Future Reflections                                                                                                 Special Issue 2004

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“Mom, What Does Blind Mean?”

by Pauletta Feldman

Introduction
by Barbara Cheadle, President
National Organization of Parents of Blind Children

There are a few subjects in our society that even the most confident parent finds difficult to discuss with his/her children. Trying to explain or answer a question about sex or death to an inquisitive four-year-old, for example, can leave us stammering. Sometimes the difficulty arises out of ambivalent feelings about the subject, and sometimes the awkwardness stems from a lack of experience and modeling. We simply do not know how to discuss these topics with our children because our parents never discussed them with us when we were children. Fortunately, there are many places parents can turn to for help.

Parenting classes, individual counseling, religious faith, and self-help books are just some of the avenues through which parents can get information and guidance.

But what do you do if you have a blind child? Where do you turn for guidance when your child asks, “Mom, what does blind mean?” Or, “Dad, am I blind?” Sadly, the typical parental response has been to avoid or ignore the question. I can’t count the times I have heard blind adults say, “My parents were great about letting me do the same things other kids were doing when I was growing up. But the one thing they never did was talk about blindness. It was only when I grew up and met the National Federation of the Blind that I learned to feel good about my blindness.”

However, blind children today do not have to grow up before they can benefit from the positive philosophy and mutual support of the National Federation of the Blind; it is here for them—through their parents—right now. Take, for example, Jamie Weedman. His mother (Pauletta Feldman) and father have been longtime readers of both Future Reflections and the Braille Monitor. When Jamie was still a toddler they attended an intensive two-day parent leadership workshop sponsored by the National Federation of the Blind. Some of the leaders and participants of that workshop were blind. Parents talked with, laughed with, argued with, worked with, cried with, and learned to respect their blind colleagues at this workshop. All of this helped Jamie’s parents prepare for that day when he would ask that fateful question. Here is what Paulette Feldman has to say about that experience:

It wasn’t until my son, Jamie, was five years old that he finally asked me that question. We’d used the word blind in conversation, and he’d certainly heard it from other people. But we hadn’t really discussed blindness or its implications with Jamie. Maybe we were just “chicken” and putting off the inevitable.

However, we had decided that we would handle discussions of blindness with Jamie as we had handled discussions of sex with our older children: when they started asking questions, we felt they were ready to be told the facts.

So that day at naptime when Jamie asked about blindness, I sucked in a big breath and summoned my courage. “Blind means that you can’t see with your eyes,” I said. “I can see things with my eyes. I can see the trees and the birds and all of the other things I tell you about. But you see things in a different way than with your eyes. You use your smart fingers and your smart ears.” He was quite satisfied with that answer and didn’t pursue the subject further that day. However in the days to come, he would ask questions again. The kind of questions he asked led me to believe that, in his mind, he wasn’t the one that was different, I was! In a way, it was like his first notion of differences among people was of how they were different from him, rather than how he was different from them. I liked that—I liked how self-confident and self-loving he was.

For awhile, Jamie seemed to think that everybody we knew was blind and that there were just a few people who could see. He began asking about person after person in our family and among our friends to sort out who was blind and who was not. Gradually he came to realize that he knew more people who could see than who could not. I’m so thankful that we knew other blind children and adults so that as this realization dawned on him, he did not feel isolated or alone. The blind people that we knew were really neat people. They were friends and fun to be with, just like our other friends. They were people that Jamie really liked, and he could feel good about having something in common with them.

Jamie began school and loved learning to read Braille. He became very interested in how sighted people read. Then he began asking of everyone we knew whether they read with their fingers or with their eyes.

During the past two years since facing that first question, there have been many incidents that have brought both hidden tears and silent laughter as we have gone through Jamie’s formation of opinions about blindness. There was the day that he came home from school very indignant because a teacher had mentioned that he couldn’t see. He said. “I told her that I can too see! I can see the light!” Another day, as he and his brother sat at the kitchen table doing homework, he asked accusingly, “Is Don doing his homework with his eyes?” And he laid his face on his Brailled worksheet and said, “Then I’m doing my homework with my eyes too!” He decided that someday he was going to go to school with his brother and then he would be able to read print because they didn’t teach Braille there.

He went through a phase of picking up some lingo and developing an interest in degree of blindness. He’d ask of fellow visually impaired students whether they were “totals” or “partials” (and of course, he wasn’t a “total” because he could see some light). He also came up with some clever excuses. When reminded for the umpteenth time not to poke his eyes, his response to me was very patronizing, as if educating a child, “Mom, blind people just like to do that!” Then there was the night near Christmas when we went driving around to see the lights in the neighborhood. I tried to describe them to Jamie, but he finally said with some boredom, “I can’t see the lights, Mom. But don’t blame me! I’m blind.”

As Jamie has gotten older, some of his responses to his blindness have begun to be tinged with sadness. One day we read a little book called, “Corky the Blind Seal,” about a seal in a zoo who lost his sight. The next day as he got off the school bus, he said, “I want to be a bus driver when I grow up!” My heart ached, and I just said,” I bet driving a school bus is fun, too.” But when we got in the house, he confessed. “I know I can’t be a bus driver. Blind people can’t drive, and I’m blind. I’m glad I’m blind, Mom. I just wish I could be blind like Corky the seal was blind, because he got to see first.” He asked if it was nice to be able to see, and I said that it was. We talked about how he could see what I see using his other senses, like when we went to the ocean he could feel the water, taste its saltiness, hear its waves, and smell it, too. He liked knowing that there were things that even people who were sighted actually couldn’t see, like the wind—that we had to hear it and feel it to know it was there just like he did.

I’ve always wanted Jamie to feel good about himself. I haven’t wanted him to think that there is anything wrong with the way he is. I haven’t been able to bring myself to tell Jamie that, according to some people, there is something wrong with being blind. Maybe I’ll regret this someday, but I figure in time he’ll learn. I hope he will come to me with his questions then and that I’ll be able to answer them. To me, blindness is a difference, a source of sadness sometimes and inconvenience at others, but there’s nothing wrong with it.

Life is a journey of self-discovery. I want Jamie’s journey to bring self-love with the discovery of his many potentials and capabilities as well as his personal limitations. We all have to face certain limitations. It’s how we cope with them that really matters. So far, Jamie has always managed to find a silver lining for every one of his clouds, to compensate for each limitation with a special strength. Why just last week he said, “Mom, aren’t you glad I’m blind and have such smart fingers and can read Braille? You can’t read Braille with your fingers! You have to use your eyes.”

Adapted from an article originally published in VIP News, a newsletter of the Visually Impaired Preschool Services in Louisville, Kentucky.

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