I didn’t realise that blind people weren’t supposed to do things for a very long time.
I grew up playing football, fighting my sister and reading all the books I could get my hands on. My childhood, although not perfect, was painfully ordinary in many ways. My blindness was never viewed by my parents as a tragedy, or something to worry about, it was simply another part of who I was.
As far as I knew, blind adults went to university, got jobs and raised families. I had no idea that society didn’t have those kinds of expectations of us. My parents had always held me accountable for my behaviour, expecting me to achieve the same things as my sister. Our strengths lay in very different areas, but were equally celebrated. It was only when I began to meet other blind people that I discovered they’d had vastly different upbringings. I had freedom they couldn’t even imagine, simply because my parents had expected me to achieve.
My parents ensured I had access to braille books and by the age of five I was starting to use a computer independently. I never had to rely on others for information, if I wanted to know something I had the skills to seek the answer alone. This proved extremely useful as I had the ability to learn about the wider world. My knowledge wasn’t filtered through the lense of what others thought a blind child should know, instead I used my skills to discover all the answers I wanted. This exploration was supported by my family who always encouraged me to be curious, and translated to my life offline. I wasn’t afraid to explore, because I knew that there was always something to be discovered.
If I had the power to redo my life there is very little I’d change, but one thing would be the way in which I used a cane. Although I had o&m lessons from an early age I never bothered to use my cane outside. I viewed it as a useful tool, but one I’d probably start using in a few years. And because I was confident, nobody made me use it. The cane, when introduced from an early age can be a symbol of positivity and freedom, a child who grows up using it will understand the benefits it brings to their life. They are also likely to begin moving around independently much earlier, which can result in a more equal relationship with peers, rather than having to depend on them.
It was the way people outside of my family reacted to me that made me feel uncomfortable about my blindness. I began to realise that my ability to participate in activities depended on how others viewed me, rather than what I was actually capable of. Some of my teachers would encourage me to learn new skills, to push myself and succeed. And yet others would make me feel ashamed, singling me out as someone less able, without even finding out what I could do. I struggled with my identity for a long time, falling into a cycle of self-loathing an hatred of the world around me. I considered harming myself, and would constantly tell myself that I didn’t deserve to live, not because I believed it but because I wanted to be an equal, and thought I never would.
The ability to make choices regarding my body was often taken away from me when I was outside the house. I couldn’t choose who to sit with, instead an adult would grab my arm and force me into a seat on the edge of the room, one that was easy to find. It didn’t matter that I protested, being a disabled child meant I wasn’t afforded the same choices as others.
My parents thankfully taught me that this wasn’t ok. They showed me, by example, that I was able to make decisions, and had as much right to do so as my sighted peers. It was this knowledge that helped me navigate the confusion of childhood until I reached a point where I had the words to tell people how their behaviour made me feel.
Children are always observing the actions of their parents. If you respond to your blind child with positivity and confidence in their abilities, they will internalise that. The world around them will undoubtedly have lowered expectations of them, but you can dismantle those and prove that they are capable. If they have siblings, divide any chores given within the house equally. Expect your blind child to contribute to family life, and also teach them to compromise. In my family that sometimes meant a really boring trip to an art gallery if my sister wanted to go.
Despite the way outsiders treated me, I never doubted my own abilities. I grew up believing that blind people were successful, because my parents never gave me any reason to suspect otherwise. Blindness was a small, often insignificant part of our lives, rather than a shadow that loomed above us, governing our choices. It would take me a long time to deal with the shame I had internalised at the hands of others, but eventually I would understand that it was a societal problem, rather than being as a result of anything that was wrong with me. If I hadn’t had the skills to care for myself, to travel and live the life I desired, overcoming those experiences would have been much harder.
Ultimately, the best thing you can do for your child is to expect them to succeed, value their voice and give them the same decision making power as others around them. Teach them the skills they require to put those choices into action, and then celebrate their success. I promise you it will come.