Future Reflections Fall 1990, Vol. 9 No. 3
[PICTURE] John and Susan Ford with children Brenda and Brent.
[PICTURE] David and Carol Kier with children Jane and Cyrus.
[PICTURE] Jeff Balek is shown here with his mother, Linda, and sister, Jenny.
[PICTURE] Pat Munson, President of the National Association of Blind Educators, confers with National Federation of the Blind President, Marc Maurer, at a recent NFB National Convention.
[PICTURE] Perhaps Maria will grow up and become a horse-trainer like this young blind woman; perhaps she won't. Whether she does or does not, however, is not important. What is important is that she now knows that it is a possibility. Because her parents acted on her behalf as they did, one more door of opportunity has been opened to her.
What would you do if...
--Your blind child was told he couldn't go on a school field trip because he might fall down some steps?
--You came across a cartoon in a magazine which depicted the blind in a degrading, stereotypical manner?
--Your blind son or daughter was told he or she couldn't get on a horse at camp, or sit with his or her friends at the back of the bus because it wouldn't be "safe"?
The following letters (and one play) are from parents of blind children who faced these very situations. As you read about their experiences I think you will agree that each reacted with insight, courage, and courteous but firm persistence. It is also clear that they have more in common than the experience of being a parent of a blind child --they share a common philosophy about blindness and a common commitment to changing public attitudes about blindness.
It is no coincidence that each of these parents seems to have the same philosophy about blindness or that each just happened to send copies of letters to the National Federation of the Blind. Each of these parents has, to some degree, been influenced by the literature and activities of the National Federation of the Blind. Whether that involvement has been intense or peripheral, it has forever changed what they believe about blindness and, therefore, what actions they are willing to take when confronted with discrimination and misconceptions about blindness.
If these parents were asked what they believe about blindness, they might say something like this:
"...if blindness is a limitation (and, indeed, it is), it is so in quite the same way as innumerable other characteristics which human flesh is heir to. I believe that blindness has no more importance than any of a hundred other characteristics and that the average blind person is able to perform the average job in the average career or calling, provided (and it is a large proviso) he is given training and opportunity."
Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, former president of the National Federation of the Blind, wrote these words in 1974. They have been quoted (and sometimes misquoted) and reformulated thousands of time; not only within NFB literature but in the public media and professional journals as well. These words express the very fundamentals of the National Federation of the Blind philosophy of blindness, and they are as relevant today as when they were first written over sixteen years ago. It is this philosophy which more and more parents -- such as the Fords, the Baleks, the Kiers, and the Sizes --are adopting and putting into practice with their own children.
It is also noteworthy that the Federation has influenced more than the philosophy of these parents. Each of them approached their problem in true Federation tradition and style. For example, all were courteous but firm. Unfortunately people often misinterpret firmness as rudeness. Never have we advocated that one should be rude. Quite the opposite, we respect and admire those among us who, despite adversity, have been models of courtesy and respect for others. However, we also tell the truth, expect the truth from others, and are never namby-pamby about standing up for what we believe.
All were flexible. Wherever basic rights and responsibilities are concerned, there can be no compromise. However, progress never comes quickly and it always comes in stages. We in the Federation are aware of this and are not so naive or stiff-necked that we do not recognize the need to be flexible in the solutions we seek to problems.
All were persistent. We sometimes say to each other in the Federation that we may sometimes lose a battle, but we never lose the war because the war is never over until we win.
It has been about a decade--The first issue of Future Reflections was published in 1981, The Resource Guide for Parents and Educators of Blind Children was published in 1979, and the Parents of Blind Children Division of was established in 1983 -- since the National Federation of the Blind initiated a national effort to reach out (through parents) to the blind of the next generation. As a result more and more parents are joining our ranks in the war to win security, equality, and opportunity for all blind persons. And -- like John and Susan Ford, Linda and Tom Balek, Tim and Pat Size, and Carol and David Kier--we intend to keep on fighting with persistence and firmness of principle until we have won!
