I had a rather interesting discussion with a friend this morning that reinforced a very important concept for me: that early childhood experiences shape a person's experience of and perceptions about blindness. My friend and I were discussing our opinions about the best time to introduce a child to the cane. I feel very strongly that it should be done early for a number of reasons, one of the most important being that the seven or eight-year-old child has already begun to respond negatively to the idea that she is different. I despised the cane from the moment I first held it in my hands, and to be honest I still do. My friend said that she did not experience this kind of resistance.
Our discussion became a bit heated until I realized that what I was trying to express was a feeling of shock. I had never met a blind adult who was not in favor of early introduction of the cane. Then again, most of the adults I know had some vision as a child or were prohibited from exploring freely because of blindness. These factors were both strong influences in determining my reactions to getting my first cane, and they are strong factors in my advocacy for early instruction for children now.
After identifying my emotion as shock, we began exploring possible reasons for the difference in our opinions. A few things stood out to me.
My friend had parents who were both blind. She also lived near a school for the blind and took some classes there. This meant she was exposed to people who used canes and dog guides every day. I, on the other hand, did not meet anyone who used a cane until I was in my teens. That meant I had about seven years of instruction with the cane behind me by the time I saw anyone else using one. Even at camps and summer programs for blind children, canes were not to be found--not until I was 14 and attending the summer program at the Texas School for the Blind. Why? During my first summer there when I was seven, none of the children had canes. That all changed by the time I was 14. The teens had them, and so did the little kids. I wonder now when those little kids got their canes and how they felt...
A couple of years ago, the Mariposa online group (MOL) explored the question of what life would have been like without our respective disabilities. I never thought seriously about this question, but over the years I have often thought about how life would have been different if I had lived in a different place. I was born in the midst of a major family move; and for the first three months of my life I lived in a hospital in Baton Rouge, LA, while my parents lived in Mississippi. They held me for the first time when I went home from the hospital.
Knowing what I know now about services in many states, I'm very glad that my parents made the choices they made. After moving to Oklahoma City, OK, when I was a year old, they enrolled me in an early intervention program affiliated with a university where teachers were getting their graduate degrees in special education. Later, we moved to the Houston area, where there were many resources for blind children and their families. Still, I grew up as "the blind girl" in a world of sighted people. During my elementary school years, I attended school with a few other students who were visually impaired; but none were braille readers or cane users.
To make matters more confusing, my first exposures to children who were totally blind were not the kind of exposures that build a healthy understanding of the meaning of blindness. Most of the children I encountered who were totally blind had additional disabilities. I was considered "unusually bright"--later I heard someone use the term "vanilla blind" to refer to a person who was blind and had no additional disabilities. By the time I met a blind adult who held a job and had a family, I was a teenager--and by then, my attitudes about blindness were rooted very deeply. I didn't resist braille--I couldn't read any other way, and I got tired of people losing their voices and falling asleep when reading to me. But as for independent travel, I had little concept of my need for a solution. I moved around quite freely in familiar environments when they weren't crowded, and I was permitted to leave class early for this reason. In other environments, I was required to hold someone's hand--or, after learning the technique, to use "sighted guide." Is it any wonder that I despised the cane? I viewed it as some horrible thing thrust upon me solely because I "was blind," but I had no real understanding of what blindness meant.