American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections
       Special Issue: The World of Work      LAYING THE GROUNDWORK

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The Conquest of Independence

by Carla McQuillan

Reprinted from Future Reflections, Volume 29, Number 4, Convention Issue 2010

Carla McQuillanFrom the Editor: Carla McQuillan is a longtime Federationist from Oregon. She has a lifetime of experience with children, both blind and sighted. For many years she has directed NFB Camp for children at national conventions, and she is the executive director of Main Street Montessori Association. In this article, based on a presentation at the 2010 conference of the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children (NOPBC), she shares her ideas about laying the foundation for blind children to become active, contributing members of the community.

I do a lot of workshops with parents. I find that parents of blind children and parents of sighted children have very similar needs and concerns. Sometimes I ask parents of blind children to list the traits they hope to see in their kids when they grow up, and here are some of the answers they give me: confidence, independence, competence, intelligence, ability, curiosity, happiness, courage, adventurousness, compassion, determination. Those characteristics are identical to the ones I hear listed by parents of children who have no disabilities.

What can we do right now to help your child develop these characteristics? Over the thirty years that I've been in early childhood education, I've seen that these characteristics are formed at two, three, four, and five years of age. By the time a child gets older, characteristics become set in patterns.

Maria Montessori

I believe very strongly in the teachings of Dr. Maria Montessori. She was a medical doctor who developed theories about what children needed at certain points in their lives to become independent, contributing members of society. She based her theories on her observations of children. The greatest obstacles that she found to a child's natural development of independence and self-direction were the adults who wanted to help more than was necessary.

Maria Montessori described an inner drive that every human being has from birth. That drive causes every child to move toward greater and greater independence and control over his/her environment. It causes a child to want to learn to move, to crawl, to walk, to reach out and explore. Because that drive is so strong in children, we adults have a tendency to check it, to slow the child down, to try to make him or her back off from that natural desire to move forward. As parents and educators working with blind children, we have to make sure that we are not obstacles in the way of their natural push toward independence.

I will tell you here and now that this may be one of the most difficult things you will ever have to do in your life! The world out there is not going to be kind to your blind children. It is a tough place for them. The best way to make sure that your children are ready for the outside world is to back off and make them do things for themselves.

Think about this scenario. You're watching your child and she's starting to walk. You see that she's going to take a tumble and you want to stop her. You know what? Every kid who learns to walk is going to fall down. That's how they learn to be more careful. That's how they learn balance. A parent told me once that she had a seventeen-month-old blind child who was walking. Her daughter was in a play group with other blind and visually-impaired children. One of the leaders of the play group said that it was very unusual for a blind child to be walking before the age of two. I had never heard anything like that in my life! My background is not in work with blind children. I am blind, and I have worked with blind children in my environment, but my training is not in special ed. So my reaction was, "What? What is the reason behind that?"

The reason is that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Parents are told not to expect their child to walk till the age of two, so they stop doing the natural things that they would do with a child who is not blind. With our kids who are not blind, we hold their hands and walk with them. We give them walking toys. We put things in their environment that encourage them to practice walking. If you don't think your child can walk till she's two, when do you start to do those things? Probably not at eight and nine and ten months!
Be careful when you look at a developmental model for your child. Make sure you're not looking at someone's idea of what a blind child should be doing at each phase of development, but at what a typical child should be expected to do at that stage. Do everything you can to move your child in that direction.

A Secret within Each Child

I have a good friend who's here at convention, Bennett Prows. Bennett is a twin. He is blind and his brother is sighted. He believes that one of his greatest advantages in life was that his parents did not know anything about raising a blind child. They made Ben do everything his brother was doing. When Bill learned to ride a bike, they told Ben to go out and learn to ride a bike, too. When Bill learned to skateboard, it was, "Ben, get out there on your skateboard!" There was no difference between what he and his brother were expected to do. They took out the trash, did the laundry, and cleaned the yard. Today Bennett Prows is a successful attorney who works for the Federal Office of Civil Rights. He attributes a great deal of his success, his ability to fit into society, to the fact that his parents treated him just as they treated his brother who was sighted. Keep that in mind. Stop and ask yourself, would I be doing this if I were talking to a sighted kid?

