by Carlton Anne Cook Walker
From the Editor: Carlton Anne Cook Walker is the immediate past president of the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children, an attorney, an educator, and—most importantly—the mother of a blind daughter. She has recently taken a job at the NFB Jernigan Institute as manager of Braille educational programs. Here is what she said to parents attending the seminar held at the 2015 national convention:
Good morning! Again, welcome! As president of the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children (NOPBC), a proud division of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), I am eager to share with you over this next week all that the Federation, including the NOPBC, has to offer.
First, please allow me to introduce myself. My name is Carlton Anne Cook Walker, and I am the mother of a blind fourteen-year-old, Anna Catherine. In addition to serving as president of the NOPBC, I am a teacher of students with blindness/visual impairment in South Central Pennsylvania, and I am an attorney with my own solo law practice. Of all my roles, parent is most important, and it will always be so. However, after faith and family, the most important facet of my life is the Federation—the National Federation of the Blind. For without the NFB and its Parents’ Division, the NOPBC, I would not have the information I need to be an effective parent for Anna Catherine. Indeed, it is the education from and support of my fellow Federationists—both in the Parents’ Division and in the membership at large—that has taught me how to provide my Anna Catherine the tools and skills she needs to become the successful blind adult she has the right to be.
You may have heard that the NFB is celebrating a diamond anniversary—seventy-five years of the blind advocating for, supporting, and serving the blind. Seventy-five years—and still going strong! On a personal level this year’s convention is the tenth for my daughter Anna Catherine and me. You might know that the traditional gift for a seventy-fifth anniversary is the diamond. We will encounter many of those this week. But guess what? The tenth anniversary gift is also a diamond! Coincidence? I think not.
When my husband Stephen and I went to our first NFB convention in Dallas, Texas, we thought that our “low vision” five-year-old would probably be okay because she had some remaining vision. After just one week of learning from parents and blind adults, listening to new ideas that made sense, and seeing competent, successful blind adults with varying levels of vision, we left with the knowledge that it would be our daughter’s level of blindness skills—not her residual vision—that would determine her chances of future success.
Diamonds are created from a common element—carbon—which has been subject to uncommon external pressures. Most natural diamonds were created in the high-pressure environment of the mantle of the Earth (about ninety miles deep) at temperatures of around 2,000 degrees Celsius and were brought up toward the Earth’s surface by deep source volcanic eruptions. Other tiny, natural diamonds have been found where asteroids have hit the Earth. The necessity for high temperatures and extremely high pressure render natural diamonds a rare gemstone. As parents of blind children we know how rare blindness is—there is a good reason it is called a low-incidence disability.
Diamonds also come in many shapes, sizes, and colors—like our children. Many people have an image of what a diamond—or a blind child—looks like. While there will certainly be examples to fit the stereotype, there are many more which do not.
The outside world often places value on diamonds in a manner unrelated to their actual utility and functionality. But despite the external differences highlighted by society, every diamond has a core strength unmatched by any other gemstone. I know that our children, blind or sighted, are the most precious gems we will ever encounter. Like diamonds they are strong and resilient. And, like diamonds, they are often judged on factors that are not related to their actual potential.
When shopping for diamonds, buyers are taught to focus upon the “four Cs” of diamond buying: cut, carat, color, and clarity. With our precious diamonds, our blind children, I submit that the four Cs of rearing a successful blind child are: competence, confidence, creativity, and community.
Like determining the cut of a diamond, the first step in rearing a successful blind child is ensuring that child’s competence. In what areas should a blind child be competent? In all areas!
As I have mentioned, my blind daughter Anna Catherine has functional vision. For some tasks her vision is quite functional; for others it is not. In some circumstances (“perfect” ambient lighting, familiarity with an area, etc.) her vision is more functional than it is in other circumstances. Like Anna Catherine, blind children must be skilled in all situations in which they find themselves, and the key to this is blindness skills. For children with visual impairment/blindness, their vision is not their strong suit. Asking a visually impaired/low vision/partially sighted child to rely solely on that impaired/low/partial vision ensures that the child’s progress and success will be impaired/low/partial.
As a teacher of blind students I am tasked with performing assessments on my students, part of which involves interviewing classroom teachers about my students in their classrooms. Far too often I hear, “She’s doing great for a low vision student,” or, “He’s doing well considering his eye issue.” I know these teachers mean well, but I cringe whenever I hear them describe my students with “for a” or “considering.” My students need to perform at their optimal levels, not “considering their visual impairment” or “for a blind child,” but their individual optimal levels period. And it’s my job to teach them the skills that will help them accomplish this—blindness skills.
Blindness skills provide our children the tools they need to be defined as individuals, not by their disabilities. Blindness skills include Braille (all forms: literary, math, science, music, etc.); orientation and mobility skills, including use of the long white cane and mobility in all areas—on escalators, crossing streets, buying food at the snack bar by themselves; technology skills, including nonvisual software, refreshable Braille displays, and audio output; and nonvisual skills that help our children maximize their independence—no matter if they are blind, with or without additional disabilities.
