Sooner or later, all parents, despite the joys of bringing a new life into being and the hopes for a wonderful bond with their offspring, run up against the harsh reality that they are totally unprepared for the job. Imagine on top of all of that what it would be like to have a child who was visually impaired — not totally blind, but nowhere close to being fully sighted. What would you expect of that child? How would you deal with your own prejudices about blindness? Did you even realize you had prejudices?
, Prior to writing Being Legally Blind, Justin Oldham published a spy novel and
a science fiction short story collection. He was born legally blind. He has the greatest empathy for parents struggling with These issues. This is the book he wished his parents would have had and the one his mother told him he would write one day — a manual addressing the many thorny issues of successfully parenting a legally blind child.
This includes the fears and prejudices of parents, who often have no experience with the capabilities of blind people and the small-minded professionals whose idea of helping is to counsel parents to expect less from their legally blind child than they would if he or she were fully sighted. These two issues, in my opinion, are the cornerstones which support one of the greatest paradoxes and injustices of humanity. More than two-thirds of working-age legally blind Americans are unemployed or under-employed, and yet some blind people are working successfully as chemists, mechanics, lawyers, beekeepers, teachers and in any profession you can name, except driving. Several blind people have graduated from medical school, while others are NASA engineers and assistant district attorneys in major cities. The successful ones aren’t savants or geniuses and they haven’t been allowed to skate by out of pity. Someone in their lives expected them to succeed and helped them acquire the skills and technology they’d need to accomplish their goals.
Any parent can “inadvertently impress on their kids that what they are is more important than who they are,” according to Oldham. He explains the root of his parents’ initial prejudice about his role and potential as a blind person.
My parents were both born and raised in strict, deeply devoted, religious families. My mother was perky, popular, and fashionable. My father was a handsome track star on his way to a meteoric military career. Both were frugal, with few vices. A tenet of their faith at the time I was born was that birth defects were a punishment from God. The news that I had a significant visual disability—that I was “broken”—hit them hard.
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Like the individuals they are, parents come to terms with these issues in their own ways and in their own time.
My mother was afraid that she’d break me. My father wasn’t sure I could survive the rigors of being the accident-prone child that I was.
Poor eyesight, in and of itself, doesn’t diminish curiosity. Without ever knowing it, my father sowed a huge field of doubt that plagued me for many years. By the time I was five, I had just enough words in my vocabulary to understand that he thought that the prognosis for my future wasn’t good. In his mind, being legally blind meant bad things. When he talked about me in the presence of other people, his words and tone communicated that negativity.
My mother’s message contrasted sharply with what I heard my father say. In her mind, there was no doubt about what I would eventually become. Her warnings scared me when she talked about the troubles I would face, but her optimism filtered through even when she talked about me to other people.
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Another major issue tackled in the book is the “definition” of legal blindness, which sounds simple on the surface. A totally blind child cannot see anything, and a legally blind child does see something. Most people with severe visual impairments are not totally blind, and that in itself leads to confusion. Legally blind children are confused about why they can see this and not that, why they can see something sometimes and not others.
What each legally blind child sees is unique to that child. Many people who grew up legally blind had the experience of being told by the adults in their lives that they were “faking” their disability. Oldham gives parents the tools they need to come to an understanding about what their child can and cannot see and what external conditions can alter this equation. He also talks about the variety of low-vision aids available, and how he has incorporated technology into his life to maximize his vision and independence.
One of Being Legally Blind‘s greatest values is the candor with which Oldham discusses the bullying he experienced from his peers, and his advice on how both parent and child can learn to deal with being different. The idea that anyone would bully a child with a disability is startling to many people, often to the point of disbelief. Nevertheless, it happens, and nowadays, some blind people are beginning to speak out about it.
Oldham knows from personal experience that it is not sufficient to know that there are bullies. His clear and poignant insights on the personalities of bullies and verbal vs. physical cowards provide useful insights for all parents, whether or not their child has a disability. But, Oldham goes beyond bullying to a much broader issue.
The small number of bullies out there will always remain a dark force with which to be reckoned. However, the numbers of “normal” kids who pick on those with disabilities are a much larger menace to your child’s physical and emotional security.
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