by Jennifer Dunnam
From the Editor: As a child I remember holding an open hymnal or library book in order to make people think I could see what was printed in them. I often glanced down at my Cinderella watch pretending to look at the time even though I could see the face only under a strong light and using my magnifying glasses. I now know that all these little charades were unhealthy, even destructive efforts to deny the fact that I was blind. On the other hand we urge blind children to "look at the person speaking or to whom you are speaking," and to choose matching socks and clothes that go together so that they won't stick out. Parents of blind children and some blind adults are occasionally hard put to distinguish between pointless mimicry of sighted behavior and appropriate conformity to social norms.
Examining one's motive or purpose for engaging in an action usually reveals whether it is healthy or not. Seeking to hide one's blindness or delude others into assuming that one can see clearly indicates that one has not come to terms with blindness or one's identity as a blind person. If, on the other hand, one is engaging in the normal forms of social interaction in ways that will not distract other people or call inappropriate attention to one's dress or behavior, the actions are sensible and useful. I'm pretty sure that the more confident blind people are in themselves, the more naturally and easily they will pick their way through the possible pitfalls of social behavior without having to agonize about how they should behave.
Jennifer Dunnam quite obviously grew up a well-adjusted, normal kid. She and her family accepted the fact that she was blind and worked through the resulting complications of life with practical common sense. In the following article she talks about her interest in things and activities that, on their face, would seem to have little attraction for a blind child. But read what she says, and you will see that her interest was healthy and appropriate. The piece first appeared in The Slate Book, her instructive little book about how to use the Braille slate and stylus. This is what she says:
Every Christmas, when my two younger sisters and I were growing up, our family drove to a small town forty miles away from our home to exchange gifts with several sets of relatives who lived there. The Christmas I was twelve years old, one of my grandmothers gave each of my sisters a small mirror with her name embossed on the handle. I do not remember the gift I got; all I remember is that it was definitely not a mirror with my name on it, and I wasn't happy about that. By the age of twelve I knew that it was inappropriate to express displeasure about a gift, so I kept my disappointment well hidden for the rest of the visit.
My interest in having that mirror had a lot to do with my upbringing. When I was a child, my parents maintained the same expectations for me that they did for my sighted sisters. There was no tiptoeing around visual words or concepts: I learned what color things were, I watched TV, and I turned on lights when it was dark. My parents never tried to hide or deny my blindness or the fact that there were things I could not do in the same way other people did, but they always started with the assumption that I would participate in all aspects of both working and playing. For instance, I got coloring books the same as my sisters; the crayons were labeled with the names of their colors in Braille, and often someone used a tracing wheel from a sewing kit to make the outlines of the pictures tactile. (Sometimes no one had time to trace the pictures before I wanted to use the coloring book, but I used it anyway, delighted not to be restricted to coloring between the lines).
So on the way home in the car that Christmas day, I stewed. Why did my grandmother think that, just because I couldn't look into the mirror, I shouldn't have one? I had a mirror in my bedroom, and I stood before it every day to brush my hair and get ready for the day. It felt strange to me not to do so, and I wasn't concerned about not seeing my reflection. Besides, my friends frequently borrowed each other's mirrors to check their appearance during the day; how impressed they would surely have been if I had my very own personalized mirror to lend them!
Finally, with the miles between our car and Grandmother's house increasing and with Becky and Angie ooh‑ing and aah‑ing over their stupid mirrors, the ungrateful brat in me won out. "It's not fair!" I blurted. "Why didn't I get a mirror too?" My parents pointed out quite reasonably that my grandmother might not have been able to find a mirror that said "Jennifer."
