Snowplows in Disneyworld

Several years ago, while walking with a flight attendant through an airport to make a connection, I asked her what was the least desirable flight to work. My mother had been a flight attendant many years ago, and I remembered that hostesses (as they were called in a less politically correct time) bid for the flights they wanted based on their seniority. The woman hesitated for only a second and said, “That’s easy. The flights that everyone dreads are trips to Orlando during school vacations.”

The reason was a little more subtle than might appear at first glance. As she explained, “That’s when the plane is filled with lots of divorced fathers who have temporary custody of their kids and are taking them to Disneyworld. The dads want to be sure their kid has a really good time so they rarely exercise any discipline. Consequently, they can be the flights from hell.”

I was reminded of this when I was in Wal-Mart one Saturday evening not too long ago. I know there are some very unusual people in our community (and this is being very kind), and, seemingly, they all choose to come out and go to Wal-Mart on Saturday night. As I was trying to conclude my errand and exit the premises as soon as possible, I heard a woman in the next aisle complaining to someone about her ex-husband. Because I’ve always suspected that Wal-Mart gives people the opportunity to practice auditioning for Judge Judy and being a voyeur at heart, I stopped to listen.

“He never exercises any discipline,” she said. “He never makes little Bubba do anything he doesn’t want. He doesn’t make him pick up after himself; he doesn’t make him put things away; and I don’t think he even makes him do his homework. Then, he comes back to me and is mad when I expect him to do some work. It’s Disneyworld at his house and reality at mine.”

Dad is what has come to be called a “snowplow parent.” That is, he sees parenting as removing all of life’s adversities so that his child will always have a smooth path. Mom sees parenting as teaching her child how to shovel the snow to create his own path.

Why am I talking about this on a blog devoted to blindness? While this is an anecdote that relates to parenting in general, it is uniquely appropriate for parents and teachers of disabled children.

The danger for little Bubba is that, should he follow the path of the snowplow, he will be left to flounder once he leaves school and becomes an adult. The entire arc of his life is likely to be far less promising because of the lessons he has learned from dad.

The danger for the visually-impaired child who has had parents and teachers who have served as snowplows is basically similar but with a twist.

If Bubba hasn’t learned basic life skills, he will still need a job. He’s not going to be a very desirable employee, so he’ll probably be stuck at an entrance-level position, or something pretty close to it, for most of his life.

Here is where the blind person is different.

A brief digression may be in order. For centuries, disabled people who were unable to find employment, which was almost everyone, usually lived with, and were supported by, their family. All of this changed when America became a far more transitory society. Within a few years, the assumption that there would be family members who could be counted on to help began to break down. An increasingly large number of seriously disabled people found that their family had all moved away and that they were left without any means of support.

To help address this problem, Congress established SSI, Supplemental Security Income. It is just what the name suggests, payments to the low-income disabled who don’t qualify for Social Security to ensure they will have a very minimal level of financial support.

Nobody on SSI is getting rich. Currently, the maximum amount for an individual receiving SSI is $771. A month, $9,252. A year. A couple may receive no more than $13,509. Annually, placing them far below the poverty level. Additionally, anything a recipient earns is subtracted from these figures. Finally, no one receiving SSI may have more than $2,000. In disposable income, making it very difficult to work your way off the program. SSI is more complicated than this, but these are the essentials. As I said, it’s minimal.

Over the years, I’ve known a number of people on SSI, and the impact of the program is mixed. It can be extremely beneficial and it can also be very destructive. It’s beneficial when

  • it achieves it’s original purpose, helping provide a financial floor for people who, for no fault of their own, are unable to find employment and
  • in a minority of cases, some motivated individuals use the small income provided as a springboard to improve themselves and get off SSI permanently.

Even though the living standard it provides is very low and not one most people would want, SSI can still be seductive for some recipients. Little Bubba, whether he likes it or not, is going to have to get a job when he graduates. He will likely struggle and probably have to work at something he doesn’t like. If, on the other hand, Bubba is disabled and he has been surrounded by family and teachers who have been snowplows, something that is a real risk, he can choose to live the rest of his life on SSI. In cases like this, SSI becomes financial crack cocaine, killing all initiative. As incomprehensible as this might seem, he chooses Disneyworld over reality because he has not been taught the skills to deal with reality and only knows Disneyworld.

It’s natural to want to criticize the blind person living like this, and they are not without blame; but, at least in my experience, the focus should be on their parents and teachers as well. After all, who would choose to shovel snow when someone else is willing to plow it for you?

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