It’s a chilly Nebraska autumn day as my two children and I depart for the Lincoln Children’s Zoo.
As we walk to the bus stop several blocks away, I’m carrying my 1-year-old daughter in a Moby wrap. My purse, with my 5-year-old son’s booster seat inside it, is slung over my shoulder, and my daughter’s heavy car seat is slung awkwardly over my back. We’re taking the bus to the zoo, but I expect my children will be tired after a long morning there, so I have to schlep both the car seat and booster seat with me if I want to be able to take an Uber or Lyft home. Along with this mountain of baby gear, I also carry my long white cane. My husband Greg and I are both blind; our two children, Leo and Josephine, are not.
There are thousands of families like ours across the United States. Blind parents are as diverse as any other group of parents. We come from all ethnic, racial, religious and economic backgrounds. In some of our families, both parents are blind. In other families, one parent is blind and one is sighted.
Some blind parents are single or divorced. Some blind parents have master’s degrees and doctorates; others haven’t graduated from high school. Some make six-figure incomes. Many depend on public assistance. If you join a Facebook group for blind parents, you’ll find working parents, stay-at-home parents, sleep trainers, co-sleepers, parents who formula feed and those who breastfeed, homeschoolers, helicopter parents, attachment parents and free-range parents.
However, besides managing the challenges that all parents face (Is my child getting too much screen time? Is my baby eating enough?), we face many other challenges that are unique.
When people think about difficulties that blind parents face, they usually think about the logistical challenges. How can a blind parent accurately measure infant Tylenol? How can a blind parent get a sick child to a doctor? The good news is that these logistical questions are usually the easiest to answer. Blind parents put tactile markers on the syringes we use to give our babies medication. We walk and use public transportation, Uber and Lyft to get our kids to doctors’ appointments and play dates. Many of us wear our babies in carriers such as the Moby wrap or an Ergobaby carrier, which allow our hands to be free to use canes to detect obstacles, landmarks and drop-offs, or to use guide dogs. Many of us have found that jogging strollers are the easiest to pull behind us while we’re using our canes.
However, the logistical challenge that blind parents say is hardest to work around is finding access to practical and affordable transportation. Many blind parents live in areas where public transportation is sparse or nonexistent. Paratransit policies often don’t allow riders to make stops to drop off a child at preschool and then continue on to a parent’s workplace. This can significantly limit the choices some parents have when seeking child care and choosing what school a child will attend as well as for social activities.
But perhaps the greatest challenges blind people face are those that result from stigma and negative misconceptions about disability. Blind parents often feel isolated, underestimated and marginalized.
One parent in a Facebook group for blind parents recently wrote about wanting to get to know other parents in her child’s class better, so she spent a great deal of money on all the food for her child’s classroom holiday party. When she delivered the food to the classroom, the other parents took the food she had brought, showed her over to a chair and ignored her completely while they went about decorating the room and setting up for the party. They incorrectly assumed that she couldn’t help with these tasks, and they further assumed that she wouldn’t be enjoyable to get to know.
Another mother shared recently at a seminar for blind parents that she intentionally never arrives early for events, because when she does, she finds that other parents never sit near her. She advises other blind parents to arrive just in time for an event to start, so that they can take a seat next to someone who is already there instead of possibly finding themselves alone at a table or in a row of chairs.
Many blind parents seek out moms’ groups or dads’ meetups and feel like they are merely tolerated instead of befriended. A friend recently recounted that she’d offered to babysit for another mother at her church; the other mother told her she had already found a babysitter, and then turned around and asked another mother if she was available. Due to incorrect assumptions about their capabilities and deeply entrenched societal stigma about blindness in general, feelings of isolation and loneliness are common among blind parents.
As hurtful as these examples are, the consequences of stigma and negative misperception can be far more serious. Many blind parents have faced custody challenges either at birth or at the time of a divorce, based solely on the incorrect stereotypes held by hospital staff, social workers and family court workers.
Although the Americans with Disabilities Act does provide some protection, and more and more states are passing laws protecting the rights of parents with disabilities, we still see far too many children threatened with removal from loving homes due to the prejudiced and incorrect notions held by social service and family court staff. Happily, the number of blind parents who face challenges after giving birth has gone down significantly in the past few decades. However, when a separation or a divorce gets ugly, too many parents still find themselves fighting for their right to continue parenting their children.
Finally, due to a higher than average unemployment rate, a significant portion of blind parents face all the same challenges as other low-income parents. Because of employers’ misconceptions about the abilities of blind people and a lack of quality vocational placement services, almost 70 percent of blind people are unemployed or significantly underemployed.
All the logistical challenges of blindness and of being low income are compounded by the United States’ lack of affordable child care, public transportation, higher education and career services. Together, these factors significantly limit the choices many blind parents have of where to live, where to send their children to school, and whether their children have access to preschool and extracurricular activities.
I currently serve as the chairperson of the Blind Parents Group of the National Federation of the Blind, which serves as a resource and support network for blind parents by blind parents. We host an annual national meeting as well as local seminars, run a nationwide mentoring program, host monthly conference calls on a wide variety of topics and maintain an email Listserv, and our group members are active on the Blind Parents Connect Facebook group. We also assist parents who are experiencing custody challenges, and educate the public about the normalcy and the challenges of blind parenting. If you or a person you know is looking for resources on parenting with vision loss, please check out our website at blindparents.org to learn more about the resources we offer to help blind parents connect with one another and raise happy, healthy families.
Other organizations that assist parents with disabilities more generally include the National Research Center for Parents with Disabilities, which provides training and technical assistance to improve the lives of parents with disabilities and their families. Through the Looking Glass, an organization which grew out of the disability rights movement, conducts a variety of research, training and advocacy programs for parents with disabilities.
In addition, I’ll be sharing more insights on this blog for blind parents about how to find solutions to the challenges we face, support and resources, and connect with other blind parents who are thriving and raising happy, successful families.
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