One of my children had a favourite type of toy; a series of multiple sized plastic fish, in a scoop shape so that they stacked together. These ‘fish’ went everywhere. They were the best kind of favourite or security toy as they were able to be washed regularly throughout the day – in the bath, in the sink. Whenever washing of the child took place, so did washing of the fish. Although the washing had to be taught as part of the bathing etc. process, it was not automatic. As I said, the fish went everywhere. Learning to climb the ladder of the slide was done, fish in hand. Swinging was done, fish in hand. The fish went to kindergarten, to church (and tapped out the rhythm of the songs), weddings…everywhere.
It turned out, that the ‘scoop’ shape was a large part of the attraction. As the scoops from the ground coffee made their way into the toy collection, they became favourites as well. As did the washed scoops from the laundry detergent, and eventually we moved on to egg shells. Not plastic, real out-of-the-bum-of-a-chook egg shells. Every time I/we cooked with eggs, the most complete halves of the shells were washed and left on the window sill to dry. As one shell broke, it was replaced with another from the window sill. Eventually, vegetable peelings were the go, and as this one would fall asleep in the car the peelings would collect beside and behind car seats and on the floor.
Though none of these things were a bother to me in themselves (as my son with hair clips and nail polish were not, nor my girls wearing tiaras and wings to church or weddings, and one with band-aids on clothes), I was concerned that some learning was actually hindered by the constant presence of something in the hand, about an obsessive attachment to the objects themselves (which was in the nature of the child in question) and perhaps a few other considerations. So we embarked on a progressive process of experience and detachment.
One step we walked through was to leave the fish in one’s bag at kindergarten, and take them out again for the trip home. Once we got to egg shells, this particular child was part of the cleaning process (though probably only once in a while, I did most of this). We then began to use whole eggs to play with in a bowl. We would practice cracking them open into the bowl with, hopefully, two whole halves. Then my child was allowed to ‘play’ with it all, swishing hands in the raw egg, stirring etc. Once the play was completed, to end the experience the shell was crushed and stirred in as part of the fun. The shell was then known to have been destroyed and told that it could not be repaired. The shells on the sill were still available for a time while this play continued. Eventually I told this child how many shells were left on the window sill, and that once they had all been broken I would not be leaving any more up there. They were counted down as we went through them, giving fair, advanced notice of the time/day when they would no longer be available. The plastic toys were still available until the child grew out of the desire for them, as children usually do throughout their development.
This all happened over some years. It was not accomplished in a week, or a month. It was not begun because I, or someone else, was uncomfortable or embarrassed with this child’s preferred method or objects of play. It was not attended to so that this child would conform and be like any other child (or, heaven forbid, any adult). We took this child’s personality and temperament, age and interests, foreseeable future needs and potential desires into account. Then thought outside of the square, while looking into the child and our own family life.
And the result…a practically grown, independent, well-adjusted young adult – who just doesn’t happen to be able to see.
Don’t fret, be creative and imaginative… this, too, is ok.
When I said I’d love you always
When I said, no matter what
When I said I’d hold within my arms
Whoever I begot
Well, I meant all I was saying
Well, I meant every single word
Well, I meant in all sincerity
I’d adore my little bird
So, sing my little songbird
So, sing in your own way
So, sing with voice, or print, or hand
Sing while you are at play
You speak in different tones sometimes
You speak without a sound
You speak from deep within your soul
Like no other I have found
Though they see incapacity
Though they see a misfit
Though they see their life hindered
I see my life on fire; lit
New vision now have I
New vision now could they
New vision now could all embrace
Oh try, now, while you may
Oh mother, you did not expect
All with me, you received
Along with joy of our new life
I know you’ll need to grieve.
I’m some of what you thought I’d be
I’m small and need your care
But care might be understating
All you think you’ll have to bear.
It may be that my eyes won’t see
Your face and smile at you
Or perhaps I’ll never hear you say
You love me when I’m blue.
I may not walk or you may have to
Fit on me a brace
At school it might be hard to run
You may not watch me race.
