Future Reflections          Fall 2007

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“You Don’t Have To…”

by Carrie Gilmer

Reprinted from the March 2007 issue of Expectations, the newsletter of the Minnesota Parents of Blind Children, a division of the NFB of Minnesota.

Editor’s Note: Carrie Gilmer is emerging as an energetic and philosophically thoughtful parent leader in the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children. In this editorial, originally titled “The Power of Expectations,” Carrie examines the importance of expectations even in the ordinary events of life that, at the time they occur, may seem inconsequential. Here is Carrie:

Carrie understands that raising expectations is a fundamental necessity in the development and independence of her son Jordan. Four little words, “You don’t have to…” How much harm can be done by such a seemingly innocent pardon? After all it is born out of the kindest and most sympathetic of intentions, right? This thing is unfair for you to do, so you don’t have to do whatever this is. That levels everything; all is right with the world.

Recently my son Jordan was excused from an assignment at school with the words, “You don’t have to do it.” His class was to view a film and answer some questions about it from a worksheet as they were viewing the video. It was a spontaneous assignment added to the planned showing of the video because the class had been fidgety and the teacher wanted to ensure that the students focused on the film. Therefore, the worksheet was not available in Braille.

Jordan has enough vision so that when educational videos are played, he is given the option of simultaneously viewing the video on a separate monitor. This way, he can essentially put his face right up to the screen and view what he can--which even then is not much. He can also access regular print (such as that on this worksheet) with magnification, but it is very slow going.

Thinking that it would be too hard for Jordan to try to see the print, write, and keep his face on the screen to view the video visually all at the same time--while also rationalizing that Jordan, (who has a reputation for being very focused) is not a fidgety student--the teacher decided to give Jordan a break.

Her offer: “Everyone is doing this worksheet Jordan, but I know you pay attention and I know it would be harder for you, so you don’t have to do it if you don’t want to.”

Jordan, for his part, readily agreed to the logic and gladly accepted the offer that he “didn’t have to do” this.

At first, I thought he had been excused simply because the Braille was not available. When the teacher explained what occurred (we happened to have a conference within days of discovering that the incident had happened) my husband and I indicated to her that we understood and accepted her explanation that for Jordan to do the assignment from the print copy might have actually caused him to be less focused on the film. The whole matter was taking up too much of the conference time and so, after discovering the accurate sequence of events from the teacher’s side of things, we moved on. It wasn’t until after we left the conference that I allowed myself to think more deeply about it.

I began to ask myself some questions. Wouldn’t the other students have had to take their eyes off the film as well in order to read and write on the worksheet? Might this have caused the sighted students to also miss something as they concentrated on filling out the worksheet during the film? Granted, they probably would be able to do it faster than Jordan, but still…

I began to consider what Jordan or the teacher might have thought to do if the idea that “he didn’t have to” was totally unthinkable or unacceptable--not even in the realm of possibility. What if, at the start, as the worksheets were being passed, another student had read the questions to Jordan while he typed them into his BrailleNote? It would have taken less than five minutes to do this. Then Jordan could have “kissed” the screen without interfering with his hands reading and writing the refreshable Braille on his BrailleNote. He would then, in fact, have the best opportunity in the entire class to focus on every moment of the film while writing.

What if he had taken the sheet home and simply answered them that evening, while the film was still fresh in his mind? The whole thing was bothering me, and I was pressing Jordan about it because I thought he should be even more bothered by it. After all, he was the one who had been robbed. Robbed, did I say? Yes, robbed!

While the teacher’s purpose for the assignment had merely been a tool to motivate the class to pay better attention to the film, the actual assignment presented quite a learning opportunity. Doing it forced the students to not only focus on the film, but to analyze it and then go further to articulate what they had analyzed as they formulated and wrote the answers. There are a number of rather valuable skills involved. Everyone had a chance to work on those skills, whether they realized it or not, simply by doing the assignment, but not Jordan. He simply passively watched and enjoyed the film. He had no catalyst to prompt him to analyze anything more deeply, and no opportunity to practice articulating his thoughts. He was relieved by a false idea of fairness, but in reality robbed of a learning opportunity.

Beyond that, how did his classmates view Jordan from the perspective of “he doesn’t have to?” This question got to Jordan and he began to appreciate that it was a big deal after all. How can peers view you as an equal if you “don’t have to?” What does it mean when everyone accepts that you “don’t have to” because whatever it is that you don’t have to do is (or appears to be) harder for you?

How often have I met blind children who didn’t have to use their canes, tie their shoes, learn to read Braille, be on time, or in general to be expected to do the same things at the same time as other children of the same age and/or ability? I am sad to say I meet them too often. And what is the consequence? They didn’t have to…so they don’t!

Do you want to raise a blind child who can compete with his or her peers? Then strike the words “you don’t have to” from your vocabulary.

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