Editor's Note: The following letter was originally published in the May, 1990 Braille Monitor as part of an article called "Teaching Teachers about Civil Rights," by Barbara Pierce. The remarks which follow the letter are also reprinted from that article.
Mark Englehart, Principal
Dear Mr. Englehart:
Today I received a telephone call from Terri Bascom. She explained to me that she was sending permission slips home with the eighth graders in preparation for a field trip on Friday. She further explained that the field trip would be to Keil Auditorium, where the youngsters would see a film and read some materials prepared by a coordinating committee regarding Martin Luther King, Jr., and his contribution to the civil rights of blacks. Ms. Bascom then explained that she was not sending a permission slip home with Brent. She said she and Ms. Stevens were taking about seventy-five young people and they didn't want the responsibility of taking Brent. She said there were lots of stairs and she didn't want the responsibility. I said that she would know if he had fallen and that so would 1.1 then said that I knew she understood about discrimination and that if she could not demonstrate that Brent was unsafe, we would permit him to go. I pointed out that Brent takes mobility twice weekly and that he travels throughout Valley School, but she reiterated that she did not want the responsibility.
Now Mr. Englehart, here are two of your teachers --both of whom are black themselves and should, therefore, understand about civil rights and about how demeaning discrimination can be. They propose to take a group of young people and teach them about Martin Luther King, Jr. How on earth can one teach about Martin Luther King without teaching about discrimination? Yet these same teachers propose to deprive a blind child (who participates daily in a public school classroom) of his right to go on this very field trip. How ludicrous!
I realize that these teachers are trying to protect Brent from possible injury. However, discrimination is still discrimination, whether it is founded on hate (black civil rights) or upon love (blind civil rights).
Brent has indicated that he would like to go on this field trip, so I am sending a note giving him our permission to do so. You will note that we are giving this letter some publicity. If Brent is not permitted to go on this trip and other students do go, then on January 16 we will be contacting the Regional Office of Human Rights Enforcement for the Department of Education in Kansas City to file a 504 complaint against Maplewood-Richmond Heights School district and these teachers in particular. This situation is intolerable to us as blind people; and frankly, it would have been seen as intolerable by Martin Luther King, Jr., as well.
Susan I. Ford
John D. Ford
cc: Terri Bascom, Teacher
Anita Stevens, Teacher
Dr. Jerry Elliot, Superintendent
Jackie Ess, Special School District, Vision Coordinator
Susan Knecht, Itinerant Teacher
Laura Zabalov, Mobility Specialist
Gary Wunder, President, National Federation of the Blind of Missouri
Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, Executive Director, National Federation of the Blind
Mary Tessereau, School Board Member
Ann Clark, School Board Member
Patricial Morrow, Editor, Blind Missouian
Barbara Cheadle, President, Parents of Blind Children Division, National Federation of the Blind
That is what the Fords had to say, and it wasn't long before there were results. Mr. Englehart, the school principal, was predictably displeased to find that copies of the correspondence had been sent to so many of the people to whom he reported. He assured the Fords that if they had come to him with the problem earlier, he could have resolved it amicably. The Fords pointed out that they had not known about the teachers' decision until the last moment and that they had done the only thing they could see to do to protect their son's right to attend the school event.
The Superintendent of Schools, who is himself African American, received his copy of the letter on the Thursday before the Friday field trip. He immediately called the Fords to inquire whether or not the problem had been resolved. It had not, and the Fords said so. He assured them that it would be before the day was over.
The solution agreed upon by the administrators was, as most such resolutions are, not all the Fords would have liked. The school principal asked that another member of the teaching staff volunteer to accompany Brent on the field trip. The resource teacher did so, and she and Brent both joined the Maplewood students at Keil Auditorium. Most of the eighth grade sat close to the stage, but Brent, who the teachers had feared would fall on the stairs, chose to sit at the top of the auditorium. The resource teacher followed along behind, and, of course, there were no misadventures as he climbed the innumerable steps.