That possibility hadn't occurred to me, and after a little more thought, I came to accept it as the most likely explanation. But I still couldn't help wondering. I have been blind since birth, and it took some time for my understanding of certain visual concepts to evolve. Even with the excellent foundation my parents laid for me, my grasp of my relationship to certain visually‑oriented objects has not always been very accurate. I can still remember the time one of my sisters, hardly more than a year old, poured a bowl of mashed potatoes over her own head. Photographs have always been taken copiously and valued highly in my family, and this occasion was no exception. As the photo of the mess was passed around at a family gathering, I joined everyone else in clamoring for a look. When the picture was finally handed to me with instructions to touch only the edges, I held it a few minutes, but I couldn't tell what all the fuss was about.
I didn't quite understand that everyone else could see the picture, and I could not. I thought the picture was just one of those things I was still too young to understand. As I grew up, however, I learned that most other people could get information from pictures more readily than I could. At the same time I began to understand that photographs were of greater value than just for seeing. The summer I was eight years old, I went to the zoo with some friends. My favorite part was the elephant ride, and, when I learned that photos were available, I asked our chaperone to let me buy one of myself on the elephant. The chaperone was doubtful, wondering why a blind child would want a picture. After I explained that I wanted to take it home and let my family see me riding the elephant, she agreed. At home everyone exclaimed over the picture: my parents were proud, my sisters were envious, and I wanted a camera of my own.
In school class pictures were a very big deal among the students. Each year almost everyone at the public school purchased packets of individual school pictures of themselves to exchange with their friends. I gave out plenty of photos and got quite a collection of pictures of my school friends, often with messages written on the backs. Junior high and high school yearbooks were filled with pictures and were also vehicles for messages. There were times at school when I felt left out or couldn't participate in something because of issues relating to blindness, but I could always fit right in during the great picture exchange.
In college I spent several summers abroad, and I always took along a camera so I could bring home images to share with friends and family. I tried at first to keep a list in Braille of the order of the pictures as I took them so I could explain them to people when I showed them later. But then I found a better solution: I got a very high‑quality Polaroid camera. Soon after the pictures came out of the camera, I used a slate and stylus to make Braille Dymo tape labels and stick them on the bottoms of the pictures. I live far away from the rest of my family, and it's nice on occasion to share photos of the people and things that are important to me now. The pictures are also a quick way to connect the people in my life with those from my past; I can say to an interested friend, "This is my sister and her new husband," or "Here is the house where I grew up." Recently I had a photo taken of my new kitten, scanned the picture into a computer, and sent it to my sisters by e‑mail. Now, at gatherings of friends or on special occasions, it is instinctive for me to bring a camera and make sure that pictures get taken. Usually others take the photos, but when the need arises and the subject is not too complex, I take them myself. It took some practice to learn to aim correctly and hold the camera straight; I'm no professional photographer, but I can usually do a decent job of getting the subject centered enough in the frame so no heads are cut off, etc.
I am grateful to my family for making sure early on that I participated in all the normal activities of our daily lifeóeven the sharing of photographs, which some might have considered unnecessary (not to mention inaccessible) for a blind person. My parents' positive, practical attitude fostered in me the expectation that I would be treated as an equal in society and therefore went a long way toward giving me the tools I needed to bring that expectation closer to reality.
The matter of the personalized mirror, as it turns out, was not entirely closed on that long‑ago Christmas day. When my grandmother died about four years later, I helped sort some of her belongings. I was surprised when I found, deep in one of her boxes, a small mirror, identical to the ones my sisters had received that Christmas four years beforeóbut with my name on it. Since I am the only Jennifer in my family, it seems fair to assume that the mirror was bought for me and then for some reason reconsidered. Did my grandmother stop short as she wrapped our gifts and redden as she realized what she thought might be a cruel faux pas? Did someone who went shopping with her perceive a mistake and tell her it made no sense to give a mirror to a blind child? Or did she just misplace the mirror and not find it until after Christmas? I will never know.
I do know for certain that, regardless of what made her choose a different gift for me, she acted entirely out of a wish to be kind and supportive. I am sure she never dreamed that, in buying a gift for her blind granddaughter, sticking to traditional thinking about blindness actually resulted in disappointing a normal child who was also blind.