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Winter 2004 Table of Contents
Versión Español de este artículo (Spanish Version)

Do You Believe in Your Child?

By Gene I. Brooks, Ph. D. , Governing Board Member for TSBVI, Austin, TX

Abstract: The author of this article shares his personal story of growing up as a person with visual impairments in the days of segregation and the steps he took to develop effective job skills that have helped him become successful.

Key words: blind, deafblind, personal story, career education, expanded core curriculum

When I was first approached about writing this article, my immediate reaction was that I don't have any helpful information to share with parents of blind children. However, after giving the article some thought, I realized that just maybe my story might help give hope to someone. After all, had it not been for my uncle and a handful of very special teachers along the way, I wouldn't be who and where I am today. These were special people because they believed in me, and they verbally let me know that they believed in me. But unfortunately, there are many children currently in special education who never hear encouraging words such as: you're going to grow up and do wonderful things or you're going to be a doctor when you grow up. Therefore, this article is about how I came to believe in myself and to say to parents: Let your children hear you say to them, "I believe in you!" But first some background.

Kingsville, Texas and the Early Years

Much like my grandfather before him, my father found himself working for the railroad in Kingsville, married and with five children. My twin sister and I are the youngest children. We were born on June 14, 1951. We grew up with lots of love from a large extended family and a community that cared. During my sister's and my delivery everything appeared to be normal with the exception of my starting to be born feet first. Over the next several years, my mother watched me to make sure that I hit all of the developmental milestones, not knowing if there had been some type of birth defect. At the age of three, my mother and aunt noticed that my left eye was pulling, and decided to take me to see an optometrist where the diagnosis of lazy eye was made (strabismus). The prescription for lazy eye at that time was for me to receive a pair of glasses and to wear a patch over my stronger eye, trying to make the weaker eye stronger. In short, over the next two years, I received two unsuccessful operations attempting to correct the problem.

Separate But Not Equal

In 1955, our mother enrolled my sister and me in a kindergarten class at a Catholic school even though our segregated school was doing a good job of educating black children. Our mother felt that we would receive a better education from the Catholic school in spite of the fact that all of our black teachers in our segregated school were hand picked from black teacher colleges and were thought to be some of the best and the brightest. While we were allowed to attend parochial school with Mexican-Americans in the early grades, we were not allowed to attend school with Whites at all until the late 1950s, and even at that time we were not educated together with Whites until the seventh grade.

My first school experience proved to be traumatic for me. Early on, I remember telling my mother that I didn't like going to the Catholic school because the nuns were mean. I felt they were mean because they used a ruler to hit me on the back of the hand when I made any type of mistake. And because I made lots of mistakes, my little knuckles stayed sore. After listening to me complain for months, my mother decided to withdraw both my sister and me and put us in our neighborhood school. Over the next three years I continued to have problems learning. After being retained in the first and the second grade, it was decided that I was mentally retarded and needed to be sent to a separate school that served children with mental retardation. After being there for about six months, I remember my teacher sending a note home with me asking my mother for a parent conference. It was at that time my teacher told my mother that she didn't think I was mentally retarded but that I might have a visual problem. So over the next several years my mother took me to Houston to undergo numerous medical exams. In 1960 I received the diagnosis of retinitis pigmentosa (RP), and it was at that time my mother decided to move us to Houston so I could receive a better education.

In 1961 we made the move to Houston, I started a sight savings class, and I loved all of it. For the first time I was learning. I was learning because the special materials that were used allowed me to see what was on the blackboard, read from large print books, and for the first time to interact with other children who had visual impairments like myself. I remained in the Houston school system until the fall of 1966 and at that time my mother enrolled me in the Texas School for the Blind. I was first scheduled to attend the school in the fall of 1965, but my start date had to be pushed back one year due to desegregation. At that time, all blind black students attended DB&O, which stood for Texas Deaf, Blind, and Orphan School, and all white blind students attended the School for the Blind.

