Future Reflections        Convention Issue 2013

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Nurturing Your Pearl

by Carlton Walker

Carlton WalkerFrom the Editor: Carlton Walker serves as president of the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children (NOPBC). She is an attorney, a teacher of the visually impaired (TVI), and the parent of a blind child. She grew up in North Carolina and now resides in Boiling Springs, Pennsylvania.

Welcome! The National Organization of Parents of Blind Children (NOPBC) is celebrating its thirtieth anniversary. When I researched the gemstone associated with a thirtieth anniversary, I was excited to learn that it is the PEARL. As I read further, I discovered that the formation of a pearl closely resembles the process of rearing a successful blind child. I'll explain in a bit.

But first, let's go back three decades. 1983: Ronald Reagan was president, Sally Ride became the first American woman in space, and Vanessa Williams became the first African-American Miss America. My most vivid memory of 1983 was staying up way past my bedtime to watch the NC State Wolfpack men's basketball team, led by the energetic, yet modest, Jim Valvano, pull off the unimaginable—winning the NCAA championship and leaving dozens of “better” teams behind. Nobody thought they could do it. I’m not sure they thought they could do it themselves. But they did!

Little did I know that, just a few months later, other energetic, yet modest, individuals would be doing the unimaginable as well. In Kansas City, Missouri, with the support of the National Federation of the Blind and its then President, the late Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, they established a never-before-known organization of parents of blind children partnering with blind adults. This union truly has been an example of endosymbiosis and mutualism. Endosymbiosis occurs when one organism lives within the cells of another. The NOPBC is a division of the NFB—we operate within the structure of the Federation and, as a result, we claim membership in both the NOPBC and the NFB. Mutualism refers to a relationship in which both organisms benefit. The NOPBC receives all means of support from the NFB, and as members, we support the Federation.

As you may know, blindness is a low incidence disability. In addition, the majority of blind persons are adults—there are approximately one hundred blind adults for every blind child (in the general population, the adult to child ratio is about five to one). Thus, blind children are a bit of a rarity. Nevertheless, the blind adults of the NFB and the (mostly sighted) parents of blind children who came together in 1983 to form the NOPBC created a partnership that has changed the lives of thousands of blind children.

When we learned that our daughter, Anna Catherine, had significant visual impairment, my husband, Stephen, and I were taken aback. The doctors and teachers told us that she would be limited in her life because of her vision loss. They assured us that she was better off, though, because at least she could still see some things. They equated vision with success. We believed them. How wrong we were!

Through the NOPBC and the NFB, we discovered that proficiency in alternative techniques and efficiency in using nonvisual tools are the measures of success. We learned that, like other skills, the skills of blindness take time to master, and must be taught by persons with expertise. We discovered many generous individuals who willingly gave of themselves to help Anna Catherine learn and to guide us in teaching her. We discovered the truth of Dr. Jernigan's oft-quoted observation: "The real problem of blindness is not the loss of eyesight. The real problem is the misunderstanding and lack of information that exist. If a blind person has proper training and opportunity, blindness can be reduced to a physical nuisance." And, with the support of the NFB and the NOPBC, it has!

As you may know, a pearl is formed as the result of a foreign particle. Like children, pearls come from many different backgrounds. While we typically think of oysters as pearl-producers, most shelled mollusks, including abalones, mussels, and clams, can produce pearls. When these mollusks encounter a foreign particle in their shell, they produce nacre, also known as mother-of-pearl. Throughout its life, the mollusk applies layer upon layer of this nacre in order to protect itself from the foreign object. When removed from the mollusk, the nacre is iridescent and gives pearls a lustrous quality. It also makes these pearls strong and resilient.

Isn't it remarkable how something unwanted and potentially dangerous can be transformed into something beautiful and elegant? In effect, by creating the pearl, the mollusk has reduced the foreign object to the level of a physical nuisance. In my metaphor, blindness is the foreign object and nonvisual skills are the nacre.

Pearls are not formed overnight, and neither are successful children—blind or sighted. Instead, they must be nurtured properly, with high expectations and age-appropriate skill building. Problem-solving techniques are a must, as is the willingness of the parent to let go and let children build the self-confidence that undergirds all independence. Throughout this week, you will learn from other parents and from blind adults how you can help nurture your pearl.

The mollusk does not desire the foreign article, but it builds layer upon layer of nacre to protect itself from the dangers it poses. Without the nacre, the mollusk is at risk. No parent hopes for blindness (or any other challenge) to visit a child. But, in life, challenges abound. The secret to survival and achievement lies not with avoiding challenges but with finding mechanisms to eliminate the negative impact of those challenges on the child's ability to live a happy, independent, and fulfilling life.

On this pearl anniversary, we invite you to embrace the truth—your child is not limited by his or her vision. Your child does face limits resulting from the lack of blindness skills. Join us as we help you nurture your pearl, building layer upon layer of beautiful nonvisual techniques to create a life of limitless possibilities.

I leave you with the words of the late Jim Valvano: How do you go from where you are to where you want to be? I think you have to have an enthusiasm for life. You have to have a dream, a goal, and you have to be willing to work for it.

Don't give up. Don't ever give up.

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