As President of the Long Island Chapter of Parents of Blind Children, I am often contacted by parents in search of resources and information for their children. While I have been aware for some time that blind people with usable residual vision face special problems, I am becoming increasingly conscious of the many negative consequences of the mainstream's handling of partially-sighted people.
Let me be clear. I am not particularly concerned with the individual whose residual vision allows him or her to perform most of life's tasks with age-appropriate skill and efficiency. If a legally blind or low-vision child is using regular print or large type without magnification and without fatigue or pain, and if he or she can travel independently and safely in unfamiliar areas, the alternative techniques of blindness may well not be necessary. However, when I hear that a child cannot read efficiently without magnification and that inability to keep up with assignments in school is accepted as a natural consequence of visual difficulties, I am deeply troubled by the culture of denial, fear, and misinformation which will ultimately result in a young person ill-equipped for college, employment, or community involvement.
Why do teachers, eye-care specialists, and some parents choose to ignore the overwhelming evidence that a blind person without proficient Braille and independent mobility skills is significantly less likely to become gainfully employed? How could an efficient reading system such as Braille and a safe, effective travel tool like the white cane engender mistrust and fear so intimidating and distasteful that thousands of men and women are robbed of the chance to take advantage of their full potential, growing to believe that it is normal for them to be slow, inefficient, uncomfortable, and in need of extraordinary accommodations? What about their inability to read to their children—if indeed they have the self-esteem and wherewithal to create a family—and their avoidance of socializing except in familiar areas because they cannot travel independently?
Part of the problem lies in the definition of legal blindness. Many people are functionally blind, despite having visual acuity above that of legal blindness. Another complication is society's fear of anything it doesn't understand. I often hear "This is a difficult age" or "I tried Braille with him; he didn't want any part of it." A teenager who refuses cane instruction because he or she will look different is going to progress from a difficult age to a difficult life of dependency and inability to experience the full range of possibilities for employment and recreation because he or she cannot go wherever the best job interview or the best party is. Is it better to rely on your friends, dates, and colleagues to get you around, or is it better to be a competent, confident traveler, eventually more or less oblivious to your travel tool as it becomes a part of you?
When a child resists learning math because it seems too difficult or because there is something more fun to do at the moment, we don't give in; we should treat students who don't like learning Braille the same way. It is often difficult for parents to envision their children as adults, and it is common to have the not-my-child attitude—after all, if you act as if your child can do anything despite being afflicted with pesky visual problems, won't he or she have the confidence to persevere and succeed? You bet! Assuming that child is also equipped with the necessary tools to put such values into practice. You can tell the child of a broken home who attends a poor school in a dangerous neighborhood that with belief in oneself one can surmount any personal obstacles. But if his or her performance is not commensurate with inherent ability and if a lackluster performance is pronounced to be "just fine" and "all one can expect from someone in such a situation," where will all those fine words and good intentions get the student?
It is not acceptable for a child with poor vision to skate by, depending on special allowances and privileges, if he or she is capable of age-appropriate work. A child who is functionally blind and has average to above-average intelligence and no complicating disabilities should be handing in school assignments with everyone else, should not be fatigued by reading, and should be completing reading assignments along with sighted classmates. A child who struggles valiantly to keep excellent grades, suffering with eyestrain and headaches; spending inordinate amounts of time on homework; relying on parents, siblings, or classmates to read to him; unable to read the notes and papers she writes—is not amazing or extraordinary for all those unnecessary, Herculean efforts. That child is a casualty of fear and ignorance, someone losing out on extracurricular and other social activities, someone whose belief in his or her supposed self-worth and equality is being challenged at every level. The lack of normal vision will never be a nuisance, an inconvenience to this person: it will be a lifelong social and employment handicap, a source of increasing frustration and resentment—a recipe for failure at worst and of untapped potential at best.
Parents and teachers must look beyond the here and now. When they are gone, their children and students must be able to live, not merely survive, on their own. Their lives should not be peppered with "If onlys" and "What ifs." They should not grow up with the notion that there was nothing more anyone could have done to give them opportunities equal to those available to their sighted peers. Any skill which has the slightest chance of easing their way should be developed in them while they are young. Isn't it better that they have the skills, regardless of whether they are necessary now? Shouldn't a disabled child be given every reasonable chance to be fully equal, fully independent, a fully contributing, first-class citizen? Legally blind, low vision, partially sighted, practically blind—the lexicon of political correctness, euphemisms, and denial marches on. If your child is not capable of age-appropriate work and play, vision problems by themselves are no excuse. Partial sight should not be allowed to result in a partial life.