American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections Winter 2019 GROWING UP
by Kathryn Webster
From the Editor: Kathryn Webster works as a consultant in strategy and analytics with the firm Deloitte Consulting, LLP. She also serves as president of the National Association of Blind Students (NABS). In this article she reflects upon the ways her parents empowered her to succeed and offers encouragement to other parents of blind and visually-impaired children.
On a cool winter afternoon in Venice, Italy, I gently ran my fingertips over a Murano glass candle holder. The long, curvy structure was hand-made with unique creativity and design. While it began as a loose bowl of powder, this precious material, fueled by fire, ignited into a one-of-a-kind piece of art. The bottom of the frame was stable in structure, the lengthy neck was molded by a steady hand, and the sharp wick at the top welcomed all possibilities. This piece of art was flawed and beautiful; imperfect and pure; sturdy, yet fragile. As my mother and I explored the small island of Murano in December of 2018, I felt an overwhelming sense of clarity.
Once they were made aware of my blindness two weeks after my birth, my parents were disheartened and frightened. They were scared about my future. They worried about how people would react and how I would navigate the world as a young woman with a disability. At two weeks old I underwent an operation to allow light into my right eye. Still blind in the simplest medical terminology, I could read large print throughout my elementary and middle school years. Without guidance from the school district, my parents pushed to get introductory Braille into my weekly curriculum.
Stubborn as I was, I refused to rely on a mobility aid such as a cane. I wore glasses with Coke-bottle lenses and linked arms with friends when I went out after dark, but I would not identify my blindness by carrying a long white stick.
Fast forward to age fifteen. What began as a severe stomach virus infected my right eye, forcing me to undergo an emergency surgery. The infection and the treatment further decreased my vision. I went through intensive Braille instruction, but I still fought back when I was told to use a cane. I wanted to be skinny, beautiful, and normal. I wanted to be just like the rest of my peers.
Throughout that time of transition, my dad often told me I could change the world. He didn't mean that I could transform the world by being an inspiration because I'm blind. He meant that I could change the world, as anyone else can, if I pushed myself, challenged the status quo, and stayed true to my core values. Even today, my mom teaches me to be ambitious, sassy, and selfless. She questions my logic during moments of hesitation; but she questions those moments for my sighted brother, too, just the same.
Even when my vision got too fuzzy for comfort, I continued with high school cheerleading. I relied heavily on thick tape across our mats to find my position in our squad's formation. I kept running track, too, following the neon jersey of one of my coaches or teammates and acting as though nothing had changed. I also went to parties on the weekends, missed curfew here and there, wore pants to school that were a little too tight, and loved the boys. My parents were not too happy with me 80 percent of the time throughout my first two years of high school. Sorry, Mom and Dad! Now I understand.
It was not until my sophomore year that I started taking school seriously. I was encouraged by uplifting words from my mom and motivated by my father's brilliant mind, and a new level of maturity seemed to slap me in the face. I enrolled in an Advanced Placement (AP) course on statistics. I was still a typical high school girl, though. I enrolled partly because I wanted the challenge and partly because I had a huge crush on the teacher.
Enrolling in that class was probably one of the best decisions of my life. I had no idea what I was taking on with an AP Stats course. I had no Braille textbook and no conceptual understanding of the material. I only knew that guidance counselors and mentors alike told me it wasn't a good idea for me to take such a difficult class. Those words made me determined to kick butt in that course!
Now I am a twenty-three-year-old blind woman in the STEM field, working at one of the top consulting firms in the world. Each day I am challenged by the highly intelligent minds of my colleagues. How did I get here? I ask myself that question a lot.
Certainly, the affluent area of Connecticut where I grew up contributed to my success. So did the overwhelming support of my friends throughout my twenty-four-plus surgeries, as well as that statistics teacher in high school who sat with me for hours on end to teach me the material in a way that made sense to me. But my parents are the single most critical factor in my success.
As parents you create the environment where your child can fail, grow, learn, and dream bigger than you ever imagined. Jennifer Dunnam, an NFB leader from Minnesota, writes, "There is a large body of evidence to suggest that what my parents gave me, the latitude to explore, is roughly defined as grit: the ability to cope, persevere, re-calibrate, and attain your goals in the face of life's obstacles."
