Future Reflections Winter 1988, Vol. 7 No. 1

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by Barbara Pierce

Editor's Note: Reprinted from the February- March, 1988 Braille Monitor, this article is taken from remarks made by Barbara Pierce on June 27, 1987, at a seminar for parents of blind children at the convention of the National Federation of the Blind in Phoenix, Arizona. Mrs. Pierce is the Assistant Director of the Alumni Association of Oberlin College and is President of the National Federation of the Blind of Ohio.

I truly believe that the only people who maintain that they would gladly relive those vital, exciting, youthful years of their teens over again are the ones who can't remember the details. I see that all of you had adolescences just like mine- agonizing. I have great news for those of you who are parents of younger kids. I tell you as the parent of (count them) three teenagers, that parenthood of teenagers is just like being a teenager all over again, with all of the pain and agony except that you're doing it vicariously; and, therefore, you can't do anything overt to be helpful at the time. All you can do is sit and suffer.

I will go on to say that every kid that ever lived through those teenage years had the conception that he or she was an ugly, clumsy misfit, who never knew the right thing to do and was never going to be picked to be married to anybody and would always be counted on to fall over his or her feet. At least, sometimes that's the way every kid feels about himself or herself.

Blind kids are no different from any others in feeling that way. The manifestation of those anxieties and fears may be somewhat different sometimes. But the underlying feeling of inadequacy and uncertainty is, I think, the same for all adolescents. And I think it's particularly important that parents of blind children hang on to that sense-that fundamentally you have in your background the experience (the reservoir) of those same kinds of feelings. It's not helpful ever as a parent to say, "I know just how you're feeling. " Because every kid is reinventing the wheel and is the first one ever to agonize. But, at least, remember that even when you feel most at sea about whether or not you have anything really to communicate with your youngster about because of the peculiar circumstances of the situation, you've got the emotional underpinnings of it.

I would say that from the early stages (but it is particularly necessary when you are dealing with teenagers) it is critically important that you make sure that they have good role models.

You must see to it that blind teenagers meet and get to know and establish friendships with competent, articulate, successful blind adults.

It's important that blind kids know that it's sible to grow up to be a really normal hur being who does know which fork to use at dinner,] who does remember to put his napkin in his lap,; who does know what to do in an awkward social situation. It does happen. A lot of us as kids were really bereft of that sort of experience. I truly grew up throughout the early part of my teenage years really having a conviction deep down inside of me that I would never marry. Who would want to marry a blind girl? I was the only blind person I had ever known. I had seen a few blind people selling pencils on streets and playing the accordion in various places in Pittsburgh, and I was quite certain that if one grew up to be like that, I knew nobody would want to marry a blind girl. I wasn't sure that I ever would grow up to be the kind of person that some other human being would elect to spend a life with. So that's why I think role models are terribly important.

The next thing that I would say is that you need to start early. Again, I go back to what one of the previous speakers said. It's hard sometimes to take the time to make the kid pour his or her own bowl of cereal, but you've got to start early teaching a youngster responsibility. How are you ever going to have a teenager who is going to care about the state of his clothing and remember to wash her hair every night or every other night or remember to pick up things and be neat about their lives so that they're acceptable to other people if you haven't started early training that youngster to tie shoes neatly, to tie a tie, and to do all the things that go into civilizing the young of the species? You just have to start early.

You also need to teach social skills. I may be getting into deep water here, but I think social skills are terribly important. It is not an easy thing to do, and in part it is not an easy thing to do because you are dealing with a teenage culture which is different from an adult culture. You don't want to turn your kid into a little Lord Fauntleroy at the age of ten, always wearing a perfect little suit. But it is important, for example, that blind youngsters who do not have any vision at all be trained in the importance of looking at the people they are talking to. It is disconcerting to anyone to have a blind person stand and talk to him or her three-quarters turned away-especially, if that person happens to be sighted. It is terribly important that you teach those things. Nobody's going to want to go out on a date with somebody who's not paying any attention to them. You communicate to a sighted person that you're paying attention to them by looking at them for heaven sakes.

You teach a blind kid the importance of standing up straight and holding the head up straight. Again, with some kids it is a harder struggle than with others. I don't know whether it would have been a hard struggle for my parents. They managed to do it in a way that I think was positively ingenious. I am not a small woman. I'm five seven and a half, but I'm the shortest one in my family. From the time I was a kid, any time my father measured us to see how tall we were, he went through this song and dance of, "Well, you're getting there. You're not there yet. But if you stand up straight, you'll be a little closer to being there." My mother's five eight. He said, "The only problem with your mother is she's not tall enough."