Did the classroom teachers learn anything about civil rights from this experience? It is hard to say. They did learn that, like our African American brothers and sisters a generation ago, blind people today will no longer settle for being passed over and dismissed as incompetent and of no account. They probably enjoyed the learning of this fact about as little as white Americans did and still do. But perhaps they will learn to look at Brent as the real human being he is, not as the bundle of myths and misconceptions they have projected onto him. If so, they will have grown, and their future students will all benefit.
But the story does not stop here. At fourteen, Brent Ford has until now never experienced discrimination in a form that he could clearly recognize. When his teacher denied him the right to join the field trip, he realized for the first time that all the things for which his parents and their Federation friends have been fighting are of desperate importance to him and his generation, too.
The National Federation of the Blind of Missouri had scheduled a legislative day in Jefferson City shortly after Brent's school adventure. He expressed interest in attending the event with his parents, so they took him out of school for the day.
One of the bills about which the Federationists were to be talking with legislators was the Missouri Braille Bill, which had been incorporated in a Children At Risk bill, which was before a Senate committee on the day of the trip to the capital.
Brent, who has never been very excited about using his slate and stylus, was encouraged to write some remarks during the ride to Jefferson City. He did so, using the slate, and when the group arrived, he began talking with legislators about the issue of the availability of Braille to blind school students. They were impressed --so impressed that Brent was asked to address the committee which was hearing testimony that day. He was the only Federationist allowed to speak, but he did his work well. The bill passed the Senate and is on its way to the House with a good chance of passage.
This story is a salutary reminder to us all that we never know what effect our work will have on those around us. Sometimes, when we consider the vastness of the sea of ignorance about blindness that surrounds us, we feel as if we are all alone bailing out that ocean with a teaspoon. But there are well over fifty thousand of us, attacking the problem at every point, and we are making progress.
Note: The bill containing the provision about the availability of Braille to blind students was passed by the legislators, and signed into law by the governor of the state.
Editor's Note: The following correspondence between the Kiers and the editor of Ours magazine as well as the introductory commentary are part of a lengthier article by Barbara Pierce titled: "Little Black Sambo, Simple Simon, and the Three Blind Mice: Members of a Vanishing Breed" which appeared in the June, 1990, Braille Monitor.
The editor wrote back a thoughtful letter pointing out that the canes were intended to indicate to people that these were the mice of song and legend, and they were hanging on to each other to indicate the problems that everyone gets into when the blind lead the blind -- in this case adoption agencies and parents.
The editor is clearly a thoughtful and compassionate person, who had no intention of hurting anyone, except perhaps the agencies who mishandle and obfuscate adoption procedures.
She points out that the word "blind" has a wide range of colorful and graphic uses. It would be a shame to deny these to speakers and writers just because some of them offend the sensibilities of a relative few. In fact, she might have pointed out that some images are positive. Since ancient times, Justice has been portrayed as blind, not because the image evokes a picture of decisions being made in the absence of information, but because we believe that justice should be absolutely impartial, unswayed by superficial visual detail. The goddess Fortune and her modern, rather washed-out counterpart, Lady Luck, also are blindfolded, in order, one supposes, to illustrate impartiality. There are, of course, neutral expressions in the language which use the word "blind" and the implied analogy to not seeing or there being nothing to see. "Flying blind" and "blind alley" come to mind. Such expressions strike me as accurate and lively. There is nothing demeaning about their employment of the word "blind." To be blind is in fact not to see, and when everyday life confronts one with situations in which vision cannot be used, it is appropriate to use the word "blind" to describe them.
This leaves those expressions which may be pungent and pithy, but which are also destructive, demeaning, and frequently untrue. The Biblical admonition that when the blind lead the blind, they both fall into the ditch is an obvious example. The truth of this adage unfortunately still seems obvious to most sighted people, and at the time of its writing, it may well have been an accurate assessment of the travel skills of many blind people. But it is certainly no longer true, and the damage its repetition does to public attitudes and the self-confidence of many uninformed blind people would be hard to overstate.
