Future Reflections Summer/Fall 1999, Vol. 18 No. 2


Alike Yet Different

by Pauletta Feldman

Reprinted from the VIPS Newsletter, Volume 8, Number 6.

Editor’s Note: Pauletta Feldman, a mother from Louisville, Kentucky, wrote this article several years ago, and I kept hanging on to it, thinking I might someday find a spot for it. I did, and this is it. Pauletta accurately voices, I believe, the mental and emotional struggle parents experience as they try to reconcile this idea of how their blind children can be both "alike yet different." It seems to me that it is a notion worth wrestling with. Those who do not are likely to end up with children who can’t read or travel independently because they didn’t want their kids to "look blind." On the other end of the spectrum are the parents who give up on all social and daily living skill expectations because, after all, "my kid is blind." Both are, as Pauletta knows firsthand, avoidable tragedies. Here are her thoughts about coming to understand how it is that her blind son can be "alike yet different."

I’ve learned a lot from my eight-year-old son, Jamie, who is blind. He’s taught me to see life from a very different perspective—a perspective that challenges me to hear better, touch better, smell better, taste better, and especially think better.

My family has been fortunate in being able to be involved with professionals, first through VIPS and then through school, who have helped us learn so much about the special things we can do to make the world more meaningful to Jamie. And because of the alternative ways that Jamie has had to learn to do things, he has made the world more meaningful for us.

I think if Jamie was not blind, he would not be the same child. There is a great deal about Jamie’s blindness that has made him the special little person he is, that has made parenting him more interesting, and that has made life more precious for its diversity and the accommodations that diversity demands of us all.

I find myself struggling, on and off, with this notion of "alike yet different." As the parent of a handicapped child, I have to portray him as "just a kid" when I’m trying to get him into a typical program. I have to sell him this way so that others get over their fears of working with him. I have to sell others on his rights to participate fully in all aspects of life. But sometimes, I think I’ve hurt his chances for success by doing this, maybe even set him, and those willing to give him a chance, up for failure. Why do I have to stress his alikeness to gain acceptance for him? Why?—because he is different. Sometimes I feel like I lead a schizophrenic existence—on the one hand, I’m supposed to address my son’s blindness, while on the other I’m supposed to make him "normal."

I want Jamie to have a life and relationships that are "normal." I want him to be seen as a child or individual first. I want him to be able to participate in the mainstream. But I cannot, nor do I think I should try to, deny that aspect of him that sets him apart and contributes so greatly to who he is and who he will ultimately become. To me, my child’s handicap is not so much a negative characteristic that limits him, as it is a characteristic that influences his unique development as a human being.

As we parents try to see, and to get others to see, our handicapped children as "kids first," I think we must take care not to negate the impacts of their handicaps. For those impacts can be enhancing as well as limiting. Yes, let’s treat them and encourage others to treat them just like kids. But let’s work also to promote a respect for their handicaps that goes beyond acceptance, much as we respect differences in ethnicity, religion, culture, gender, etc. Respect for differences is the key to true integration in society. Respect for differences implies more than just allowing someone in; it implies that we have something to learn, and a benefit to gain, from others who are different from us.

Respect for differences implies more than just allowing someone in; it implies that we have something to learn, and a benefit to gain, from others who are different from us.

I cannot turn Jamie into a "typical" child (if there is such a creature). I don’t want him to be a poor imitation, masquerading through life as someone or something he’s not. I want him just to be able to be himself and be proud of the unique individual he is—alike yet different.