In my training I learned that children between the ages of one and five are developing their muscles. They are learning how their bodies work in space. They are learning balance and movement, their physical abilities and limitations. Unless they use their muscles and do things that stretch their physical limits, they don't develop naturally. We, as adults, have a tendency to say, "Oh, be careful!" All of a sudden we have put some doubt into the child's head. Be careful! Is there something scary about what I'm about to do? Adults tend to make children fearful. Fearfulness is not a natural instinct in most children.

When my son was six years old and we had just opened our big school, we had a play structure with wide, six-inch beams. It was eight feet high because I wanted the swings to be really high—I like swings! My son used to climb up onto the top bar of the play structure and walk on it as if it were a balance beam. It was six inches wide. Most balance beams are only four inches wide.

I am fearful of heights. I always have been and I guess I always will be. So my heart stopped when he walked up there, but I resisted the urge to stop him. (I did tell him he couldn't do it when the kids were at school because it would scare my teachers.) He never fell. He is a very athletic, agile human being who has great balance. He is naturally able to do a lot of things that I can't do because of my fear. I managed not to impose my fears on him.

I'm not going to advise you to encourage your children to do anything like that. But if they have that desire, create an environment where they can explore the possibilities. I worked with the family of a four-year-old blind boy who loved to climb. He would climb up on the furniture and climb up on the counters. Children are drawn toward the things in their lives that they need in order to function and develop. I told the parents that if their son was climbing, they needed to find something that would give him the opportunity to climb safely. Probably climbing up the bookcase was not the greatest thing for him. Just because he wanted to do it, that didn't mean it was okay. That child's parents needed to find a safe alternative. Maybe they could set up a climbing structure and monitor it. Maybe they could put it in an environment where he'd land on something soft if he fell.

Montessori said there is a secret within each child, a secret that only the child knows. The child knows what she needs in order to develop cognitively, socially, and emotionally. The best we can do is to observe and learn from what the child shows us. Then we must do our best to bring the elements the child needs into her environment. Montessori said we should look at children as though we are scientists. We should always be exploring to find out what we should be doing next, whether we're meeting the child's needs, and how we can help her become more independent.

When a child is about two, he or she reaches the age of "me do it myself." The more you as parents encourage your children to do things on their own, the better off you're all going to be. If you do things for your children for too long, there will come a time when they will not want to do things themselves. You will not be able to get them to do things when you want them to.

When my daughter was five years old she cleaned my bathrooms. My daughter, who is not blind, was very meticulous. We had a black dog, and she would get every last little black dog hair off the toilet and off the floor. She was proud of what she was doing. What was my error? Alisson was so good at what she did that when her brother got to be five years old I didn't insist that Duncan step in and learn to clean the bathroom. Guess who doesn't know how to clean a bathroom today! By the time I said, "Okay, now it's your turn," he was past the phase of being interested.

Children go through sensitive periods where they're really interested in something. The phase goes on until they master that particular skill and then it fades away. If you don't grab those moments when they come, they may pass by. It's not that your children won't learn later, but they won't be as efficient or effective as they might have been. Kids love to clean things. You should encourage your three-year-old to learn to dust. Teach your two- and three-year-olds to take silverware out of the dishwasher and put it into the drawers. By all means I encourage parents to have kids do chores around the house. It's part of their responsibility as a member of the household. It gives them the opportunity to feel that they're making a contribution, and there's no better way to build confidence!

A child is going to struggle when he starts learning to get dressed. Putting on socks and shoes—that's a big one! All of the three-, four-, and five-year-olds at our school put on their socks and shoes by themselves. They all change their own clothes.

It's a struggle at first. I always tell people it gets worse before it gets better, particularly if the children have gotten old enough that they're really not interested in learning that skill anymore. If they've come to expect you to do a thing for them, you're going to have a battle. Keep in mind that children do not use energy unnecessarily. They may pitch a fit, but that takes a lot of energy. They will not do it unless it pays off for them.