It is not too much to ask that thoughtful people consider the impact of their use of our language. Heaven knows they are quick enough to avoid perfectly appropriate terms like "look" and "see" when addressing a blind person, for fear of insulting him or her. If such misplaced sensitivity could be applied instead to steering clear of detrimental and degrading uses of the word "blind," we would all be healthier and a good bit nearer to an accurate understanding of the abilities of blind people.
Here is the exchange of letters between David and Carol Keir and the editor of OURS Magazine:
February 7, 1990
Editor, OURS Magazine
Adoptive Families of America, Inc.
Overall, we have found your magazine to be well balanced in presenting articles on the adoption process and issues of the adoption triangle (adoptive parents, adoptees, and birth parents) as well as issues of helping to build self-esteem and pride in the children. Being adoptive parents of two children (one domestic, one international) who are both transracial and have special needs, we have tried to instill in our children positive feelings about themselves. We are in the process of adopting our third child, who will also be transracial and have special needs. With interest and agreement we read in the January/February, 1990, issue of OURS President Elliott's article on transracial adoption and the letters section containing "Disney Responds to Parents." Turning to pages 10-11, we read the article, "Murphy's Law Lives," enjoying the anecdotes. However, we were perplexed and chagrined by the caricature of the three blind mice by Rany Buckingham on both that page and the following one, as well as in the Table of Contents. Our just-turned-seven-year-old son's special need is blindness. Since his adoption at age two, we have searched to find positive statements, education, and role models for ourselves and him. We have found a group, the National Federation of the Blind, which seeks to help blind individuals feel good about themselves and their capabilities. They also battle to break down the public's stereotyped image of the blind like that expressed in the children's song, "Three Blind Mice."
The white cane, pictured in the cartoon so that people would know that these mice were blind, represents and permits freedom of movement for a blind individual. With proper mobility training, a blind person does very well with a white cane without having to grab onto the shoulder of either a sighted or another blind person. The white cane symbolizes independence; it is not a sign of helplessness. Usually we overlook ignorant blunders, as we did when we saw the movie "Cheetah" with our children (yes, blind children go to the movies). But when a group like yours seems to be stressing sensitivity towards those that are different, and also lists a "Some Kids Wait" column which includes blind children needing permanent homes, we strongly feel the need to call this example of insensitivity to your attention. As you are aware, it is difficult at times not to succumb to the biases, prejudices, and stereotypes of society. Seeing that Adoptive Families of America strives to educate its readers and correct their misconceptions about adoption issues, we felt we needed to call to your attention this stereotype of the blind as helpless and incompetent. It is not, we believe, really what you want to convey to the public, prospective parents, and blind children. May we share with your organization an article from the December, 1989, issue of the National Federation of the Blind's magazine, the Braille Monitor. We hope it will help educate and sensitize you to these issues in the future. It is called, "Educate the Educated" by Bill Isaacs, a special needs adoptive parent of four transracial children.
Mr. and Mrs. Keir
cc: Mrs. B. Cheadle
February 14,1990 Mr. and Mrs. Keir:
Thank you for your letter...to which I have given much thought and which I would like to respond to personally, although we also will include it in a future "Letters to the Editor" department of OURS magazine. I apologize for any offense that our illustration may have caused you. It certainly was not our intention, and we do apologize if you were offended. I am a little puzzled at the charge. Your primary concern seems to be that we mixed metaphors by portraying the mice with canes but also holding each other's shoulders. We were going for recognition of both "3 Blind Mice" and "the blind leading the blind," both well-known fables in the American vernacular. The canes were used to identify them as blind, and the shoulder grasping was an image of the agenciesleading-the parents, issues that the stories dealt with. We believed both were necessary symbols for this illustration. I certainly am aware that blind people don't hold each others' shoulders to move about, nor do I imagine anybody else believes this, either. For that matter, there is nothing strictly accurate about an earlier illustration in our magazine, in which prospective adoptive parents are literally swimming in a huge pile of papers surrounding an agency worker's desk, and I would hope people realize that agencies don't require their clients to swim in paper to reach their desks. Both illustrations are examples of exaggeration and irony to make a point. I think this is a fine point in a debate that is more aesthetic than civic.
