Future Reflections                                                                                          Spring, 2002

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Equal Opportunities for Blind Kids: A Father’s Perspective

by Michael Wolk

Michael Wolk
Michael Wolk

Editor’s Note: Michael Wolk, a former national NOPBC board member, has been a staunch parent leader within the NFB of Pennsylvania for many years. He was one of four panel members who spoke at the 2001 “Let Freedom Ring” Parents Seminar. His remarks, which follow, were a perfect compliment to the speech his daughter, Laura Wolk, made earlier in the session.

My daughter, Laura, and I went to our first convention in 1994 when Laura was seven years old. Our experience was invaluable. The people that we met had a profound impact on how we approached life. My first NFB convention drove home a philosophy about equality and opportunity in every aspect of life. I learned that for our blind children to be equal, you have to be passionate about everything in their life so that it will be the same as their sighted friend’s and sibling’s. I learned from Joe Cutter, the 1994 Distinguished Educator of the Year, that the white cane makes our blind children the same as other sighted children, not different from those children. Likewise, I learned that Braille does not make our children different from other children. Braille makes our blind children the same as other children, because Braille makes our children literate, and literacy is the key to independence, equality, and opportunity. These points really hit home within three days of that first NFB Convention. Any stigma that I may have felt about my child’s white cane and the use of Braille was swept away forever.

Finally, I read the excellent landmark article by Dr. Ruby Ryles – which is right here in your packet – titled “Is Your Child Age Appropriate?” This article drove home the point that our children must be the same as their sighted peers beginning in kindergarten and continuing through their entire school years. If the white cane and Braille were the bricks, then Dr. Ryles article was the mortar that cemented what I call my “same as” philosophy into place.

My family’s three kids are really close in age. My son Adam is just fifteen months older than my twin girls, Sara and Laura. Adam and Sara have vision, and Laura is totally blind. I know that many parents struggle to know what their blind child should be doing at a particular age. It’s easy in our house because we have twin girls. Laura should be expected to do the same as Sara. Also, Laura should be allowed to do the “same as” Sara. You may not have twins, but I would encourage you to adopt the “same as” approach by comparing your blind child with his or her friends who are the same age.

Here are some examples from our family. We regularly go to the Outer Banks in North Carolina for our family vacation. We visited a lighthouse in that area about six years ago when Laura was eight. My wife is afraid of heights so there is no way that she was going to climb that lighthouse. It would have been so easy to rationalize that Laura should stay safe on the ground with her mother while I took the other two kids up the lighthouse. However, due to my embedded “same as” philosophy, that thought never entered my mind. So the three kids and I climbed the metal spiral staircase a couple hundred feet until we reached the top.

At first, Laura stepped tentatively out onto the platform until she reached the security of the railing. We then walked about the platform and I gave Laura an orientation to the ocean and the inland side. At about this point a mother said, “Wow, I’m impressed.” I smiled and nodded at her. To this day I remember thinking I wonder what that mother really meant. She may have simply been saying that she was impressed that a young girl could climb a lighthouse—a young blind girl. Actually, I would have preferred to interpret her remark as “I’m impressed that you have given your blind child the opportunity to experience something really unique and special just the “same as” the other kids.”

Just think about what my daughter experienced. The echo of footsteps on metal steps as she climbed inside the lighthouse. The cool, damp, musty feel and smell inside. A strong burst of wind and the warmth of the sunshine on her face as we stepped out onto the platform. The sound of the ocean out in the distance, and the hollow sound of her voice as she shouted “Hi Mommy!” to her mother on the ground.

Here are some other examples. I run a small youth baseball association in Allentown, Pennsylvania. This year a nine-year-old visually impaired boy named Chris played with us for the first time. I told the league officers before the season started that Chris would be playing baseball. The league president screwed up his face and said, “A kid who can’t see is going to play baseball?” I said “Sure, it’ll be alright. He’ll manage it just fine.” Chris has low vision in one eye and normal vision in the other. He is a great fielder and has a real strong throwing arm. He struggled at the plate a bit, but he hit the ball by the end of the season. His hitting problem had more to do with his athletic coordination, not his vision.

Jenna is a young blind woman and the daughter of Alice, one of our Pennsylvania Parents Division parents. According to Mom, Jenna had always been somewhat shy and reserved. Several years ago Alice encouraged Jenna to take karate lessons. After some hesitation, Jenna decided to give it a try, and has since gone on to earn her black belt in karate. Jenna learned a new challenging sport and her self-confidence soared. So guess what? Jenna has taken up horseback riding. She is now a fearless member of her college equestrian team at Kutztown University.

Blind kids and music may seem like a natural combination, but how do blind kids learn how to play musical instruments? My blind daughter has played the piano and alto saxophone for several years. She has learned both instruments by listening to tape recordings of the music and playing back each passage. Eventually, she puts the entire musical piece together. This spring, Laura was asked to accompany the school chorus on piano. She also played a saxophone solo during the jazz band concert. I know in my mind that she can do this. But it is still a remarkable experience to sit in the audience and watch such a self-confident blind child on stage playing music the “same as” her sighted band and chorus members. 

Suzanne, Micha, and Andy Heckathirne were among many young families who appreciated the opportunity the convention provided for them to learn from experienced parents, such as Michael Wolk
Suzanne, Micha, and Andy Heckathorne were among many young families who appreciated the opportunity the convention provided for them to learn from experienced parents, such as Michael Wolk.

Going places: parents of younger blind and visually impaired kids, you should take special note – your kids should be, literally, going places the “same as” their sighted peers. Your kids should be going to the mall. They should be going shopping (especially if you have a daughter, man, she is going to go shopping). They should be going to the dance, to the party, and to the sleepover. They should be going on the roller coaster at the amusement park, and the waterslide at the water-theme park. They should be going to the beach to swim in the ocean. They should be going to the pop music concert, and away to camp. For all these things they should be able to walk out the front door with their friends and not see you for several hours, or, depending on the circumstances (like camp) for several days. But, to do this, and to be the “same as” their friends, they are going to have to be able to travel independently without your guidance.

These are the opportunities that every modern teen-ager expects to have. If you are the parent of a blind pre-teen-ager, then you need to prepare your child now with the independent travel skills and the self-confidence to participate in these activities. And, you need to prepare yourself to allow your blind child to participate in these social activities the “same as” their sighted friends.

We have a very special job to do as parents of blind children. We need to have high expectations for our kids. We should not overprotect them. We should not overcompensate, and we should not sell them short. We have to allow our kids to have the same opportunities for an equal life as sighted children.

It has been a pleasure to speak with you today. I hope that you have great experience at our convention. I hope that the NFB and NOPBC have as great a positive influence with your family as it has had with ours. Thank you.

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