Which brings me back to the pool party. Our discussions over food and around the pool demonstrated that we could have fun and learn at the same time. On all counts, our pool party was a great success. We thank all those who helped to make this event possible and so enjoyable, and specifically, Cathy Schroeder and the Schlanks. Hopefully, we can do it again next year!

Whom Do You Hang Out with?

The following is reprinted from the
August/September 2001 edition of the Braille Monitor:

When we think about who we know that might be in a position to make a capital campaign gift to help build the National Research and Training Institute for the Blind, it’s easy to assume that we don’t know the sort of people who could help. But Mike Jacqubonuis of Maine is President of his local Lions Club, and, when asked, they make a gift of $1,000. Jason Ewell of Ohio was a college student when his father’s Lions Club made a pledge of $25,000. Charlie Brown, Kiwanis; Don Capps, Rotary; and Joe Ruffalo, Lions and Knights of Columbus, are all members of the national Board of Directors and personally active in service organizations.

Are you a member of a civic organization that makes grants to charities? Do you have a close friend or family member who is? Such groups are willing contributors to causes that their members support. Vince Connelly, who works on our capital campaign, needs to know what contacts we have. Don’t put it off; contact him today with useful information. His phone number is (410) 659-9314, ext. 368, and his e-mail is <vfcon@aol.com>. You can help.

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