We just returned home today after a weekend retreat with the folks at Michigan Parents of the Visually Impaired (MPVI). Everybody in the family had a fantastic weekend, and we all came away with new friends along with new energy toward sharing knowledge and improving the world around us.
This is the first time since 1996 that Brian and I have done anything with the “blind community.” Back then, Brian was still working at the IRS in a job that he got through a training program at Lion’s World Services for the Blind in Little Rock, AR. Understandably, there were a lot of other blind people working in that job with him, most coming from the same program, and they tended to hang out together. We started bowling with the local blind bowling league and did that for several years, even heading to the national championship one year.
Since leaving the Washington, D.C., area, we had not gotten involved again in anything blind-oriented, other than staying in touch for a while with old friends Brian had from TSB and Criss Cole. We never felt the need for support groups in Texas, even while Brian was using Commission services during his 2002 layoff. Once we got to Michigan, we met one blind friend here very quickly (which is a pretty cool story of its own!), but again never felt the need for a support group. Eventually we had blind children (unexpectedly!), but I let other people’s experience color my judgement and still didn’t reach out much. My local friend told me stories of how little support she received during her time in the schools and how many blind people she knew who were not independent. My mother-in-law’s experiences with “parents of the blind” support groups involved sheltered kids with smothering parents who treated their children like helpless china dolls. Between the two, I didn’t feel any need to connect with others, feeling safer and more comfortable with Brian and my friend, and our online friends from the Blindhomeschooler list.
We were missing out.
All this weekend, we encountered parents who were encouraging their kids to do things for themselves, to walk independently, to give them canes at a young age, to let them climb rock walls and ride on zip lines. We met some of the young counselors the kids had at Lions Camp. We met some absolutely awesome organizers who really do want the same things we want for our children: independence, self-confidence, competence as blind people and as people in the world. What they were lacking, perhaps, was exposure to more competent blind adults (like Brian and my friend) as role models, along with some different ways of doing things, but their hearts are taking them in the right directions. Whenever we mentioned the different ways we do things, like buying our own canes, learning and teaching Braille ourselves, all the things we think of as just part of life and homeschooling, we found other parents eager to hear a different story.
Lesson learned: Don’t just go on other people’s judgements about people or groups. Go find out for yourself.
One of the activities offered Saturday morning was “blindfolded cooking.” The idea was to give sighted parents some idea of the obstacles that blind people face when doing everyday tasks. It was a lot of fun. I’ve always enjoyed practicing “being blind.” I got to help some people out with suggestions and tips, and I got some help of my own from the older blind kids who participated with us parents. I was a little disappointed that the set-up was not adapted in any way, so that it more mimicked being dropped into a sighted stranger’s kitchen rather than the way a blind person would manage their own kitchen, but it was fun nevertheless.
One thing bothered me the rest of the weekend, though. The cooking activity spanned two different rooms, a large dining area and a big kitchen. I was very careful in orienting myself once the blindfold was on, and had no trouble during the first hour or so, moving between tables and to my coffee that I had stashed in a windowsill. Then it came time to head to the kitchen and use the stove. I made my way to the hall door I had already found, found the entrance to the kitchen, and started trailing myself around it counterclockwise. I wanted to orient myself to the entire kitchen, and I could hear that folks were congregating to my left as I entered. I followed along the counter that was open to the dining room, the counter along the wall, the double oven at the end of the counter, the closet next to the oven where extra tables were stowed. Then somebody came and led me to the stove so I could start my cooking (I was roasting pumpkin seeds in a cast-iron skillet, for a spiced nut mix). After that, the kitchen cleared out a bit, but I got thoroughly confused and disoriented. I felt like the stove was not where it should be, and I had trouble finding the door when it was time to leave the room. After I finished in the kitchen, I went back into the dining room, where I was led to another table to work on a second baking project (smores cups, yum!). Once again, I became disoriented, even though I had been navigating this room well previously and pretty much knew where I had to be in the room. I floundered when I went for my coffee again, and floundered some more when it was time to put the cups in the oven.
All that floundering is what has puzzled me since. I thought and thought and thought, and I think I figured out what the problem was. I was being led. First in the kitchen, interrupting my trailing, and then again when I left the kitchen. When I was led across an open floor, I lost my bearings. Some of this may be a matter of practice, I’m sure, but it reminds me of a principle that I follow and believe in for more general parenting and education: children and adults learn things better when they do it themselves, instead of having it done for them. When I was doing all my navigating myself, I might have been slow, but I was getting there, and I was keeping my own mental map straight. When somebody else did it for me, I didn’t learn anything from it.
I think it is important to remember this lesson when dealing with our children, especially our special needs children. The impulse is so often to step in and do it for them, to help them. We don’t want it done poorly or slowly, we don’t like to see them flounder and appear slow and helpless. Every time we take over, though, we are depriving them of an opportunity to learn. Even in something as seemingly simple and obvious as providing a sighted guide to lead a blind person across an open floor.