When a blind or visually impaired child is only a few months old, most parents are still trying to cope with the fears and uncertainties of having a disabled child. Conflicting information and advice is especially overwhelming at this time. This is often compounded by the unfortunate attitudes of many in the medical profession and, worse yet, by those who work with the blind. We have come a long way but, even today, an alarming number of professionals working with blind children and adults have low expectations for their clients and such negative attitudes that they act surprised when confronted with successful, self-sufficient visually impaired men and women.
Despite these attitudes we must remember that our attitudes are the ones which will affect our children the most. Even in the face of deeply entrenched stereotypes and professional misinformation and biases, we must hold fast to the idea that if we pay our dues now, our children will reap priceless benefits in self-esteem, self-advocacy, and the knowledge that we believe in their individual potential.
Positive attitudes and matter-of-fact adaptation of the world for our blind and visually impaired children starts at birth. As far as basic needs—holding, feeding, dressing (assuming no medical complications)—there is nothing extra or special that must be done for the blind infant. There are, however, very simple techniques that can be employed to give your baby as much information as possible about his or her environment.
When a baby is only a few months old, her ability to hear you does not necessarily mean your location is known, and she has no way of knowing that you are, perhaps, about to pick her up or fix her blanket. Before you pick up the child or move something nearby, state what you are going to do, or at the very least say the child's name before touching her. There is no need to handle a blind child more carefully than you would a sighted child; she is not more fragile and is not predisposed to being extra anxious or fussy. Keep in mind that for the first few weeks of life, sighted babies are only able to see people and objects very close to their faces anyway.
When you take your child from room to room, outside to the car, or into the store, to the extent that you are able to do so under the circumstances (time, who's with you, etc.), you should state simply where you are going and what you are doing. Hearing everyday speech is good for all babies' language development, but the blind child will be able to use your verbal cues to begin distinguishing, with her other senses, a change in location. For example, my 20-month-old daughter was able, at about one year, to go to the kitchen or the bathroom when told to do so. I spent a lot of time telling her: "We're going to go into the kitchen so Mommy can clean up. We're going out of your room," (putting her hands on the door) "and we're going straight. Mommy and Daddy's bedroom, where we sleep in the bed at night, is on the right. The bathroom, where you have your bath, is on the left. After the bedroom are the steps going downstairs to outside. Now here's the living room, with the television and the stereo. We turn left, and here's the kitchen."
I tried to use the same descriptions as often as possible. When I had the time, I showed her the furniture in the room, spoke its name and its purpose. Even when very young, Samantha was very attentive when I spoke, and though she obviously didn't understand most of what I was saying in the beginning, repetition eventually led to absorption and understanding.
An older baby and toddler will often attempt to do what Mommy and Daddy are doing: fold laundry, clean the table, wash the dishes. When it is safe to do so, I show Samantha what I am doing and explain: "Mommy is giving the dirty dishes a bath. They have food on them. Then we'll dry them with a towel, just like you after your bath."
Don't take anything for granted. If your child is curious, show whatever it is safe to show him. Then, when your attention is desired at an inopportune moment, "One minute, sweetheart; Mommy's cleaning the table" will actually have a concrete meaning; it will not merely be a jumble of words that he has heard but doesn't understand because he cannot see what it is you are doing. Eventually, he will put together your location, the sound of the water on the rag, the sound of the rag on the table, and will know on his own what you are doing. But until you give meaning to the sounds and smells and textures in his world, your blind baby cannot learn the function of the objects in his environment. Do not feel foolish describing every little thing and activity to your baby. It can only help him.
I personally don't like playpens, especially for totally blind infants. Put your child on the floor with some toys; place a noisy toy out of his reach to entice him to move to find it. This way he can learn that his environment is far more than what he is readily aware of. When he begins to creep or crawl, show him the boundaries between rooms, the extent of rooms, how he can move around tables and chairs, but not around walls. Expose your child to everything: show him the steps, the trees in your yard, the grass. Take him to the beach and show him the sand, how the water moves, sea shells. Show him the inside and outside of the car his car seat is in. Show, show, and show some more—hands on whenever possible—with constant explanations using simple statements. Teach care providers to do the same. Place toys on accessible shelves and show him where they are in relation to other objects in the room. As he begins to show understanding of words and begins to use words to express needs and desires, you will see that these efforts have paid off. By the time he is walking, your child will know "right" and "left" and will have no trouble moving about familiar surroundings with ease.