My Experience as a Blind Child
By: Rocky Hart
(Editor’s Note: In this year’s essay contest, sponsored by our Metro Chapter, we had a tie for first place. This was one of our winning essays. It’s exciting to see teens participating in our contest. Since writing this piece, Rocky has joined the Federation!)
“So, what is it like to be blind or visually impaired, and how can you live a productive and independent life?” I know many blind people have probably been asked this question on numerous occasions. Or perhaps, “What has your experience been as a blind or visually impaired person?” As I am well aware, many people who are blind have different stories to tell. Some, like myself, have been blind from birth, while others became blind later in life. We all have had different experiences, and, as I look back on my own childhood, I have had both positive and negative encounters. I believe it is critically important to share our experiences not only with other blind people, but also with the general public, as there are many misconceptions, false assumptions, and superstitions among the sighted population about what blind people are capable of doing, what we can understand, and how we live our daily lives. Although consumer organizations like the National Federation of the Blind, American Council of the Blind, and American Foundation for the blind exist to promote a positive outlook on this disability as well as challenge common misconceptions and superstitions about it, not all of this has been eliminated. In my experience, blindness has been viewed as either something that makes me unique, or a disability that limits what I am capable of. As I reflect back on my childhood, I vividly remember at least one experience of both. This experience started with my parents.
When I was about 4 months old, I was diagnosed with Norries Disease, the condition that caused my blindness. My mother was determined to at least attempt to cure my blindness and restore my vision. I traveled to Michigan when I was about 6 months old to undergo a procedure that doctors hoped would restore my vision. When the operation was unsuccessful, my mother wondered why she had a blind child. She waited 10 years for a child, survived a very rigorous 31-week pregnancy, and now her child has a disability. How could this be? None of this, however, stopped her from providing the best life she could for me. She refused to feel sorry for me, and was frustrated by people of the general public who did. She always had high expectations for me and, despite my disabilities, was determined to raise a strong, competent, confident, independent child. In order to accomplish this, however, she knew she would need to make appropriate accommodations for me. For this reason, I began receiving special education services when I was an infant, and both my education team and mother have taken time to teach me basic life skills, as well as working on learning things like braille, orientation and mobility, and other instruction I would need to ensure I had a successful life and education. My father, however, had a very different approach.
Although he knew I could live a productive and independent life, he didn’t know exactly how to provide it. When he learned the operation on my eyes was not successful, he was disappointed because he says he wanted to raise me to become a good hunter and fisher, and then eventually start a father-son tree removal business, and now, in his mind, that plan wouldn’t work. I personally believe this plan not working had nothing to do with my blindness, and everything to do with God having a different plan for my life. Because of my blindness, he has always assumed that I need “special” treatment and was limited in what I could do. For example, when we would go to a restaurant, he would assume I needed special seating arrangements because I was blind, or that I need assistance with simple tasks, such as putting on my own seatbelt, nearly on the grounds that I was blind. Although I still need assistance, to this day, to complete certain daily tasks, what my father thought was helping me was actually hindering my chance to become independent. I thank God that my mother has been in my life and has raised me to be productive and independent. I believe that if my father had raised me, my life would have been significantly different because I may have been raised in a bubble, due to him not having the right ideas, approaches, and accommodations for my blindness in mind. This became more evident to me after my parents' divorce, because they would occasionally argue about how to raise me effectively. Fortunately, when my stepfather came into my life upon my parents' divorce at age 5, he accepted my blindness, and treats me like his own son, and has truly become a father figure for me over the past 9 years, and he and my mother have done everything they could to give me a successful life and education. These experiences also occurred at certain times in school.
As I advanced through elementary school, I had both positive and negative experiences. Some of my teachers and several other staff at the school automatically assumed that because I was blind, I was limited in what I could do. Some of my peers were afraid to socialize with me, because they didn’t think I could understand them or, perhaps, because I was blind, were concerned I wasn’t able to interact with them. Part of this problem was also due to me being more withdrawn than my peers. Despite this, many teachers and students treated me like any other student, allowing and encouraging me to participate in activities, and my special education team insured I had appropriate accommodations. I was receiving instruction in braille and audio formats, orientation and mobility services, learned how to use various kinds of adaptive technology, and even learned some daily living skills. It seemed as if I had what I needed to complete a quality education. Even so, it was thought that I couldn’t participate in certain educational and extracurricular activities, and in some cases, I was pulled out of certain classes because of my blindness. Art was one example.
I attended art classes up until fourth grade. At that point, my special Education team believed it was in my best interest to pull me out of art class because they didn’t think I could keep up with my peers, partly due to my blindness, because art involved a lot of drawing and painting, and there were concerns from both the art instructor and my education team that I would fall behind in the curriculum. We couldn’t find any other solutions, so I would have to be pulled out, and honestly, I didn’t mind at that time. As I reflect on it, However, I can use that as an example of a misconception, even though pulling me out of the class was in my best interest.
One positive experience I had in public school, however, was in physical education class. For the first few months of first grade physical education, it was clear that I couldn’t keep up physically and at the skill levels of my peers. Instead of pulling me out of phy. ed. completely, I was enrolled in Disability Adapted Physical Education, (DAPE). Although the curriculum was modified, it still allowed me to participate in the class. I even became a part of the Special Olympics team for about the last 4 years I was in public school.
In September 2015, I transferred to the Minnesota State Academy for the Blind, (MSAB). Since coming to MSAB, I have had more opportunities over the last 3 years than I could’ve dreamed of over the entire 10 years I was in public school. One major reason for this is because all of the staff have had training in B/VI, and all of the students are either totally blind or visually impaired. Due to smaller class sizes, I am also able to work at my own pace, receive individualized instruction specific to my needs, and have the opportunity to discover the plan that God has for my life. I have broadened my social experience through participating in many extracurricular activities and serving as a representative for my fellow students on committees within the school. In March of 2017, I had the great honor of testifying before the State Senate educational finance committee on behalf of our school, and in September of this year, was elected president of the MSAB student council, something I am very proud of. I am a freshman in high school now, and my goal is to finish high school, go to College, and start a career as either a politician, author, motivational speaker, minister, teacher, or whatever it is God has planned for me.
I believe that my story is one of thousands told by blind people, and I hope it inspires many across this nation. I believe that we are all united in that we all have different stories and experiences with this disability, yet we can come together for a common cause, the cause that brought forth organizations like the National Federation of the Blind. When thousands of blind people are together, living our lives with competence, confidence, the strength to break down barriers, the courage to challenge the status quo, and are united for the same cause, shows the world that people who are blind, and people with disabilities in general, like myself, are capable of living productive and successful lives, making our own decisions, having a job, and raising a family. I also happen to believe that people with disabilities are of God’s wonderful creation. The world is blessed to have us, because we not only make our world more interesting, it also allows God to use us in many ways to accomplish his work. People who are blind have engaged in just about every career known to date. There are blind lawyers, doctors, teachers, scientists, engineers, and yes, blind parents. What I want to make absolutely clear is that, although you may have a disability, you are still capable of living a successful life. I personally am confident in knowing that, even with my adult life ahead of me, I can choose the path that I want to take for my own life, and that blindness does not and will not dictate my life’s path.