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Summer 2001 Table of Contents
Versión Español de este artículo (Spanish Version)
Off to a Good Start
By Phil Hatlen, Superintendent, Texas School for the Blind and Visually
I've "stolen" the title of this short paper from the Blind Babies
Foundation in San Francisco. I was once their Executive Director, and I think
they'll forgive me for using this title, which, I think, describes what we all
want for our infants. Using such a descriptive title leaves me with the
responsibility of providing some content that will be helpful to parents and
teachers. This time, I want to talk directly to parents of babies and toddlers.
What do I want to say to parents of blind and visually impaired infants?
First of all, I want to say to you that those of us who have not walked in your
shoes have only the slightest idea of what it feels like, and what it is like,
to be the parent of a blind child. It is, therefore, with much humbleness that I
share with you the following thoughts:
- Love, cuddle, and completely enjoy your baby. He may not be what you
expected and wanted, and you may still be grieving, or be in shock, but from
the moment of birth your baby needs your body, your warmth, your love.
- Try to notice the wonderful attributes of your baby. It's easy and natural
to dwell on the disability, but your joy in parenthood will really start
growing when you begin to discover the many wonderful things about her.
- Seek out professional help as soon as possible after diagnosis.
Pediatricians, ophthalmologists, social workers, and generalists in early
childhood are all valuable allies, but the one person you really, really
need is an experienced expert in the effects of visual impairment on early
growth and development.
- Maintain close physical contact with your blind baby. For example, a back-
or front-pack can be far better than a buggy or stroller, because, while the
surroundings may hold no interest for your child, the warmth, contours, and
movement of your body will.
- Have the same developmental expectations for your baby as you would for
any child, but know that your direct involvement in her development will be
- If your baby is blind or has severe visual impairment, remember that
incidental learning through observation will not occur. When my son Lucas
was a baby, I observed him laying prone on his tummy in our living room. He
pulled himself up so his head was raised, his arms straight, and moved his
head as far as he could in both directions. As I watched him, it became
clear that what he was doing was visually organizing his environment. How do
blind babies do this? It is not difficult, but it must be taught. Your
"expert" in visual impairment will help you learn how to do this.
- The blind child's world is the length of her arm. This is essential and
fundamental to remember as you begin to find ways to assist in your child's
development. Sounds and smells beyond arm's reach cannot be identified by
the blind child, so expansion of his world is up to you and the good advice
and suggestions you receive.
- In order to creep, to crawl, to cruise, and to walk, there must be a
reason for the blind child to move. Something must be beyond arm's reach
that he wants. This sound or smell must be associated with a past pleasant
experience. An enjoyable toy that makes a distinct sound, mother's voice
that is out of reach, the smell of something good to eat - these are the
experiences that motivate blind and visually impaired babies to walk.
- Be prepared for developmental differences between your child and a
non-disabled child. Sometimes walking doesn't occur until the baby is 12-15
months old or older. If other areas of motor development seem okay, don't
worry. Your baby is simply learning other things and postponing walking.
Talk with your expert on visual impairments about differences in
developmental patterns, how you might help, and whether you should be
- If your baby is likely be a braille reader, consider early introduction to
braille as a system for pairing symbolic language with real objects. You may
wish to put braille labels on every object in your home - the walls, the
floor, the toilet bowl, the dresser, etc. When your baby encounters these
strange dots, you don't need to begin reading instruction. Just tell him
that the jumble of dots represents the word "wall" (or whatever),
and "wall" is the object that the word is attached to. It seems to
me a shame that some braille readers don't see their first word until formal
school, while sighted infants and preschoolers are surrounded by print from
the time they can remember.
- Teachers of visually impaired students have many stories to tell about
blind and visually impaired children who were not ready to learn when they
came to school because they lacked real, concrete experiences. These young
children are lacking in experiential learning. What this means is
that they arrived at school without the background of experiences with the
real world that adds meaning to learning. Your baby and preschool child
needs direct, physical experience with his environment in order to
learn in a meaningful way. The story in the reading book about a brother and
sister at the grocery store will have little or no meaning for the blind
child who has not experienced "grocery store." This experience has
to happen in a grocery store, and must include verbal information and
first-hand tactual experiences. Your baby and preschooler must have a
comprehensive exposure to the world, and information for understanding that
world, if school is to be successful.
Well, I could go on, but I think I'll stop now. Babies are precious - they
deserve the very best we can give them. They don't know what they need - parents
must know and offer the experiences, the love, and the caring required by a
blind or visually impaired child. Parents won't always know what to do - they
need a competent, creative teacher of the visually impaired or early childhood
caseworker who knows early childhood growth and development to help them.
So you see, the parent/child/professional team must begin when the child is an
infant. There are so many essential learning and developmental experiences
required by the blind baby that this partnership must begin as soon after
diagnosis as possible.
Parents: Don't delay - find yourselves a qualified and creative expert
in visual impairment right away!!
Teachers: Don't delay - if you're not feeling qualified to help
parents through the critical growth period of birth to five, then find classes
and readings that will prepare you for this crucial role.
Parents and Teachers - have fun with babies, and help babies to have
fun with you and others!!
| Summer 2001
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September 2, 2003