Future Reflections Winter 1988, Vol. 7 No. 1

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by Mary Ellen Reining

Editor's Note: Miss Reihing is the Assistant Director of Job Opportunities for the Blind--JOB. The following address was given at a parents seminar on June 27,1987, during the convention of the National Federation of the Blind at Phoenix, Arizona. The remarks were first published in the February-March 1988 issue of the Braille Monitor.

When five-year-old Debbie received a nurse kit from a family friend for Christmas, she quickly decided that the life of Florence Nightingale was the life for her. When her mother gently told her that blind people could not be nurses, Debbie burst into tears.

Debbie is a grown woman now and is happily and successfully programming computers for a living. Like most adults, she's not doing what she planned to do when she was five. Unlike most adults, she was taught at a very early age to limit her career options. She might eventually have ruled out a nursing career anyway, but she still remembers the shock and pain she felt at her mother's comments.

What should Debbie's mother have done? She knew Debbie would be hurt by the truth, but she believed it was better to disappoint a five-year- old than to set her up for a much greater disappointment later by permitting her to continue to have unrealistic expectations. If the family friend had only thought before giving Debbie a nurse kit, maybe the whole situation could have been avoided.

Debbie's mother showed courage and love in her effort to help her daughter understand blindness realistically. But she didn't have the facts. Instead of lovingly helping her daughter understand the truth, she was unwittingly perpetuating a lie! How different that long-ago conversation would have been if Debbie's mother had known a blind nurse. (I know of at least one at this convention.) Instead of saying that blind people could not be nurses, she might have explained that most nurses use sight to do their job. Instead of saying "You can't do that," she could have asked: "How can we think of ways for you to do that?" At age five Debbie would not have had many answers, but she would have acquired the habit of asking herself the question.

There is a profound difference between the question "whether" and the question "how."

The first allows an open-and-shut, yes-or-no answer. The second demands creative and careful thought. The first permits the negative; the second presumes the positive.

At this convention you will find blind people doing jobs you thought were out of the question. So will I. You and I are positive, progressive people. You and I set high standards for ourselves and believe in the normality of the blind. You and I too often secretly wonder "whether" when we could be discovering "how."

If you are a blind adult, you have already let attitudes about blindness limit your expectations. If you are the parent of a blind child, you will let those same attitudes put artificial barriers in your child's path. Instead of feeling guilty and defensive about what you should have known or should have done, take heart from the knowledge that there is a lot of occupational territory out there for blind people to explore. You and I, all of us in the National Federation of the Blind, are mapping that new ground together. Although the list of occupations represented at this convention is impressive, the list of occupations no blind person has yet done is much longer. If we do our work well, that balance will shift in a positive direction for the next generation.

Children learn about work by observing the adults around them and by asking a seemingly endless stream of questions. A two- year-old whose mother is a lawyer will pick up a briefcase and say "Me wuuk." A four-year-old will observe construction workers climbing scaffolding and ask "Why?"

Whether a child is blind or sighted, Mom and Dad will want to provide opportunities for learning about a variety of jobs. A blind child will not see builders at work while riding past in a car, but an erector set is a good way to explore scale models. A visit to the spot where friends are constructing a new home could be educational as well as fun.

Blind children want to know all about the work blind people do.

You might be able to arrange for your child to spend a day observing an employed blind adult on the job. Participation in the National Federation of the Blind is critical because it exposes you to a cross section of blind people, not simply a few individuals. If your circle of blind adult friends is not wide enough, your child may falsely assume that the only choices are jobs done by the few blind people he or she knows.

Career education isn't just studying about jobs. Children need to explore their interests, develop their strengths, accept their weaknesses, and recognize that a weakness in one situation may be a strength in another. A child who always points out the truth and falsehoods in the arguments on both sides of a dispute would likely do better as a marriage counselor than as a prosecuting attorney. Someone who hates leaving the comforts of home but loves learning about ancient civilizations could find ways to earn a living studying artifacts but would want to avoid going on archeological "digs " in the Amazon jungle.

