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by Barbara Pierce
[PICTURE] Whatever the weather, wherever the place, Barbara Pierce now travels (cane in hand) with genuine confidence and independence.
Editor's Note: Barbara Pierce is the able Assistant Editor of the Braille Monitor, which is the monthly publication of the National Federation of the Blind.
The other day a friend told me about a child that attends the day-care center where she works. Apparently the little fellow has recently had surgery to remove cataracts, and it has left him legally blind. So far this child is doing well in his interactions with other youngsters, and he seems to be adapting well to his limited sight. His mother, however, is not. She seems to have withdrawn herself emotionally from her son. She has actually told his teachers that he has no future. On the one hand, she is overprotective, leaving instructions that her child be prevented from engaging in certain kinds of play; but on the other, she withholds from him the support and encouragement that every blind child needs so desperately.
Thinking about this mother's agony and what I might do to help, I was reminded again just how formative parental attitudes are for children, blind youngsters included. When I was small, it was very important to my mother that I look at the people with whom I was speaking, whether or not I could actually see them. She also insisted that I be neatly and appropriately dressed. As I grew up, paging through Seventeen did not interest me at all since I could not see the pictures, but she taught me to care about fashion, color, and style as well as the importance of making as good a visual impression as possible. All these values my mother communicated to me in a thousand little ways. She did not indulge in long lectures, though I got my share of sermonettes after lapses in my behavior or my dress, and for these and the life-long impact they had on me I am eternally grateful.
But I also remember what happened when my father announced to me that I was to begin learning to use the long white cane. I was sixteen, and my sight had been so poor for a number of years that I had never begun the normal process of going places by myself. My first reaction was keen anticipation. My friends were getting their drivers licenses; I was being given something roughly equivalent, though more precious because it was so personal and so long-delayed. I yearned for the independence that is the birthright of us all. Like all teen-agers, I wanted freedom, but until now that impulse had been stifled by my inability to move around confidently on my own. I could hardly wait to begin my lessons, but there was a two-week delay. And during those fourteen days the damage was done.
It was no one's fault. My parents had had no contact with competent blind adults. There was no Parents of Blind Children Division; in fact, they hadn't even heard about the National Federation of the Blind. All they understood was that blind beggars carried white canes. They had seen pathetic blind people creeping along the streets of Pittsburgh, randomly poking their white canes at objects and other people. They must have been appalled at the prospect of their bright, well-adjusted daughter being reduced to such a means of mobility.
I don't remember that they said a word about these impressions to me. My father did warn me that my mother was upset about the cane, and he suggested that I keep it out of sight as much as possible. I began to realize that there was to be no excited chatter about what I was learning and where I was going. I would not be given errands to run for my mother. We were to pretend that the cane did not exist. I would use it only when there was no other option, and in my loving family, there was always another option.
By the time I met my travel teacher, I was frightened of the ordeal ahead and repelled by the idea of the white cane. He was going to make me travel places alone. People were going to stare at me. Students who did not realize that I was blind would know the truth. If I could have swallowed that cane, I would have done so.
I became an expert at getting rid of it. As soon as I got to school on the days when I was to have a travel lesson, I would get permission to go early to my locker to dump it--I certainly would not have been seen dead carrying it on other days. When I returned from school at the end of travel lesson days, I slid the cane quickly down along the wall beside the front door where it lay concealed behind the curtains until I could spirit it off to my room later. On days when my lesson kept me tied up on expeditions after school, I agonized because I knew that my mother was at home worrying about what might be happening to me. There was no triumph in these small victories over dependence; they were paid for by my mother's anguish. And the cost seemed to me entirely too high.
On balance, however, I was very lucky. The travel instruction I received was very good, and even though after I finished my three months of lessons I did not use it again until I went to college, I managed to remember what I had been taught. Above all I am lucky because twelve years later I found the Federation. There, for the first time, I met healthy attitudes about blindness, Braille, and the white cane. Though delayed, I finally found again the satisfaction in independence that had been snuffed out fourteen years before.
Now that I am a parent I know with painful clarity that all of us make mistakes in raising our children. For the most part my parents did it right. They were determined that I should have every chance they could give me to succeed in life. Their instincts were largely sound and their attitudes healthy. Because they had no opportunity to modify their negative attitudes about blindness, however, they inadvertently made my mastery of the alternative techniques of blindness harder than it needed to be. Seeing that a child learns Braille and efficient use of the white cane is just as important a part of raising a well adjusted blind youngster as is teaching social skills and personal care. If parents have positive attitudes, these will be communicated to the blind child. You can make the difference.
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