I've never asked them whether, in fact, they ever did this consciously, but several times in my childhood I have a vivid memory of running along in front of my parents and hearing my mother just sort of comment to my father, "Look how straight she stands. When I was a kid, I was so self-conscious about my height that I slumped, but she stands beautifully." Now, that was not directed to me. It was pointedly directed at someone else, but little pitchers have big ears. I heard and understood and was motivated to stand straighter- to keep my head up, to look up.

Another thing that I think is terribly important for children to learn is to eat with good table manners. I will never forget one of my brief sorties into a residential school for the blind. I was to be tested as a junior in high school. They couldn't find an IQ test that I didn't top out of, so they were doing some special oral test that could only be given by the psychologist at the school for the blind. He tested me all morning long. Then, he said, "I've got to go teach a class, and I wonder whether you'd be willing to come in (these are seventh and eighth graders) and talk to them since you are in a public high school, and some of these kids will be going to public high school. Just talk to them about what it's like to be in a public high school."

So, I went in and talked to them. And just in passing: I had a friend who had moved to a different school district, and there was a blind girl in the school district; and Betsy had told me that the kids would grab this child up and haul her through the cafeteria line, and then they'd plop her down at a table and go off somewhere else. This poor kid sat at a table all by herself in a crowded lunchroom because her table manners were so appalling that no one of those kids (and you know what kids' table manners are like) wanted to sit and watch her eat her lunch. Now, those were appalling table manners.

Having that in my background, I simply happened to mention to these kids how important it was not to hunker down over your lunch and sort of shovel it in as though you were in mainland China with your bowl of rice and your chopsticks (where that's the approved manner of eating) but that it was important to use your fork and knife correctly and to put your napkin in your lap and to remember to use it~not to eat coleslaw with your fingers, and all these little details of life that do alienate other people when they have to sit and watch it. Anybody who has lived through getting a toddler to eat is pretty hardened to bizarre table manners.

Some of us don't ever raise the standard again with a blind child.

I think it's really important that that standard be raised.

It's important that a kid be taught the elements of neatness. You can't live the kid's life and go running around tucking the shirt tail in at the age of twenty-three, but at least it's important to give the kind of feedback that says: A neat appearance is important. A clean appearance is important. We must check your clothing at the end of the day to see if it's got spots that need to be treated. If you don't see well enough to observe those things yourself, it's going to be important that you line up somebody who will look for spots and help treat them with spot cleaner. It's important that clothing be clean. It's important that you be clean. It's important that, after a certain age, you use deodorant. It's important that a teenager learn that hair must not be washed just once a week but, depending on how oily the hair is and how exuberant those oil glands are, the hair be washed frequently.

Styling is going to be important. Girls have got to learn about appropriate application of makeup. Both sexes have to learn what colors look best on them. These are things that are important for a kid to learn and for a parent to take responsibility for seeing that the kid learns-whether or not they are done by the parent or by someone else.

I guess the other thing I'd say is that it's important to try to teach a child to be genuinely interested in other people. People who are totally preoccupied with themselves and their difficulties are not very pleasant to be around. It's easy for blind kids to trip out on this because everybody's always wandering up to them and telling them (just because they have mastered tying their shoes) that they're just wonderful and inspiring and all of that. Kids can get very caught up in, "Everybody's interested in me." Everybody may pretend to be, but not everybody is--and certainly not all of the time. It's important that kids learn to be interested in other people and learn the conversational gambits of asking good questions to elicit information about other people.

Today's dating patterns, I think, do make it easier for blind kids to date. When I was a teenager, the girls sat around chewing their fingernails hoping that somebody would ask them out, and the boys sat around chewing their fingernails wondering if they were going to get kicked in the teeth if they asked a girl out. It was generally a sort of mystifying and pretty uncomfortable situation, because there was always pairing off or pairing off in multiples of two. Now it's different. My own daughters go out in a gang, and some people will start out together and others will end together. Some of them are just sort of there as part of the group. That sort of group activity is, I think, extremely helpful to a blind kid. Encourage your youngster to participate in that kind of activity.

I'm going to give you the "Pierce Plan" for socialization. This is the one that I developed as a kid, because I rapidly learned that the girl who had no experience got no experience. It's that catch twenty-two of getting a job. We want to hire people who have had jobs, but how do you get hired for a job unless you've had a job? You've got the same sort of thing for a youngster. So you get the experience in a group, and then you start dropping references. "We saw this neat movie last night." So maybe it registers in the mind of someone that, "Gee, that kid might be blind but I guess goes to movies-must be all right to go to a movie." Or, "You know, there was this terrific wrestling match we had out on the lawn, and I got covered with grass stains."

Teach kids to drop hints to let other people know that they're human--that they do these things like everybody else does, that they have fun, that they don't break, that they participate wholly in activities. You need to be the person to encourage that kind of dropping of references.

