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by Barbara Walker
Editor's Note: The following speech was given at the July 2 Parents Seminar at the 1988 National Federation of the Blind convention in Chicago. Barbara Walker was one of three panalists who spoke on the topic: "Laying the Groundwork: Independence for the Blind Infant, Toddler, and Preschooler."
When my son John, at the age of three, said he wanted some fruitcake that had been in the refrigerator for quite awhile, I said: "Just a minute, please. I need to see what kind of shape it's in." His response was immediate: "It's in a rectangle shape, and I want some." And he was right. It was. Chalk up one more reminder of how literally children interpret and respond to their world.
I have always been blind. My sister, Laurie, is also blind. Our older brother, Lani, isn't. There was, to our parents knowledge, no history of blindness in our family. Concerning my sister, the doctors said they didn't know the cause of blindness, but thought there was probably a one in a thousand chance of recurrence. Since I arrived--blind-- fourteen months later, either I'm one in a thousand, or they did't know what they were talking about. All of us are now grown, married, and have children--none of whom is blind.
In dealing with the subject of laying the groundwork for blind youngsters, I draw from my own childhood and the raising of my own children who are currently seven and four-and-a half. My message is, as are most things of consequence, easier to say than to live. It is simply that parents should have equal expectations, in vital life functions and goals, of blind and sighted children; and, more importantly, should cultivate equal expectations in the children themselves.
But what exactly does this mean? Let me be specific.
A moment ago, I mentioned my son's response to my use of the word "shape." That incident and many others continue to help him define that and other words. One word which is very important to help youngsters define is "blind." As a child, the first phrase of definition I internalized about blindness was that I didn't see very well. At a very early age I knew that to not do something well was not good. It may seem like an exercise in semantic game-playing, but if you really thing about it, most of us would rather affirm that we are a certain way or have a certain characteristic than accentuate the inability to do something well. I think this is especially true of characteristics which are beyond our control. A child who is told that he/she doesn't see very well may try desperately to do it better, especially if doing so would please his/her parents. A child who is told that he/she is blind will, most likely ask: "What's blind?" in the same way anything else might be questioned. Your response, not only in words, but also through your attitudes and actions, will set the stage for your child's life.
So what does blind mean? It means that, in varying degrees, you don't receive information directly through your own eyes.
So what does blind mean? It means that, in varying degrees, you don't receive information directly through your own eyes. It does not, however, mean that you can't get that information. Obviously, telling an infant this in words won't affect him/her any more than tellin him/her that he/she is first or tenth-born, a boy or a girl, a blessing or a burden, etc. It is primarily through your attitude and actions that your baby will learn about him/herself and the world.
So, what are blind babies like? If my sister and I were typical, and I believe we were, it would be as impossible to generalize about blind babies as it is to do so about any babies. My sister, from what I remember Mom telling me, crawled, walked, and talked at about the same time as neighbor kids her age. She ran away from home more than once while still in diapers, handled everything she could get to, was adept with her fingers, questioned incessantly, and insisted on a prominent place in the world. I, on the other hand, neither walked nor talked until I was about two, showed little visible evidence that I was particularly curious about my environment, and was clumsy and awkward with my hands and body- breaking many things with which I came into contact.
As toddlers and preschoolers, we continued to show contrasts. Laurie, at age two, walked along the piano reaching up to pick out melodies on the keybooard. She generally chose gentle play-- interacting with others, real or imaginary--and was afraid of high slides, going on carnival rides, and the like. I loved rough play--wrestling, running hard, swinging and/or climbing high, flipping over and off of bars, throwing and catching balls, etc.- -and I loved high slides, carnival rides, and the like.
I could go on and on, but I hope my point is clear. Blind babies, toddlers, preschoolers~in fact all blind children, youth, and adults--have as wide a range of interests, abilities, and approaches to life as do others, even when raised in the same family. As I mentioned before, there was no known history of blindness in our family. Mom and Dad knew nothing about blindness. They struggled with stereotypes as all of us do, but their hope for us was the same as that for our brother -that we would eventually be contributing and fulfilled adults, no longer needing or wanting to live under their care.
Mom, the more verbally expressive of our parents, said there were many times when she didn't understand how we would or could do things, and it scared her to have us try. But she didn't stand in our way. She learned Braille so that we could correspond privately. She persistently went to bat for us when we were left out or mistreated--not in ways which made us dependent upon her, but in ways which preserved respect and dignity for everyone, and provided us with experience in everything from fielding questions to finding alternative methods for doing things ordinarily done with the use of sight. Dad showed his acceptance of us in other ways. He showed us how things worked. He pointed out nonvisual qualities of things generally perceived visually, like the contrasting cool and hot pavement where his shadow passed. He made us doll cribs and a playhouse; punch pillows; and shelves that would accommodate Braille books. (For those of you who are unfamiliar with punch pillows, or who may know them by another name, they are flat cushions with a solid bottom used for tracing or free hand drawing with a stylus or cutter to make raised-line pictures or cutouts.) Dad also took me fishing, showed me how to shoot baskets, and encouraged my interests in competitive sports.
My sister and I were given hands-on experiences whenever their availability and our interests coincided. I was a very shy child, and sometimes my self consciousness prevented me from taking full advantage of these opportunities. If Laurie was along, I generally asked her later about whatever we had seen, and she would explain it in detail--sometimes creating a replica to show me.
Underlying all of these things were our parents' respect for us as people and their encouragement toward our finding a place in society--not a pigeonhole created by them or anyone else, but a place we would earn as others do. That genuine attitude of respect and affirmation of our worth and dignity did more than all the experiences and skills combined in allowing us to grow and become contributing members of society. Laying the attitudinal groundwork does have results. I think an example from my recent past will illustrate.
One morning last month, as I was dropping my children off at their Vacation Bible School rooms and heading down to teach the fifth- and sixth graders, one of my daughter's teachers stopped me in the hall. She said that when the first- and second-grade class was talking about Jesus helping disadvantaged people, the other teacher in the room had asked Marsha what she does to help her disabled parents. (Both my husband and I are blind.) Marsha hesitated, and the teacher relating the incident to me told Marsha she could pass. At that point, Marsha said something like: "This spring, when Mom had her appendix taken out, I helped her pick things up off the floor, carry things, and get things she needed." Marsha, whose seventh birthday is today, just completed first grade. She is certainly aware that we do some things differently. But if this response is a reflection of her perception of life (and I have every reason to believe that it is), she doesn't, at this point, equate these differences with disadvantages, either for herself or for us.
I'm not intending to imply that my family no longer struggles with the consequences of blindness, both real and imagined. We do, as does everyone who either is blind or associates with the blind. But I am saying that if we lay the groundwork well--that is, if we provide equal, although no necessarily identical, opportunities to blind and sighted youngsters (for example: Braille rather than print, a model rather than a one-dimensional picture, verbal rather that visual instruction to be imitated, etc.); and if we see blindness as a characteristic rather than a handicap, living our lives in such a way that the inconveniences blindness causes are seen as nuisances, (no more, no less) ~ our children, from babyhood on, will internalize that attitude and the result will be that we will raise blind and sighted children who will expect to live and work as equals, and our society will change. You and I, both singly and as a unified voice in the National Federation of the Blind, have the opportunity to share in that exciting process.
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