The Challenges of Raising a Blind Child
I am a real fan of the humorist, Wil Rogers. Among the many insightful things he said were his comments on Mother’s Day: “It’s a beautiful thought, but it’s somebody’s hurtin’ conscience that thought of the idea. Someone … figured we’ll give her a day … and then in return Momma gives you the other 364.”
As you might have guessed, I’m using this quotation as a bridge to talk about parents and guardians of blind and visually impaired children. As anyone who has ever raised a child knows, it is one, and frequently the most, difficult thing you’ll ever do. You are a part of that great parental fire department – on call twenty-four hours a day, never receiving a vacation, and, not infrequently, little appreciation. With all of this, you’re going to have to make tens of thousands of decisions with the certain knowledge some of them are going to be wrong. This is not intended as an argument for life-long celibacy, but it is a pretty good one anyway.
As you might imagine, there are more, and more challenging, issues when parenting a blind child. In saying this, I’m not suggesting that such parents are heroic, courageous, saintly, etc. Such labels, I think, are glib and miss the point, the point being that parents of blind kids confront all of the challenges that anyone faces in raising a child but, in addition, confront a long list of additional issues.
It’s impossible to do more than just hint at what is involved in parenting a blind child. Some issues are confronted by all parents while others loom large for some families but not for others. The following examples, hopefully, will give you a glimpse of what is involved.
I doubt that most of us ever really stop to think of how many essential life skills very small children learn just by watching. Their importance is taken for granted because the learning is so effortless. Parents might do a little coaching, but they never have to teach the basic idea. However, this is not true for the parents of a blind child.
Two quick examples: first, walking up and down stairs. If your child has never seen stairs, encountering them for the first time is a strange, and potentially frightening, new experience. The sighted child, even at a very young age, has seen people go up and down them and immediately understands their purpose and, at least in a general way, how it is done. If, however, your child is born totally blind, there is a much steeper learning curve: showing what stairs are like, demonstrating their purpose, explaining and teaching the skill of going up and down them. And remember that, in doing all this, you can’t use vision. It’s doable but far more challenging.
Second: the act of pouring. Sighted kids require a good deal of coaching and practice (think here of that great humanitarian who invented the “sippy cup”), but they get the basic idea after seeing some adult do it a couple of times. But, the basic concept is visual. Imagine trying to explain pouring to someone who has never seen it done. If you’re thinking that you’d just let the child feel the milk as it’s going in the cup, remember that, as soon as he reaches out to touch the milk, he has altered the entire process. Hint: let him feel the cereal going into the bowl. It’s not perfect but it helps convey the general idea. And, if you think the sighted kid makes messes while he’s learning, you ain’t seen nothin’.
If the child has some limited vision, parents are confronted with a different set of issues. Like every other person I’ve known who was born with glaucoma, as a child, I had a compulsion to stare at any bright light. Lamps on tables, ceiling lights, street lights – it didn’t matter. I must have looked more than a little weird doing this. If my mother told me once, she must have told me several thousand times: “Don’t look at the light.” As much as this repetition makes you consider matricide, it is, as far as I know, the only way of stopping the behavior and insuring that your child doesn’t grow up to look like the village idiot.
The only thing I heard more often than “don’t look at the lights” was “stand up straight.” Now, if you’re thinking that lots of kids hear this, I promise, if you grow up with limited vision, you’re hearing it fifty times more often, and, yes, I do mean fifty. As human beings, evolution has made vision our dominant sense, and, regardless how limited it is, children want to make use of what they’ve got. This means that they spend a great deal of time bending over to look at things and developing posture that, if they’re not corrected, is only slightly better than the hunchback of Notre Dame.
Whether the child is totally blind or has limited vision, parents and family need to have a strong self-concept because, if their parenting decisions are going to be in the long-term best interests of the child, friends and neighbors may not always support what they’re doing.
Almost every “successful,” and you may define that however you will, blind person I’ve ever known gives a large part of the credit for their success to the parenting they received. As we approach Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, I’m reminded of what Lincoln said about his own mother: “Everything I am, or hope to be, I owe to my angel mother.” That sentiment can be broadened to include fathers, grandparents, or whomever does the parenting. So, instead of thinking that someone blind is so amazing,” I’d encourage you to think, “You must have had great parenting” because they almost certainly did.
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