But I will bring you joys untold
Just you wait and see
With every small accomplishment
Or great, in victory.
If I never look you in the eye
Or hold a conversation grand
We’ll find new ways to show our love
As us, is how we’ll stand
So don’t you fret now, mother
We don’t always get what we expect
Sometimes we get much greater gifts
Than we imagined, when plans were set.
We’re going to meet new people
Have adventures great and small
And when we’re done with all things new
We’re going to learn and meet some more.
As I think back over the journey of having children who happen to be blind, I see so much that I would never have known or experienced without them.
Yes, the obvious of parenting; the marvel of new life, dependance, sleeplessness, responsibility…But so much more!
How the body works; theirs, mine, other children’s and their family members we’ve met. How the body works differently when genes or brains or – whatever – don’t operate as they were designed to. How differently bodies and minds and emotions and souls and families work, for recognised and unrecognised reasons. So many varied ways to overcome obstacles – our own or culture’s; physical, emotional, attitudinal. The dreaded P word (perseverance, ugh!), patience, wonder, ‘aha’ moments, creative thinking, someone else’s creative thinking, the excitement and frustration of difference…Oh my, and so much more!
I would most like to mention just now a phrase I learned, used by some Early Childhood Educators who worked with our children, “We do a lot of sitting on our hands!” Hand-sitting. I have found that hand-sitting is a good principal to follow in many of our relationships, not just in teaching children with a vision impairment a new concept or activity. I must confess right off that this is a struggle for me also, especially when I’m weary or stressed or in unfamiliar surroundings. The desire or need to be ‘hands on’ sometimes seems overwhelming, but it is not.
If the child (or in fact adult) who is blind does not experience for themselves, they rarely if ever learn what is being taught. Once they have concrete experiential knowledge, learning in theory may take place, but there must be a foundation of experiential learning for the mind to develop new learning from. Now, this is true of everybody, but the individual who is blind (particularly a child in the company of an authority figure) often has their opportunities for independent experience taken from them. Guided learning is necessary, important and valuable, unfortunately we too often do an activity for rather than guide through.
As I have said, I still do not do this every time. So valuable, even imperative, is it to guide through, that I am at the very least frustrated with myself whenever I have neglected to be attentive to do so. I have heard of some adults describing hand-over-hand coaction as being similar to covering the eyes of someone with sight while expecting them to see. My children have gained little to no information from something while coaction is occurring. This can be very difficult for a parent or teacher, or therapist to conceive of, especially when we consider that it is an acceptable practice when working with many other types of difference. I believe, though, that we often use this principal in other places where it would be more productive for, and less offensive to, those with whom we are seeking to be of benefit if we guided in less intrusive ways. Learning to be more descriptive is of inestimable value, just as the use of pictorial guidance has been enlightening, less intrusive and effective for many of those on the Autism Spectrum and people alongside them.
Alongside! Mick and Ruby Duncan from New Zealand live a life of serving others which they call “Alongsiders”. If we’re going to do a lot of “hand sitting”, I think we will also be doing a lot of “along siding” and both inhibit the problem of intruding. Physically, emotionally, socially, mentally; intruding is not only offensive to those we intrude upon but counterproductive to any kind of independence, interdependence, maturity, individuality or self-actualisation we are seeking to encourage. It will take some self-control. It will take some empathy. It will take some soul and attitudinal searching of ourselves. But the personal benefits are also incredible! Less pressure, on us and those we’re working or living with. Less tension in relationships. Less frustration when our own ways are not adopted. And those we love, serve, teach and care for will want us alongside them. And they will become who they were designed to be and interact with the world as they were designed to interact with it, and us.
I am not advocating that we leave ourselves and others as we are. I believe we thrive when we grow and learn, and I believe we need to learn things that we are not familiar or comfortable with and are sometimes afraid of. But how we learn and teach is important. Understanding how someone learns is imperative for beneficial, productive teaching. Parents, families, teachers, therapists, lecturers, doctors, nurses, others…lets first understand how we learn and love, then try to understand how others learn and love…then lets learn and love together!