The Braille Monitor                                                                                               _July 1997

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Picture of the Gradner family taken in a barn

PHOTO: This picture of the Gardner family was taken in a barn. Becca Gardner holds the baby and two of the older children hold young goats. The family members are seated on bales of hay. CAPTION: Bruce and Becca Gardner with their six children.

Will Madness Never End?

by Bruce A. Gardner

From the Editor: Unless they live on otherwise uninhabited desert islands, all blind parents have collections of depressing stories about the people who presume that blindness must make one incompetent to be a good parent and who then communicate that opinion to the world. I remember facing another faculty wife at an Oberlin College social event shortly after I began wearing maternity clothes when my husband and I were expecting our first child. In a penetrating voice she inquired after a long look at my dress, "How do you expect to take care of this baby? Surely Bob can't be around all the time."

Now the truth of the matter was that I did not know how I was going to manage a baby. (As a child birth education teacher several years later I would discover that even those first-time parents who think they know what they are doing don't have a clue about what it takes to be a good parent.) But at the time I only knew that I had tackled lots of things in my life as a blind person without knowing beforehand exactly how I would accomplish what I wanted to do, and so far I had always been able to solve the problems or get around them somehow. So I said with as much restraint as I could that I thought I would manage about as well as anybody else would, and then I walked away before she could begin cross-questioning me about the details.

By the time we had three children and I had perfected the mother shuffle and the ability to pick up toys in my sleep, I could laugh with genuine humor when the uninitiated commented how wonderful it must be to have children who spontaneously put away their toys to keep the floors clear in the name of parental safety. It was probably the offspring of these folks who periodically asked our children what it was like to have a mom who couldn't cook.

Mostly such inquiries merely puzzled the children when they were small because they picked up their toys only when it looked as if I would become seriously angry unless they did so and because I did more cooking and baking than the mothers of most of their friends. But the time came when such misunderstandings and ignorance began seriously to anger them, and I found myself having to teach them and myself constructive ways of dealing with such situations.

As so often happens, education was the solution. Together we learned that most people were willing and able to learn the truth about blindness if we stopped to teach them. Laughter and perspective were the tools that enabled us to do the teaching with both patience and firmness. And it worked. The two older children each took part in a play group before starting nursery school, and there was never a murmur about the safety of the toddlers coming to our house when it was my turn to have the children. Our birthday party invitations were always accepted with enthusiasm. In short, the people who had the most contact with our family concluded that blindness didn't have much to do with anything but the marks on the oven control and the Braille on the microwave.

In the midst of the struggle with irrationality or the frustration of trying to teach people the truth, it can be very hard to remember that we really are making progress in educating others about the abilities of blind people. That's why it is so helpful to work as part of the National Federation of the Blind. It helps us keep a healthy perspective. In the following little story Bruce Gardner tells about an astonishing series of encounters with a woman who seemed incapable of learning from the data before her eyes. What I would have given through the years to have been an attorney, as Bruce is, in order to add weight to what I was saying! But it is comforting, somehow, to know that even people like Bruce have run-ins like the following. His conclusion is sound; there continues to be plenty for the National Federation of the Blind to do. This is what Bruce says:

I know that, although the National Federation of the Blind has for over fifty years been spreading the truth about blindness and making great progress in changing what it means to be blind, incorrect ideas and negative notions about blindness still abound. However, to my surprise, one old misconception that I thought had surely been eradicated by now raised its ugly head and stared me in the face only a few months ago.

In February of 1996, when our daughter Becca was just a baby, my wife and I went to San Diego, California, to attend the wedding of a friend. While there, we went to a reception brunch, and we took the baby along.

As we left the hotel restaurant and walked out to the parking lot to get into our car, I happened to be carrying little Becca asleep in my arms. A well-dressed and well-mannered woman came out quickly from the hotel and asked if everything was okay. We replied that it was. She apologized for bothering us and explained that she was just concerned about the baby. She said, "I saw the white cane and, and . . . ." She then excused herself and left.

Moments later she came rushing back, fumbling in her purse for a pen and paper and asked for our names. When I inquired why, she said, "I just want to make sure that the baby is all right because, well, I saw the cane and thought you were blind. Sorry to bother you." And she left again.

My wife went back into the hotel to change into slacks because we were going to play tourist for a few hours. I decided that, while she was gone, I would walk around the parking lot enjoying the cool breeze with the baby asleep in my arms. A moment later the same woman was back again, trying to get our license plate number. Again she raised her concern about a baby's being held by a man with a white cane. She asked if I was just using the stick as a pointer for a seminar I was conducting in the hotel. I told her it was indeed a blind man's cane and that I was using it because I was a blind man. She again apologized and left in a tizzy.

Believe it or not, a few moments later she approached me a fourth time, expressing concern for the safety of the child. By then I had had enough. And believing that sometimes the most appropriate reaction to outrageous behavior is outrage, I took a couple of steps toward her and calmly but firmly said, "Look, lady, I am blind. This is my baby; and I often hold, carry, and care for her. She is just fine!" I then said, "I am also an attorney, and I know the law. If you bother me again, I will call the police." She did NOT return.

Although she was well-dressed and well-mannered, I could not help thinking she was not quite right in the head. But then I was well-dressed and well-mannered, too (at least until my last comment), and apparently she thought I was crazy for thinking a blind person could safely and successfully raise children. Because Becca is our sixth child and our oldest three are the most polite and well-adjusted teen-agers you could hope to find (parental bias notwithstanding), and because I personally know dozens of blind parents who have successfully raised their children, I think I know which of the two of us was right.

Experiences like these cause me to strengthen my resolve to do all I can to help the National Federation of the Blind share with others the truth about blindness. I know we are making great progress, but I am amazed at how long some of the most ridiculous negative notions linger.