by Elaine Warn
From the Editor: In these pages we feature a number of articles written by blind people giving their perspectives on the world, what it is like to be misunderstood, the difficulties in getting an education, and the barrier that one must overcome fully to be a part of his or her community. Rarely do we get the perspective of someone who can tell us their experience when first meeting a blind person and who can demonstrate that the same common sense approach works in getting information about blindness as it does when trying to learn something about any group different from our own.
Elaine Warn is the mother of Grace Warn, a woman who assists me in getting a draft of each month’s publication to our proofers. She was the Girl Scout leader who needed information about teaching blind people when a young Dacia Cole, now the recording secretary for the National Federation of the Blind of Missouri, wanted to be a part of her Girl Scout troop. Here is what Elaine says:
Once upon a time I worked with girls in a youth organization. At our largest, there were twenty-nine in the troop. To say that we were a diverse group is an understatement. Over time our membership included girls from different ethnicities and religions, a variety of family settings, a wide spectrum of economic situations, and a number of different countries. Several girls spoke very limited English. There were girls who had asthma, two who had seizures, one with a severe skin condition, one with Down syndrome, and one who was blind.
What I learned early on was that I was not alone and that there was a wealth of information out there to help me when I had questions. First and foremost, sit down with yourself, and get an idea what questions/concerns you have. The internet can help with this process, but be aware of the limitations and that not all websites are created equal. While searching for information on religions, I found that I could learn much about the history of a religion and much in general about a faith, however, none of it told me exactly what the specific family in my troop believed/practiced. In fact, when I met with the father of a girl from Saudi Arabia, I came with a large stack of information—books and pamphlets with post-its marking things that needed clarification. It took some time, but when we were done, I had a clear idea of what his sect practiced.
I found that the school was also a wealth of helpful information as long as I asked questions that weren’t specific to my girl. Example: I could ask for suggestions for working with a blind student for activities. I couldn’t ask how the school did activities with Dacia. I was given contact information for someone who worked for the state of Missouri who gave me some wonderful suggestions that made things easier.
Obviously, you need to talk with the parents; sometimes that can mean having two separate conversations if the parents are divorced and not speaking to each other. Parents should have a lot of the answers and suggestions. For Dacia I needed to know about mobility. She used a cane, however, I was clueless as to whether we should offer an arm, elbow, hand—which arm—and whether it is better to assist from the right or left. Alternatively, is it better not to touch and just talk a lot.
The troop did crafts and camping. I needed to know her skill level using scissors, knives, etc. All of the girls packed their clothes in large zippy bags with one day’s outfit in each bag. It made getting dressed quick and kept their clothes dry should it rain. For my blind girl this was perfect; her parents just needed to affix a Braille label so she could find the right bag. All of the activities and adventures we did were possible with the right planning and information, and she wasn’t even the most dangerous one with a flaming marshmallow when it came to making s’mores.It all comes down to knowledge and taking a moment to think. You have to sit down and figure out what you don’t know or when what you do know will need altering to work for everyone. From there, it’s a question of deciding what questions you need to ask, who you need to ask, and finding answers. With those answers you can make adjustments to activities so they will be accessible and enjoyable to everyone. Whether the adjustment is tracing the lines on a paper with a crayon so that Dacia can feel them to cut the craft out herself, changing the menu of a troop campout because it’s over Lent and one girl can’t eat meat, or buying all-beef hotdogs so that your Muslim girl can enjoy them too; or knowing exactly which parent is picking up from the meeting this week according to the custody agreement. The answer may not be immediately apparent, but with a little thought and open communication between everyone involved, you can make it happen.