This week you will hear about and experience a secondhand immersion in many different blindness skills. You will witness efficient, confident mobility with long white canes. You will hear brilliant, well-researched sessions and speeches which were created and will be presented using Braille and accessible technology. You will watch blind adults performing everyday tasks without regard to their visual abilities and living their lives just as you do—and as you want your children to. Most importantly, you and your child will be enriched by learning the importance and secrets of the blindness skills you will experience here this week.
Every child deserves to have the skills and tools to achieve all that s/he can achieve. Anna Catherine’s success, like that of your child, will be determined by what she can do, not by what she can see. This basic competence is the first “C” necessary for preparing a blind child for lifelong success. And you will find a multitude of opportunities to gain information about and practice blindness skills at the NOPBC conference as well as at the NFB convention for the entire week.
The next vital “C” for all children is confidence. While confidence is important to sighted children, it is probably even more important to blind children. Blindness is a low incidence disability, particularly in children, so blind children may have few same-age peers in their home communities. This can be isolating and can make it difficult for blind children to accurately gauge their levels of accomplishment.
For example, many blind children are bombarded with people telling them what they can’t do because they are blind. Alternatively, they might hear how amazing they are for performing tasks which are both mundane and come easily to them. Both of these environments can erode the self-confidence of a blind child. In neither case may the blind child experience the opportunity to try, fail, and try again—the very experiences which build learning and self-confidence. A child in the former environment may never be permitted to stretch into new areas, and a child in the latter environment will never feel the need to do so. In both cases these children’s wings are clipped: they will never walk to and from school, cook a meal, or gain other skills of independent living, no matter how much they achieve academically.
Confidence is not something that can be taught or given. Confidence comes from within. Our children deserve to have the confidence to know that they can do—or figure out how to do—anything they need. Our children deserve to have quality instruction in Braille, long white cane skills, technology, and independent living skills. Will all of this instruction occur in the school building? No. It cannot. As parents we have the right and the duty to support our children in their acquisition of blindness skills. I knew this intuitively ten years ago, but as a sighted adult whose child is the first blind person I’d ever met, how could I do this? Didn’t I have to rely on the school—after all, they are the experts.
No. You, as a parent, are the expert on your child. Blind adults, who have learned, become proficient in, and used blindness skills every single day are experts. School officials have a great deal to share, and they may be experts, but they are not the experts. Instruction in skills leads to competence; the opportunity to use and master these skills instills confidence. Please do not hesitate to take advantage of the competent, caring blind adults you will encounter everyday here, and connect with Federationists in your own state. A strong network of experts in the home, in the community, and at school and the high level of expectations they will bring will provide your child a fertile field in which confidence may grow every single day.
Diamond buying’s third “C” is color, and my third “C” is creativity. Like color, creativity is both unimportant and vitally important.
In diamonds, the color is irrelevant to actual industrial utility. However, the color of a diamond can significantly affect its value as a gemstone, and many people have strong opinions about diamond color (hating or loving colored versus clear diamonds).
In the lives of blind children, creativity is too often pushed off to the side in favor of academics. So many blind children are pulled from art and music for instructional time. Can you believe it? Art and music? These subjects are vital to the development of a well-rounded person. The lessons learned in the creative arts spark innovative thought processes that will help children overcome both academic and real-life challenges.
Another obstacle to creativity is the pursuit of perfection. Too often children, especially blind children, are not allowed to fail. They are not allowed to experiment and find that their ideas didn’t work that time. This robs them of the opportunity to problem solve to determine what they might do differently to achieve a different result. In the words of Eleanor Roosevelt, I encourage you and your children to “Do one thing every day that scares you.” Today during our concurrent sessions, ask a question no matter how scary it might seem at first. Tomorrow morning your one thing might be a cane walk under sleepshades with your child. This week, go to the exhibit hall and experiment with some of the multitude of devices, both high-tech and low-tech, even if you don’t know what they do. In fact, explore a device with your child, and guess at what it does.
Once you encourage imagination and make it okay to be wrong, you may be quite surprised at what ideas your child comes up with. This is the beauty of creativity in action. Creativity cannot be measured on a standardized test, but its value outweighs that of any test. First, your blind child gains competence and confidence in blindness skills. Then you help nurture the creativity that will serve your child for a lifetime. These three “C”s, competence, confidence, and creativity are great. And we’re almost there, but not quite.
The fourth “C” in crafting our diamonds is community. Wonderful blindness skills and terrific academic achievement are of little consequence if a blind adult merely goes to work, goes home, and repeats the cycle day after day after day. An important part of all of our lives is our interaction with others.
Many blind children are always on the receiving end and do not have the opportunity to serve others at all. Each of us needs to be needed, and each of us needs to have something to give. No matter your child’s age, he or she can give back. Maybe your child will make a “Thinking of You” card for someone in a nursing home or a soldier overseas. Maybe your child can volunteer to read (in Braille, of course) to other children. Maybe your child makes lunch for others at a local soup kitchen. It doesn’t matter how your child uses blindness skills to give back to the community; it matters that your child does it. Indeed, this last “C,” community, completes the circle.
Speaking of community, please know that you are a most welcome part of our community. As a member of the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children you are a part of an amazing community—actually, a family. Tonight, please come to our family hospitality night and talk to someone you don’t know yet. This week, go up to a blind adult and introduce yourself. Here in the National Federation of the Blind, you won’t find any strangers—just friends you haven’t met yet.