by Steve Jacobson
From the Editor: This article first appeared in the summer edition of the Minnesota Bulletin, the newsletter of the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota. This is how it was introduced:
Editor’s Note: The following was presented as part of a panel for parents of blind children at a Career Day for Blind Youth on April 27, 2019, sponsored by State Services for the Blind and the Minnesota Department of Education. While Steve is specifically challenging parents here, I love the way he consistently teaches all of us to have high expectations of ourselves.
Like you, I know how difficult and challenging it can be to be a parent. Even though my two kids are now adults and mostly making their own way in the world, the worrying does not stop. There are more than enough challenges raising kids who have normal vision, but raising kids who are blind or visually impaired as is the case for my kids adds yet another layer to what is already more than enough to keep one busy. As one who was also once a blind child, even though that was some years ago now, I want to thank you for taking the time to be here today. Since I have this opportunity to speak with you, I want to take a word that you hear often, that being “expectations,” and perhaps bring it to life.
First let me share the experiences of some sighted parents of a blind child for whom I have a great deal of respect. They happen to be my parents. When I was two years old or so, my mother decided she needed to rearrange the living room furniture. After this task was completed, she had neighbors over, and they observed some confusion on my part with the new arrangement. Several expressed horror that she would rearrange the furniture and make her poor little blind child learn it all over again. My mother, who was sighted, knew though that to get by in life I had to be able to learn how to navigate in a changing environment. The new arrangement remained in place, and I adjusted fairly quickly, but she endured some pretty harsh criticism during that time.
When I was perhaps seven years old, my father was installing a television antenna on the roof of our house. He needed someone to help him hold the pole still while he completed the installation. As the oldest child in the family, he brought me up on the roof to assist. Once again, a different set of neighbors were shocked to see a blind child up on the roof. Unlike the rearranging of furniture, I clearly remember the afternoon on the roof installing the TV antenna. I remember being aware of needing to be careful, but I do not remember it being a fearful experience once I got busy, certainly not as fearful as it was for the neighbors who watched. My guess is that it was even a bit scary for my parents.
As I grew into my teens, I was very interested in short wave radio and therefore was interested in stringing wires across our roof to act as a good receiving antenna. I do not remember asking permission to do this; I just went ahead and did it, as teenagers mostly do. Years later, my mother told me that yet another set of neighbors thought she was an awful parent for letting that blind teen be on the roof by himself. My mother told me that she told the neighbors that I was smart enough to know it was in my interest not to walk off the edge. However, I know by talking to my mom about this years later, that it was not an easy thing for her to do, and she probably had some doubts herself.
All of these seemingly unrelated experiences helped me succeed in college. I was one of those kids who really liked math. The so-called wisdom of the day was that blind college students should stick to other subjects such as the social sciences. I was not sure exactly how I would handle college math classes, but I had faith, partly based upon the expectations of my parents, that I could figure it out.
It was at that time that I became aware that expectations were not just something imparted to me by my parents. I became an active member of the National Federation of the Blind, and among other things, I attended annual conventions. I met blind people there who were already doing some of the things I wanted to do. I discovered, sometimes to my disappointment, that I was not all that special. I learned about a couple of blind professors who taught mathematics at the college level and about others who had studied the sciences. I joined a group of blind computer programmers and learned other blind persons were working in that field and making a nice income. In the end, I earned a degree in mathematics and went on to work full time in the computer field.
I thought about all of this many years later when I was employed and owned my own home. I realized that although my parents had no idea what I would do for a living, it was made clear that they expected I would grow up to live independently and have a job just as it was assumed would be the case for my sighted brother and sister. When, as an adult, I had to go up on the roof to clean leaves out of the gutters, I heard through the grapevine that an older neighbor was close to having a heart attack watching me up there. It therefore seemed better for him if I did my gutter cleaning at night. It didn't matter to me after all if I performed the task in the dark. More to the point, though, I realized I was on my roof cleaning out gutters because my parents encouraged me to try things when I was growing up. They had expectations that I would succeed, and I had learned from other blind people that my life could be as normal and rich as anybody’s life.
As much as I came to appreciate the expectations that my parents had for me, I did not realize until I was a parent myself how very difficult that had to have been for them. Having one's parenting skills questioned by neighbors must have been very difficult. Besides the gift of expectations they gave me as a blind person, it made me more aware of the importance of having expectations for my kids, and also, to figure out when I need to sit back and let them try to succeed or even fail on their own.
Sure, I did bring one of my girls up on the roof so she knew there was no particular mystery in doing that, but your kids may have no interest in such an experience. However, some of your kids will do things that I never did. We don’t all excel at the same things. The important thing is that we convey to our kids that we expect they will succeed, even when we occasionally don't know how it will happen. As mentioned before, I grew up assuming I would go to work every day just like my dad did. Yet, I know now that my dad didn't know what kind of work I would likely do. He would never have dreamed I would work for more than forty years in the computer field. Still, he somehow conveyed the expectation that I would be going to work every day.
I did my best as a parent of two girls with varying degrees of vision loss to convey the same expectation to them, that they could accomplish what they set out to achieve. Besides being concerned that they not let poor vision stand in their way, I was concerned that they not allow their goals to be limited by the fact they were girls. It is too soon to know for certain how their stories will play out, but they are both on good paths. In the end though, as parents we can set expectations, provide tools for success, and give as much support as we can, but our kids will have to take what we have given them and go as far as they can. Still, as I learned from my parents, our kids will sense our expectations of them and will go much further because of our encouragement and the expectations we convey to them. Doing this and knowing when we need to let go is extremely difficult at times. However, I have come to understand through my own life that expectations are some of the most important gifts we can give to our kids to help them succeed. I know this is true because it is one of the most valuable gifts I received from my sighted parents.