In the fall of 1966, I arrived on the campus of the School for the Blind and I thought I was in heaven. Again, I saw other children who had visual impairments like me and, for the first time, I had the opportunity to participate in competitive sports and to date. However, my transition from Houston to the School for the Blind wasn't all good. Like the rest of society, the school was going through desegregation and there were some who didn't want us there and they tried to make our lives difficult. But as for me, I didn't really let it bother me that much because I thought I was in heaven, being surrounded by so many beautiful blind people.

When I first arrived at the School for the Blind I was placed back into the first grade. It's important to point out here that in 1966 - 1967 I was fourteen years of age and in a classroom with children who were only six years of age. Some of those students only came up to my knees when they stood up. After the school saw I could do the first grade work, I was moved into the third grade and I stayed there until I, along with many other black students, was placed back into a nonacademic track. I stayed there until about 1969. In the 1969 - 1970 school year, several teachers began to question why so many black students had been placed into the nonacademic track. I remember overhearing a parent talking with one of the concerned teachers telling her to go to the administration and demand that her child be placed back into the regular academic track. After hearing that conversation I decided to go to that same teacher and tell her that I wanted to be placed back into the regular track and that I wanted to graduate with a regular diploma. She suggested that I call my mother and ask her to make an appointment with the superintendent so she could discuss placing me back on track. A week later, I saw the superintendent in the hallway and I told him that my mother was concerned about me being in the nonacademic track and would therefore be calling him about placing me back into the regular academic track. Well, two weeks later, I was back in the regular track and very happy. What was interesting about me being moved back was that I never told my mother anything about the earlier conversation I had with the teacher or the superintendent, and therefore, my mother was never apprised of what was going on. But it worked! I was out of the nonacademic track and I loved it.

Remember me talking earlier about my uncle and the handful of special teachers that believed in me and let me know that they believed in me? Well, had it not been for them, I don't think I would be where I am today. In fact, I know I wouldn't. As a child, my uncle loved me unconditionally and I always heard him tell me that I would grow up to become a doctor some day. So when things got really tough for me, I would always hear him saying to me or to others around me "Gene's going to grow up and become a doctor some day." And you know what? It really did help me to get through the difficult times. And believe me, there were some difficult times. I also could not have made it without those teachers who always told me that I had the ability to be in the regular academic track. Guess what? I believed them!

In 1970 after I was placed back into the regular academic track, I was also selected to work in a pilot program that used students as residential aides with the younger students on campus. There were four of us selected to work in the program that year and all four of us worked in the program until we graduated from high school. I had a dorm with 16 boys and my job was to wake them up and make sure that they were dressed and ready for breakfast. After breakfast I was responsible for getting those that needed medication to the health center for their meds and then get them off to class. In lieu of monetary compensation for our services, we were given our own private rooms instead. And believe it or not, the private room was the selling point for all of us who participated in the program. We were the only four students on campus who had their own private rooms, and we were envied by the entire student body. Because we had demonstrated a strong work ethic, good leadership skills, and someone believed in us, all of us were offered full-time employment by the school after we graduated.

After graduation, in the fall of 1973, I was hired by the school and asked if I would like to work in a special program called deaf-blind. I knew then that my earlier high school work experience had helped me to explore whether or not I wanted to work in the field of special education. So I accepted the position and over the next eight years I received some of the best preparatory training for working in special education. I'm not talking about formal preparatory training but rather the day-to-day work experiences.

Shortly after I started to work at the Deaf-Blind Annex I realized that I was surrounded by a group of young people who were extremely bright, goal oriented, and who thought they could make a difference in the lives of each and every family we came in contact with. Therefore, it didn't take me very long to realize that I loved the Annex culture and that I too wanted to continue to grow individually and professionally. So I decided that I wanted to attend college and to someday be in a position to help visually impaired people and their families achieve their goals. Finally, in 1975, while I was still working at the Annex, I decided that my goal was to graduate from The University of Texas at Austin and to passionately pursue a career that would be used to ultimately change the lives of people with blindness and visual impairment.

That goal ultimately led to my receiving a doctorate of philosophy from the University of Texas at Austin in 2000. I am now a researcher and rehabilitation consultant and was appointed by Governor Perry in April 2003 to serve on the Governing Board of the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, where lives of young people are indeed changed.

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