Is blindness an obstacle? Sure, it is. It's an obstacle that is magnified by the misconceptions of society, and you and I are part of that society. Out of worry or uncertainty we ourselves often question the abilities of blind people. Sometimes we doubt our own strengths and the strengths of other blind people we know. Can we really handle the nonsensical curveballs thrown our way by a naive world? If we can't handle the judgment, the stares, the ignorant comments, and the constant questioning of our capabilities, we sure as heck better learn how!
Your children, blind or sighted, are like that Murano glass candle holder in Venice. Your children are flawed and beautiful; imperfect and pure; sturdy, yet fragile. Your children can choose a warm and welcoming scent or a vibrant and pungent fragrance. Whatever candle sits atop that priceless holder allows for a light to shine brightly through the power of the wick. As president of the National Association of Blind Students (NABS), the largest division of the National Federation of the Blind, I am counting on you to fuel the fire in your children by igniting the light within.
Your children can change the world, but you have to let them. When they are invited on a date, let them go; and make sure they answer the doorbell, not you! When they want to wear makeup or a hat turned backward, understand that they are doing it to fit in, and rightly so. Let them travel the world when they are granted the opportunity. Don't tell them you are tracking the flight number on your computer screen until they touch down in Vietnam! Instead, be proud of them and delight in the adventures they embark upon. And please, treat your blind children the same way you treat your sighted children, discipline and all!
Encourage your children to push themselves. If they lack confidence, build them up by capitalizing on their strengths, while simultaneously working to redefine their weaknesses. If they think they can't, tell them they can. Let them make mistakes. Nothing is more rewarding than making a choice entirely on my own and being incredibly wrong about it! Every individual is at a different place in life, but each child has the option to move forward one step at a time. Through reflection and feedback, your children can glow in their own ways, and you can motivate them from the sidelines.
As I have mentioned, I would not use a cane in high school, no matter what. When my instructor gave me one, I chucked it in the trash the moment our meeting was over. One day I fell down a flight of steps . . . in public. My mother let it happen. Thank you, Mom! Thank you for allowing me to learn on my own that I needed blindness skills. Thank you for letting me discover that I am blind!
Challenge the status quo. My guidance counselor pointed me toward a less prestigious college than the one I ended up attending. Wake Forest University in North Carolina would never have been suggested to the only blind girl at Greenwich High School. Nevertheless, I fell in love with the quality of the education at Wake Forest, the small classes, and the reputation of the growing business school. I got in, despite the doubts that plagued me throughout the college admissions process.
I loved nearly every second of my college experience. I served as student government treasurer, initially campaigning to prove that a blind student could hold such a prestigious leadership role. Once I was elected, I fell in love with the work and the people. The student president and secretary became brothers to me. I founded a political group on campus. I spearheaded philanthropic events, traveled across the globe on a service trip, and dug in my heels on initiatives I knew nothing about. I took these risks and harnessed these rich opportunities for myself and for every blind student who might follow in my footsteps.
Throughout times of depression and times of triumph, I believe I have held fast to my core values. Part of staying true to my core values is being happy with the way I am. In 2017 I lost the rest of my vision, but that loss pales in comparison to the loss of my father on October 1 of that year. Losing sight means nothing compared to the loss of the most important man in my life. Such heartbreaks give us an entirely different perspective on the world.
Parents, please understand that we don't crave vision as much as you crave it for us. We are adaptable, capable, and full of potential. And yes, we are different. So are you. My different may be a little bit more obvious than your different, but we are all human beings with hearts, minds, and souls.
At Deloitte Consulting, where I work today, our leaders emphasize the significance of grit. Life is a marathon, they tell us, not a sprint. At work, I walk into a room with my shoulders back and my chin high, a huge smile on my face. I approach new teammates with an open mind. I explain that my blindness does not define me, and I let them know that I want to hear their questions. I want to educate my sighted colleagues because I have a responsibility to pave the path for the next blind person who walks into the room.
This quote may ring true for you: "As a parent, I think a lot about wanting to place my kids in a bubble, about wanting to shield them from hurt and struggle and failure, but I can't help but think how wrong that is…about how great it can be to fall and to fail once in a while, because all of that is shaping them for something bigger, something great." https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/parenting/wp/2014/09/17/my-parents-let-me-fail-which-taught-me-how-to-live/?nnpodirect=on&utm_term=.48fa34057d03 Your children are great, your children are beautiful, and your children are enough. Pop that bubble and let them shower the world with their untapped potential.