But to the underlying, and more pervasive, point of your letter: using the word "blind" in a negative connotation, as in "blind leading the blind" or as a synonym for "clumsy" or "careless." This is the aspect of the issue that I have thought about quite alot, and will continue to ponder. Webster's Unabridged Dictionary defines blind (adv.) as: 1) blindly; specifically, so as to be blind, insensible, etc. 2) recklessly. 3) in aeronautics, by the use of instruments alone; as, to fly blind. 4) sight unseen, as, to buy a thing blind. Under "blindness," Webster's says "the state of being without sight; also, a lack of discernment." Quite a wide variety of definitions, there, and not all favorable. I hesitate to endorse removing references to blindness from all literature or manners of speech --the Biblical passage you quoted in the article enclosed with your letter, lines from Shakespeare, and many simple colloquialisms are lovely uses of the English language and I am loathe to say they should be stricken from the record. Just strike the negative ones from the record, but keep the positive ones, you say? That strikes me as a fairly major disparity without much justification to support it. Still, your letter has made me think hard about something I never considered before, and I certainly have looked at Rany's illustration in a different way since reading it.... I am still not entirely in agreement with you on some of your points, but I do recognize the potential for offense where I had not before seen any. And I agree with you that a magazine such as OURS must maintain a very careful scrutiny over any possible innuendoes that may be inferred from its pages. Thank you for sending along your letter and the article. I appreciate being informed about this particular issue. And again, my apologies for any offense taken from Rany's illustration.
Editor, OURS Magazine
cc: Rany Buckingham
Editor's Note: There are human emotions and experiences which seem indescribable. But, since human beings are what we are, we try anyway. That's probably why we invented poetry and music.
This play by Tim Size, father of a nine-year-old girl who happens to be blind, describes one of those experiences that doesn't have the same impact when told in an ordinary way. You'll enjoy the touches of humor, identify with his frustration, and cheer (or sigh, or both) with him at the conclusion for we have all been there -- or will be. Tim Size knows firsthand that changing public attitudes about blindness is often frustrating and monotonous. But he also understands the alternative and is not willing to let his daughter suffer the consequences of ignorance, apathy, and inaction.
May 30, 1990
Barbara Cheadle, Editor
Dear Ms. Cheadle
Last week, we found out by chance that one of our daughters, Maria (a bright and athletic nine-year-old) would not be able to get on a horse at a Girl Scout campout next weekend because she was legally blind. As part of my processing of this experience I wrote down what we remembered in the form of a play. (I had been intrigued by how neatly the events had unfolded). This is a slice of daily life that will be familiar to some of you. It deals more with attitudes than law; and with prejudice, bad habits or ignorance rather than intent to do harm. While it may sound to some like a made-up story, it is close to verbatim. Basically, it is what was said with some intervening gobs of daily life omitted for brevity's sake. I'm offering this as a small primer of one form of advocacy that many of us are occasionally called on to do and will need to continue to do until community attitudes really change.
by Tim Size
"All professions are conspiracies against the laity." George Bernard Shaw
Scene 1 (Elementary school.)
Volunteer Geese Scout Gaggle Leader: "Oh, it's too bad, they won't let your daughter ride on the horses at camp...." (and then on with the chatter) Mom: "Oh!"
Scene2 (Home in the garden away from the kids.)
Mom and Dad: "Oh darn (or words to that effect), not again!"
Scene 3 (Next day, phone call to Camp Horsebeat Hill.)
