Future Reflections Winter 1989, Vol. 8 No. 1

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by Debbie Hamm

Editor's Note: Mrs. Debbie Hamm gave this presentation as part of a panel discussion at the 1987 National Federation of the Blind National Convention in Phoenix, Arizona.

I am Debbie Hamm from the beautiful timber capital of Roseburg, Oregon. I am President of the Northwest Parents of Blind Children of Oregon and Washington and am serving my second year as Secretary of the National Division of the Parents of Blind Children.

My Husband I own and operate our own private dental practice. I am his personnel and business manager. I am also a student pursuing a degree in Elementary Education and very fortunate to be the mother of three happy, healthy, different sons. Jonathan, our youngest, is blind. He will be two on July 18. He was blind at birth, and he has some partial vision in his right eye.

When we got married we had a fantasy about being parents. We would be ideal parents with ideal children, but of course, the reality is very different. However, Jon's blindness wasn't the first thing that brought the reality of parenthood to our attention. Our two older boys took care of that. They had been breaking us in for seven years.

Jon's blindness did make us sit up and pay attention, and at first it was a hard adjustment. We didn't know any blind people and suddenly our cultural prejudices (that until then we hadn't recognized) flooded in!

Here are some of the problems that we faced: In Oregon there is an Early Intervention Program, so we had an itinerant teacher in our home when Jonathan was approximately three weeks old. However, we were told that if we didn't stimulate his residual vision and do that job right, we would further be responsible for his becoming "totally" blind.

It was implied that being partially sighted was more respectable than being totally blind. And we believed it. Our itinerant teacher was the only person we knew who had exposure to blind people, and we expected him to be "the"expert.

The "ideal" parents our itinerant teacher suggested we contact were parents who deny their children's blindness and refuse to ask for or utilize alternative techniques.

Only common sense kept us looking for an organization that promoted and reinforced our hope for a positive future for Jonathan versus his standing on the street selling pencils or being in our custody his entire life.

Our search lead to a call from Denise Mackenstadt inviting us to a Parent Seminar where we might meet competent blind adults, students and other parents. The call was important to me. It was not another envelope full of "expert opinions" about how to "cope with the tragedy of parenting a blind child". The National Federation of the Blind Parents of Blind Children Division brought to us tangible blind people who understood our confusion, initial grief, and who were willing to share their life experience so that we might better be able to prepare Jonathan for a life of independence and success.

We didn't know about the IEP (Individualized Education Program) process and our rights under 94-142 (the Education of All Handicapped Children Act), and involvement in the National Federation of the Blind Parents Division brought to our attention the issues of the future: like dating, job opportunities and civil rights issues.

Now, our main focus is to obtain literacy through the use of Braille and independent travel skills.

Opportunity: how do we get it? First, cane travel. Jonathan was introduced to his first cane at 18 months old. We got that cane for him at our last parents seminar. Primarily, we got it for him at 18 months old (which many people think is ridiculous) because he began to tell us when he couldn't see, and it was reasonable to us that if he could articulate he couldn't see, it was reasonable that he was old enough to tell us that he needed a cane.

The orientation and mobility teacher said it was a mistake. Jonathan wasn't old enough or responsible enough to understand what a cane is for and in fact, he might use it as a weapon. If we accept that theory, I wonder when any child would be responsible enough to begin cane traveL Kids fight My boys do; my sisters and I did well into our teens -- sometimes resorting to physical violence.

However, by giving Jonathan a cane at an early age we have the opportunity to make his cane a tool so that later he can concentrate on things important to teens: acceptance by his peers, education, independence and girls. He will have always had his cane, and his friends will have always seen him with it

Braille: how soon and how much? I say today and one step at a time. Jonathan is beginning to say ABC's and count. Any other preschooler watches Sesame Street and begins to associate the concept of letters and numbers with symbols. So, I ask, isn't it important that our blind children do the same? Without a symbol to represent the letter or number, can our children go beyond reciting?

The realization that preschool children associate letter symbols was driven home by our older children who at two and three could recognize in the newspaper a J.C. Penney or Pepsi-Cola ad. How long do we wait for blind children to begin this process? Kindergarten, first grade, never? No. Start with Braille books. Label common objects around your home with a Braille dymo labeler.

Mostly, if you you believe your child can learn, can travel, and become a Braille reader at an early age, your child will believe it too. Believe this; when other parents of blind children see your child as capable and independent, they will want the same for their child. Little by little the dominoes in education will fall.

Early on we felt there was a need for support and encouragement for parents of blind children. Remember parents, good intentions aren't enough as George Roche, President of Hillsdale College in Michigan wrote in U.S. News & World Report, May 4 of this year, on a different subject. Think about this when you ask your school districts for what you believe to be an "appropriate" education for your child. This is what he said:

"It's tough being an innovator. Social pioneers are always being put on the spot. Even when injustice and social need clearly exist, the good intentions of people trying to address them will be called into question."

And parent, if you don't think that's going to happen, you are fooling yourselves. So, that's why you're here, to get the strength to go on.

Finally, Mr. President, may I take a minute to thank the Oregon and Washington affiliates for their love and support in the past two years. To the National Center for the Blind, thanks for a wonderful and educational three-day visit in March and the confidence in me to speak to this general session. Thanks to the NFB of Minnesota for giving me the opportunity to speak at their seminar at the Fairibault School this spring. And thanks to all of you across the country who have welcomed me into your hearts and homes and who assisted me in my effort to have a successful registration at the POBC Seminar here in Phoenix.

And finally, to the general membership: Two years ago when Jonathan was born I felt like a starving peasant watching the nobility eat. Through my membership in the National Federation of the Blind, I suddenly find myself at the table, feasting on a future with no limits full of happiness and opportunity. And for that, I am eternally grateful! Thank you!

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