Braille Monitor                                                             March 2007

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What a Parent Has Learned from His Blind Son

by John Wai

From the Editor: John Wai is the father of Andrew Wai, who is blind. What follows is the edited text of the presentation he made on Thursday, July 6, to the 2006 NFB national convention in Dallas, Texas:

John Wai speaks to the 2006 convention.It was fifteen years ago--a cold and rainy day. As I came out of the doctor’s office, holding our first child in one arm and my wife in the other, I could not tell whether the falling drops were her tears or rain from the sky. We had just been told that Andrew, our four-month-old baby, had very limited vision, if any at all. He had a flat electroretinogram and a diagnosis of Leber’s Congenital Amaurosis. Our hearts were dropping into an ever-growing black hole.

Dr. Levin, the pediatric ophthalmologist, gave us a small book with a unique title, What Color Is the Sun, published by the National Federation of the Blind. Yes, a Kernel Book published in 1991. Two articles in that book profoundly changed my perception of blindness. The first one is “Blind Faith,” written by Mike Pearson. It is about a group of seven students from the NFB Colorado Center for the Blind in Denver, climbing up the face of a 200-foot-high rock. The second one is “Growing up Blind” by Jan Bailey about her father’s role in breaking all the unnecessary constraints imposed on blind children. I was impressed. I wanted to learn from them. We contacted the National Federation of the Blind, talked to Mrs. Barbara Cheadle, and joined the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children--the NFB’s division for parents.

The most important word we learned from the NFB is “expectation.” We expect Andrew to be learning at a level comparable to his peers of the same abilities and interest, and nothing less. To achieve this, Andrew needs to fill his toolbox with special skills. He has to learn Braille. We were told that Andrew didn’t need Braille because it is slow and will be replaced by other technology. My wife tearfully disagreed. We fought hard on this, and we finally won the support of the special education supervisor in the school district. To date Andrew’s toolbox is populated with Braille, a BrailleNote, a Braille embosser, a scanner, an optical recognition program, a screen reader (JAWS), an e-book reader, speaking calculators, and more.

Andrew is doing very well in school and is particularly interested in science and math. Both my wife and I are scientists. We know these are tough subjects, and we have great concern about how Andrew will continue to excel. Two years ago Andrew was very fortunate to be chosen to participate in the NFB Science Academy. We trust that whatever the NFB chooses to do, it has a purpose and it will have profound implications. The camp lived up to our expectations and beyond. Between the day we dropped him off and the day we picked him up, we witnessed a tremendous transformation. The NFB instilled its philosophy in this young man. He demanded to be more independent. For the first time he whole-heartedly accepted his tools--the Braille, the cane, and everything. Through doing a dissection himself, he learned to trust his hands and fingers. Through interacting with excellent blind scientists, he was inspired to dream of doing whatever he wants to do. He is determined.

Andrew just finished ninth grade. I would like to report that he won eight academic awards. These include a presidential academic award; an academic excellence award; excellence in French; excellence in orchestra; excellence in social studies; and, in particular, excellence in science; excellence in Algebra II; and a gold medal for Continental Math. In eighth grade he led his team to win the championship in the Upper Bucks-Montgomery County academic competition among forty teams from area middle schools. He was chosen to be the most likely to succeed by his class of three hundred students. Thank you for the NFB Science Academy.

Last year Andrew went to the NFB Colorado Center for the Blind summer program. He climbed up the face of a 200-foot-high rock, exactly as described in the Kernel book I read when Andrew was an infant. I’m thankful to have this unassuming little book. A few months later I happened to be in Scottsdale, Arizona. Andrew encouraged me to try rock climbing. Halfway through ascending this vertical rock face, holding on to the cracks, I finally appreciated why the NFB sent these young fellows rock climbing. They need strong determination to get up the rock. The NFB was building their wills.

Early this week I was in a three-day leadership training program. One of the activities involved blind-folding all twenty-five participants. We were holding onto a rope, not knowing that we were all entangled. We were then told to find a way to hold on to the rope and make it into a perfect square. I asked myself, what would my son do? I quickly formulated the plan and communicated to the team how to complete the task. Later I was asked how I accomplished this. I replied that I know I do not need to see to have vision, I do not need to see to lead, I do not need to see to accomplish. I know a lot of people without sight who accomplish these tasks every day. Thank you Andrew, thank you NFB. You are inspiring.

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