Camp Owner (cold anger below surface at
having authority questioned): "It's not
Mom: "What can we do to make it safe? We will come and help-- ride with her, hold the horses' reins...."
CampOwner: "Our insurance won't let us."
Mom: "Who is your insurer, we will talk with them. Doesn't seem right that they should be allowed to force you to discriminate in this way." CampOwner: "That's not you business."
Mom: "Well what can we do?"
CampOwner: "Nothing. This is our 'professional judgment. "
Scene 4 (Same day, phone call to Volunteer Geese Scout Gaggle Leader.)
Mom: "Could you find out what the Geese Scout's policy is about this?"
Scene 5 (A follow-up call later that day.)
Volunteer Geese Scout Gaggle Leader: "The Geese Scout's Office checked this out; they can't force them to do what they don't want to do--it's their business. Why are you doing this? The Geese Girls use this facility a lot. You don't want to spoil it for them, do you?"
Scene 1 (Next day, phone call to Camp Horsebeat Hill.)
Dad: "Hello, my wife called yesterday and I wanted to confirm what she says you said."
Camp Owner (again, cold anger below surface at having authority questioned): "Its not safe"
Dad: "What can we do to make it safe? We will come and help-- ride with her, hold the horses reins'...."
CampOwner: "Our insurance won't let us."
Dad: "Who is your insurer, we will talk with them. Doesn't seem right that they should be allowed to force you to discriminate in this way."
CampOwner: "That's not your business."
Dad: "Well, what can we do?"
Camp Owner: "Nothing; this is our professional judgment."
Dad: "But you will let kids several years younger ride."
CampOwner: "Yes, but they can see to duck branches if a deer jumps out and scares the horse and it runs away."
Dad: "Our daughter is old enough to be taught to not panic and to hold on. I'm not sure that is true of younger kids."
CampOwner:"I can't expect my staff to have time to do that teaching."
Dad: "I'd still be more worried with a young seven-year-old on a horse than our nine-year-old."
CampOwner: I'm the expert on horses."
Dad: "I'm the expert on being a parent of a blind kid."
Camp Owner: "I'm pretty busy; I must go now."
Dad: "Well, it seems there are a lot of groups that won't be able to use your facility when they find out about this discrimination against kids with disabilities."
Camp Owner: "That sounds like a threat."
Dad (with Clint Eastwood overtones.): "That's not a threat,that's a fact."
Camp Owner: (dial tone....)
Scene 2 (Phone call to School District Administration.)
Dad: "I have a problem --not sure who to talk to. Our daughter...."
Dad: "Is it true the school district uses Horsebeat Hill?"
Special Education: "I don't know, how about calling Public Relations?"
Public Relations: "I don't know, how about calling a Middle School?"
Scene 3 (Phone call to State Equal Opportunities Department.)
Dad: "I have a problem; our daughter...."
EOD: "You need the Equal Rights Division. Please hold."
Dad: "I have a problem, our daughter...."
ERD: "You need Laurie, Public Accommodations Office." PAO: "Hello... Yes, but Laurie's not here"
Scene 4 (Phone call from Laurie, Public Accommodations Office.)
Laurie: "Well, if you file a complaint and if there is probable cause and if after the investigation (in about a year) a hearing officer decides that it was discrimination under the law, then he (the camp owner) will be instructed that he can't do it again -- now, on the form ignore the exceptions stated because they are not exceptions any more -- otherwise it's pretty straightforward."
Dad (ala Norton with Jackie Gleason): "You mean this probably won't help us for next weekend?"
Scene 5 (Phone call to Geese Scout's Office.)
Dad: "I have a problem; our daughter...."
Receptionist: "I'll refer you to Membership Relations."
Membership Relations: "Hello."
Dad: "Our daughter...."
Membership Relations: "We use Mr. Murf a lot. We can't force him to do what he doesn't want to do; it's their business. Their hands are tied you know -- the problem with insurance."