Basically I would say that the more comfortable the kid is with being blind, the more comfortable everybody around him or her is going to be.

Whether or not the kid is comfortable with blindness in the first instance comes back to whether you are. At least, the younger they are, the more that is likely to be true. That's why it's really good that you're here--that you're here among blind people, that you're here openly talking about blindness. I have the two most terrific parents in the world, but my mother (when I was a kid) would have died rather than openly to confess to anybody that she had a blind child. So I always knew that it was important that we pretend that I wasn't blind, which was a little tricky as I began using a white cane and Braille. I had to hide the stylus. I had this nifty place behind the sofa where I scooted the cane as soon as I came in the front door so that she didn't have to see it.

Even if a kid isn't fully comfortable, the kid is always capable of pretending that he or she has things under control. There was my physics class in high school. We had physics groups, and they put me in a group that had my brother in it, for one thing. (I'm sure that the teacher thought that he could take care of me, but I was the senior. He was the junior, so I had to keep him in line.) But this real hunk of a guy was in this group as well, and I didn't know how I could pull my weight. I couldn't read the slide rules. I decided to take as my turf knowing what was supposed to be happening. I laid it out to these people: "Look, " I said, "I can't do a bunch of this kind of stuff that needs to be done, because it's real close work, and I just can't see it. But I will undertake to have studied the experiment the night before in the lab manual and know enough about what's going on in the textbook so that I can keep us straight on what we're supposed to be getting~not that we're going to cook the numbers, but at least we keep trying until we have them right." I came to terms with what I could do, and I went and did it. That guy turned out to be my passport into the world of dating.

Let me talk about whether a blind person should date another blind person or someone who is sighted. I think there are good and bad reasons for doing either one. And there are advantages and disadvantages to doing either. The advantage to dating somebody that's sighted is that the world is mostly made up of sighted people. Therefore, you have a larger pool of people to draw from. At least, theoretically, it ought to be easier to date a sighted person. The wrong reason for dating a sighted person is because that person can take care of you or will keep you safe. I have to tell you that that's the most appealing reason for most parents-especially of daughters, because what they really want is somebody that's going to make sure that nothing happens to their little girl-and can a blind guy keep her safe? There are all sorts of pitfalls to avoid-whether your male companion is sighted or blind. So you just sort of take your chances.

I would say that the disadvantage in a blind person's dating another blind person is being sort of stereotyped. You (and others) may think you're not good enough to do anything else. Of course, that's predicated on the notion that blind people are inferior. That is a bad reason for dating a blind person~the concept that one is lowering one's sights to a narrow group of people. Incidentally, it is a bad idea to limit yourself arbitrarily to any narrow group. It would, for instance, be dumb to date only redheads. But there is this sort of general feeling that~as one of the previous speakers put it -- you can relate to other blind people. To which I say, "Well, bully." I want the next generation of blind kids to grow up so emotionally healthy and tough-minded that there simply won't be any question of whether anybody needs to relate to somebody else because he or she is blind.

The good reason for dating a blind person (and candidly the reason that I wish I had dated some blind people, except I didn't know any until I had already been married and had three children) is that it really does engender a kind of independence. You can't be taken care of, and just sort of cling to the arm of your date for the evening if both of you are blind. You had both bloody well better be caning. You can hang on, but cane, too. It does foster independence. And I think that is a really good thing for a blind kid to experience.

I would say that a blind person should always cane on a date with a sighted person, and I mean more than just taking your cane along. I mean use it. Don't fold it up and put it away. Use it. I would say it takes maturity for a sighted person to date a blind person and to feel comfortable with that person. I would warn you parents that there are an awful lot of sighted people out there who are looking either for a mother or for somebody to take care of them~or who are looking for somebody to mother. Such persons tend to hone in on blind people. And you just have to depend on raising your kids so healthily that they will pass through that period and not get stuck in a marriage with that sort of relationship.

I guess in closing I would say that blind kids need a lot of feedback.

They need honest feedback-what they did well, and (positively and gently said) what they didn't do so well, or what they need to have done. Be prepared to give that feedback or to nurture relationships for your youngster where there are people who can give that kind of feedback to your kid. It's terribly important. Those fragile egos do need to be buoyed up, so it needs to be done positively. If you tell a kid, "You must remember to wash your hair tonight~it really is getting kind of dirty," then the next morning remember to tell the kid how good it looks now that it's clean. That sort of thing needs desperately to be done.

I will simply say that once you get into a relationship where somebody does think that you are a pretty terrific person, it changes the way you feel about yourself. That's what I want you to remember. Nurture that and expect that for your children.

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