Most people would be quite happy doing any one of a number of very different jobs. The concept of one "right" career is more fiction than fact. Flexibility, creativity, and the ability to recognize opportunity and take advantage of it are as important as technical skill. Begin with activities which build self-image and general competence.

Is your blind child responsible for chores at home? When it's time to get under the hood of the car to change the oil or fill the radiator, do you let your child look at the engine? Do you make a habit of talking about jobs people do? How many workers are there behind the counter at the local fast food restaurant? Your child may only know about the order taker.

What about basic skills? Is your child learning to read rapidly and fluently? If reading is a struggle, a wide range of occupations will be eliminated automatically, or at best made much more difficult. (Educators often fail to take future careers into consideration when determining whether or not a child will be taught Braille, frequently making the wrong decision and opting for the exclusive use of large print or visual aids instead of Braille.) Are science, math, and physical education emphasized at school? Are classroom assignments expected to be done neatly and turned in promptly? (Employers are really not impressed when a worker routinely asks for extra time to complete tasks.)

Unemployed blind adults can modify and expand upon some of the same principles for building confidence and skills. There's no need to feel ashamed or embarrassed about picking up skills in adulthood which would have been easier to learn as a child. There is reason to feel ashamed and embarrassed about letting fear or false pride stifle exploration and growth. Many blind adults are justifiably angry about what they were not taught at home, in school, or by rehabilitation agencies. That anger can provide the energy to begin to fill those learning gaps. It should not be allowed to become an excuse for failing to try.

On the other hand, a blind individual need not be flawless to be acceptable. By demanding absolute perfection, a person can fail to capitalize on real strengths.

It is important to remember that "equal" and "identical" have different meanings.

As part of my job, I supervise two secretaries. I have worked with a number of individuals over the past five years and have discovered that each has a distinctive way of achieving the desired results. One person might type rapidly and take shorthand dictation as fast as I can give it. Another cannot take shorthand and is a much slower typist. When I dictate to her, she types what I say directly into a computer. She goes back later to format her work and correct typing errors. Whatever she loses by not using shorthand, she makes up again because correcting a rough draft takes much less time than typing a document from shorthand notes. Both of the people I described are sighted. It seems "reasonable" to "accommodate" their individual strengths because doing so increases the efficiency of the office. Accommodations made because of blindness may be less common, but the same rules apply.

Properly understood, "reasonable accommodation" is a bonus for the boss, not charity for an inferior worker.

With the greatest effort and the best skills in the world, it can still be hard for a blind personio find work. Many of our neighbors believe that we are not just unemployed-we're unemployable. For those who are parents, the ordinary family strain associated with being out of a job is intensified by stereotypes about blindness. It's hard to know how to respond when your child says, "All of my friends have dads who work. What's wrong with you?" (I said Dad because It's socially acceptable for mothers to stay home, but male homemakers are still considered a little odd-even after all the talk about "openness" in men's and women's roles.)

One way to answer your child is to say, "My job is finding work. I will work very hard at it until I succeed. After that, I'll work very hard at the job I find." Then do what you say you're doing. Every morning before eight a.m. start working at finding work. Sometimes you will go on interviews. Sometimesyou will makephone calls orwrite letters. Keep at it until quitting time each day. Be sure your children never see you sleeping late on work days or "goofing off1 on the job of finding work. Your children will learn good work habits from watching you. They will also have an answer when their friends ask "What does your dad do?"

Blind parents who are employed can use their work as a means of subtly educating their children's friends about blindness. Most schools have career days. There's no reason why one of the parents who comes to talk about an interesting job couldn't be blind. If blind adults are role models for blind children, why not for sighted children, too? At least some of those sighted children will grow up and work side by side with their blind neighbors. They will, that is, if we continue to work together in the National Federation of the Blind to make it happen.

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