Dad: "Their hands are tied? What does that mean?"
Membership Relations (Peevishly): "You know what that means."
Dad: "But this doesn't make sense...."
Membership Relations: "Maybe you'd better talk to the Director; she can explain it."
Director (Low, raspy voice with substantial authority): "Hello."
Dad: "Our daughter...."
Director: "Oh yes, we know about you...We use them a lot; they are very nice; very popular...good teachers."
Dad: "They told us that our daughter didn't belong on a horse, and they weren't going to do anything."
Director: "We can't force them to do what they don't want to do -- it's their business. Their hands are tied you know -- their problem with insurance."
Dad: "You mean it's O.K. for you to use camps who discriminate against one of your Scouts?"
Director: "Mr. Murf told my staff he would adapt the program."
Dad: "Yes, they offered to let Maria camp with the troop and give us a one-dollar refund for her not being able to join the others on the horses."
Director: ("Sigh....") Dad: "You mean it's O.K. for you to use camps who discriminate against one of your girls?"
Director: "Oh no, in that case we would stop using them."
Dad (Modestly, with feigned surprise): "Well, maybe you should call and speak with the camp and explain to them how all of your business might need to go elsewhere."
Scene I (Phone call from Camp Horsebeat Hill.)
Dad (Stern, but approachable): "Hello."
Camp Owner: (New voice, polite): "I apologize for the delay in getting back to you. I had to check with my fellow professionals. There are dangers, but we can have a certified instructor in the ring with her, and I think too much has been made about this trail ride thing. We can do some additional work with your daughter in the ring on a horse while the others are on the twenty-minute ride."
Dad (Regular guy tone): "Sounds reasonable. Thanks; ah..., did the Geese Scout's Office call?
Camp Owner (Mild surprise, quiet): "Yes, we did talk."
Scene 2 (The Homecoming.)
Dad (Enters door, beaming): "Guess what...."
The End (for now)
Perhaps Maria will grow up and become a horse-trainer like this young blind woman; perhaps she won't. Whether she does or does not, however, is not important. What is important is that she now knows that it is a possibility. Because her parents acted on her behalf as they did, one more door of opportunity has been opened to her.
Editor's Note: The following letter and article were passed on to me by Tom Balek of Kansas. Tom and his wife Linda are part of the vanguard of a new generation of parents of blind children. They have read extensively about blindness and have thought deeply about what they have learned. As a result, both have become active in their local and state affiliates of the National Federation of the Blind, and Tom is the newly elected Secretary of the Parents of Blind Children Division of the National Federation of the Blind. They take the Federation philosophy seriously and are sensitive to the damage discrimination and stereotyping can do to their son's self-image and emerging confidence. Furthermore, they can see patterns and connections. When Tom sent me a copy of the letter which described how his son was forced to sit at the front of the bus for "safety" reasons, he also sent along a brief note in which he likened the incident to "...a kids version of the airlines scandal" (referring, of course, to the erratic harassment and second-class treatment blind people have suffered at the hands of airline personnel in recent years-- all in the name of safety). He draws other connections, too. Here is the story and his conclusions in his own words.
(Some of the issues raised in the following letter have not been resolved; therefore, we have deleted some names.)
Thanks for the visit this morning. I wanted to follow up with a letter because a) sometimes I don't express myself very cogently in person, and b) you may want to share it with others at your upcoming team meeting. Communication between us is vital to Jeffs success. I appreciate your openness and your genuine concern for all our kids.
It is extremely important at this age that Jeff be around people with a positive attitude about blindness. He knows he is blind, and he knows he is different. What he needs to learn (and really believe) is that in spite of this he can succeed. This will only happen if we all foster in him a sense of self-worth and especially independence.
This morning when he was instructed to sit in the front seat of the bus, he asked, "Can't I sit with my friends?" The response, audible to all, was that it would not be safe. This made Jeff feel "singled out" and inferior. The other kids pick up on this, too. Outside, told Linda that this would be the norm for the rest of Jeffs life; he should always expect to receive special treatment on buses, planes, etc., and that it is the driver's responsibility to see that he is safe and gets where he is going.