It may be difficult to step back. Some parents have told me they have to walk out of the room and cry. But if you do this now and help your children become self-sufficient, you will be pleased with the results when they're older. You can't start that learning when they're sixteen years old!

Learning by Doing

Blind kids are supposed to start transition services when they're fourteen and a half years old. In my opinion that is way too late to start teaching some of the skills that are included in what we call transition services. Those kids should be growing up with those skills. As soon as the child is physically capable of mastering a particular task he ought to be doing it. If you have a blind child, and you don't have any sighted children, you might not be sure what is age-appropriate. Talk to people. Read about child development. Learn about the expectations for children of different ages.

Sometimes we see a child who is not allowed to become independent and have control over her environment, who has not had the power to make choices. The drive for control is so powerful that the child will get control over the parents.

I watched this happen just today. I saw a blind girl seven or eight years old, brand-new to convention. She came into the Kids' Camp room and refused to use her cane. She set it down and proceeded to tell the workers in the room, "You need to tell me where that is! ... You need to tell me what this is. ... You need to tell me where you put my ..." That tells me that there are people in her environment who do that for her. So we got our O&M specialist to come and take her on a lesson. By the time she came back to the room she was using her cane, she was looking for the materials around the room, and she wasn't asking anyone for help. It took all of thirty minutes.

We had a little blind boy enrolled at school. He had lost his vision very suddenly from a brain tumor. He had no other issues that they could detect, just the loss of his vision. He came into the classroom two weeks after he lost his sight, and his hands were on everything. He was adventurous, he was curious, he was doing exactly what a two-and-a-half-year-old ought to do.

In my state children have to be three before early childhood education kicks in. He came back to school when he was three. This child, who had been so adventurous right after he lost his vision, got off the school bus and stopped. He waited for someone to take his hand and lead him into the school building. We had a cane for him, and he was taught how to use it. There's a hallway that leads from the front door out to the back door and the playground. There's a wall on one side, there's carpeting on the other, and there's tile all the way—it's a straight shot. Every day he would get inside and he would stop.

Thank goodness for good staff. I told them, "I don't care what it is—if you know he can do it, just wait for him." We had a lovely assistant working with him, and she would sing. She would walk ahead of him and sing to let him know where he was supposed to go. She never touched his cane and she never touched him. Over time he slowly began to do things on his own, little by little. Somehow, in that six months when he was at home with his family, I'm willing to bet that everybody brought things to him.

A child who is independent and adventurous is going to reach out and find things. He's going to find a way. The child who is accustomed to having other people do for him will sit with his hands out and wait for things to be brought to him. Translate that to the young person who is eighteen or twenty years old. Do you think that pattern is suddenly going to change?

The Lessons We Teach

Children will do exactly what we train them to do. If we teach them to wait right there and let us bring things to them, that's exactly what they're going to expect in life. That is the role that they will learn to play.
It's very, very hard for a lot of parents to take this in. I know how much you want to make sure everything is wonderful for your children! That can only happen if you make sure your child struggles and has to work. That's the only way for your child to develop the determination, tenacity, and never-quit attitude that will enable her to be successful in life. It begins when they're so young that they're just becoming aware of what is going on around them. That's when you start to teach those lessons.

My parents had no clue what to do with a blind kid. I have quite a bit of peripheral vision, but I have no central vision. I cannot read print at all. I didn't look blind, and no one ever suggested that I read Braille. I wish my parents had insisted that I learn—I can't stress enough the importance of Braille literacy for blind kids!

When I first went off to college I lived in an apartment six or seven miles from my parents' house. My mother would call me and say, "Hey, I'm going grocery shopping, would you like me to take you?" The grocery store she'd take me to was three blocks down the street from me. I know my mother would never have driven across town to go there! Then one day I was walking home from class, about three blocks, and my mother called me. She said, "It's raining. Can I give you a ride?"

I found myself feeling very irritated and angry with her. I knew it wasn't her fault; I knew she was doing it out of love. But I had to sit her down and say, "You have to stop this. You have to stop worrying about me. You have to let me go. I'm going to be okay." Well, she did stop—sort of. I mean, she's still a mom, right?
Try to recognize how important it is for your children to pull away from you. If they don't, they can never hope to have what I know you want for them.