This is completely opposed to our philosophy. We expect Jeff to go to college, get a job, and function in society like thousands of other capable, independent blind people. If he misses a bus, he'd better learn some alternative techniques.
Please, everybody, don't worry any more about Jeffs safety than you do about anyone else's. If the bus crashes he is no more entitled to get out than the other kids. But he is also no less entitled to a choice of seats than the other kids. If you show the other kids how to open the safety door, show Jeff too.
I understand there may be assigned seating for all the kids. I agree with you that Jeff should be assigned a seat where any other third grader might sit, rather than in an obviously "special" place. It is a long bus ride (45 minutes), and it would be nice if he had some peers he could visit with. Thanks for checking out the bus situation on Monday.
There will be times when it is just not practical for Jeff to do things the same way as everyone else. We know, and he knows, that he needs "alternative techniques" and using a sighted guide is one of these. But it is important that the differences between Jeff and his peers be minimized. Our expectations for him should be no different although some of his methods might be different. Common sense and respect for individuals should be our guide.
We can't "lead" Jeff around any more. He has to do it on his own. Our task is not to get him to lunch, but to teach him how to get to lunch on his own. Believe me, if he gets hungry enough, he'll figure it out. Please be alert to people (adults or kids) who want to "shepherd" or "mother" him. He can't reject this patronizing without seeming rude, so he needs some help here. You have a good understanding of these ideas and I believe you share our philosophy and aspirations for Jeff.
We like--- very much as a person. He/She is a dedicated professional and has much to offer in the right circumstances. But at Jeffs impressionable age we are afraid his/her attitudes about blindness may do him harm. A mobility teacher should perhaps be more appropriately titled an "independence" teacher. ---- sometimes seems oriented toward restraint and disability rather than independence and ability. He/She gets hung up on form, at the expense of function and results. Blind people tell us that alternative techniques are unique to the individual everybody is a little different, and if a technique works, it's not wrong. What's important is the results. We've tried to talk with ---- about this, but it seems to be pretty much an ingrained thing. Perhaps he/she has worked with blind people who were not very independent. We don't want this result for Jeff.
It would be best if Jeff could receive mobility instruction (especially cane travel) in school. But that is not as important to us as instilling in him confidence and ambition. We have the alternative to obtain mobility instruction from some of our blind friends, if necessary.
I look forward to visiting with you before our IEP meeting so that we are well prepared....I have some ideas I want to run by you. Thanks again. You're doing a good job, and we appreciate it. If we keep the lines of communication open we might all get good at this parenting and teaching business! Do keep us posted on any developments.
Editor's Note: The following article by Tom Balek was published in Capitol Newsflash, the newsletter of the Capitol Chapter of the National Federation of the Blind of Kansas:
For many people the civil rights movement of the 1960s is symbolized by a small black woman named Rosa Parks, who refused to sit in the back of a bus. Her small act of defiance set the tone for those who followed and made clear to the world just how foolish and wrong discrimination is.
Capitol Chapter member Jeff Balek, a third grader at Berryton Elementary, has never heard of Rosa Parks. But he knew something was wrong when his school bus driver made him sit in the front row while the other (sighted) students were allowed to sit wherever they wanted.
When Jeff asked his driver why he couldn't sit in the back with his friends for the forty-five minute ride to and from school, she announced to him and his peers, "It wouldn't be safe."
Jeffs parents and his principal took up the fight with the misguided but steadfast driver. Local chapter members, alerted to the situation, stood ready to step in.
Meanwhile, every day for two weeks Jeff repeated his wish to sit with his friends and was rebuffed. Finally the driver relented.
Discrimination is just as wrong when applied to the blind as it was, and is, for southern blacks. Sadly, parents of blind children must still be vigilant to protect their civil rights.
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