Young children are trying to figure out how the world works. Children under the age of five or six are taking everything in and processing it to derive some sort of meaning. They look for patterns and routines, and they define themselves based on the way things happen around them. Make sure the lessons you teach are the ones you really want your children to learn!

When we have a class of preschool children, we set up a lot of self-contained, single-purpose activities. You can set these up at home for your young children. For example, if I want to teach a child to pour, I start with a tray and a pitcher and grains instead of liquid. Once the child gets the motion of pouring from pitcher to pitcher, when he has not spilled any of the beans onto the tray, we go to smaller grains, and eventually to water. Then we move on, to the point where the child is actually pouring from a pitcher into a cup. Make sure at some point that the pitcher has more water than the cup will hold!

Children love activities like this. They want to learn things that will allow them to be more independent. Give them the activity in a very nonjudgmental environment. If they spill or drop something, do your best not to react. Say, "Oh, let me show you how to clean that up." We always have dustpans and brooms for cleaning up dry things, and we have buckets and sponges for cleaning up liquids. That's part of the natural process.
When the child starts learning to pour into a glass, show him how to put his finger over the lip of the glass and use very cold water. The first time he's going to keep pouring and pouring, right? Calmly point out how cold the water feels when it touches the tip of his finger, and tell him that's when it's time to stop pouring. It will probably take several tries, but the child will do it eventually.

Make Room for Practice

One time at an NFB convention, I was conducting a babysitting workshop with a roomful of kids who were eleven to sixteen years old. About half of them were blind. There were about fifteen kids, and it was very hot! There were pitchers of water at the front and the back of the room, and I called a break so everyone could get a drink of water. One of the blind girls, about thirteen years old, turned to the sighted girl next to her and said, "Would you get me a glass of water?" I said, "Wait a second. You're in a babysitting workshop to learn how to take care of someone else's children. You will pour your own water!"

She knew the technique. She put her finger over the lip of the glass and started pouring, but when the water touched the tip of her finger she didn't stop. The water spilled over the top of the glass. When she realized it had spilled onto the table, she panicked.

My heart sank. I knew that her family had been involved with the NFB for many years, but clearly she had not done this activity very often. Cognitively she understood the technique, but she couldn't do it smoothly and comfortably. Sighted people will notice if you're uncomfortable doing what you do. Gracefulness is key!
We had a lot of towels in the room because we were practicing diapering baby dolls. I tossed her a towel and said, "Go ahead and clean it up and try again." She was a bit flustered, but she did it. I told her, "Do it slowly," and she did.

I know her parents taught her how to pour. But because she wasn't doing it perfectly, watching her made them uncomfortable. I'm guessing that this was especially true in public. So they avoided putting her in any situation where she would have to be embarrassed. Let your kids practice at home in a nonthreatening, nonjudgmental environment where they can practice until they get it down.

It's a mom thing or a dad thing to do stuff for your kids. Parents feel uncomfortable when they watch a child struggle. It's very hard to stand by and let a child figure things out, when it would be so easy and efficient for you to step in and get the thing done. It's all about your comfort level. It affects not only parents, but all of the people who have any dealings with your children. When people act on the impulse to swoop in and take over, it's easy for a child (and later, for an adult) never to worry about doing those little things for himself or herself.

Self-advocacy is very important in this area. From a very young age you have to teach your child that she can do things, and that she needs to show other people that she can do things. Our kids also have to learn about doing things for other people. If they do not participate in social reciprocity, they will not be viewed as equals.

Keep your focus on the long term. When people see you letting your child struggle, they will tell you that you are being cruel. Know in your heart and soul that they will never understand what you are dealing with. They will walk away and never have to deal with the life that lies ahead for you and your child. Be confident in what you are doing and get the support you need from people in the National Federation of the Blind and other parents of blind children. You will need that support. Know that you are not alone and that you're doing what is best for your child in the long run.

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