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Overprotectiveness Hurts

As a blind child, I was raised in an overprotective home. I am, my no means, unique. I Have many blind friends who were raised in a similar environment, but this makes growing up much tougher in the long run.

As the parent of a child with a vision impairment, my mother lived with tremendous guilt for bringing a blind child into the world. This ongoing guilt was needless and counter productive, and it negatively affected our relationship throughout the rest of her life.

My vision impairment was caused by retinitis pigmentosa, a condition that is usually hereditary, but I can't identify anyone in my family who has it. Like many others with RP, my usable vision deteriorated gradually as I grew up. It would plateau for awhile, suddenly decrease slightly, plateau again for a few more years, and then diminish further. Today, I have little usable vision.

Since my vision deteriorated gradually, I attended a variety of schools, all of which took me away from where I lived. From a fairly early age, I knew I wanted to go on to college or university. In grades seven and eight, I thought a lot about my future, and realized I had two options--stay at home in Toronto and attend my local high school, or go away to what was then known as the Ontario School for the Blind, about 60 miles away.

I decided to begin making the break, and chose the residential school.

This wasn't an ideal decision. While the residential school offered a fairly strong academic program, it did not encourage the development of those all-important social skills that everyone needs to be a fully participating member of the community. These skills are particularly important for persons who are blind, many of whom come from overprotective homes.

Many who lose their vision gradually move through a number of identifiable stages, from denial to anger and eventual acceptance. I didn't. One day while walking along the street, I suddenly felt very unsafe, feared I would eventually fall down a big flight of stairs, and decided it was time to get a white cane.

After graduation from grade 12, I again had two options--return home to attend grade 13 at my local high school, or go away to one of the several Ontario universities that offer what was called "Preliminary Year", which was supposed to be similar to grade 13. Again, I chose to leave my hometown to continue breaking away, and that's when my life really began to change for the better.

I arrived at the University of Windsor, a naive lad of 18, the product of an overprotective home life, and a long way from becoming "life smart." I was sitting in my room in the residence when in walked Gerry Gaughan, a graduate student, who took an interest in all new blind students who came to the university.

Many of us can point to "watershed" points in our lives, and I am no different. There are three individuals who were very important to my development. Some might call them "mentors", but our relationship was never that formal. Gerry was the first and, from a personal standpoint, probably the most important.

Gerry is the most "street smart" person I have ever met. He came from a small community in Northern Ontario, and while he was a graduate student, he spent a lot of his spare time in the blues clubs in Detroit where he performed occasionally, and he even wrote a few good blues songs.

Gerry introduced me to campus life, helped me set up my study room, and also find a group of volunteer readers. Through my interaction with Gerry and increasing participation in university life, I changed quite dramatically, began gaining important self-confidence and came away far better prepared to "get on" with life.

I found work, got married and left home. Throughout this period, and afterwards, my mother would occasionally remind me that there was room at her place, and that I was welcome to come back home if ever things didn't work out. While that provided a nice back-up, I quickly realized it was her way of trying to hold onto her little boy, who had become a man. Our relationship continued to deteriorate.

Over the years, I met two other individuals who proved important role models, and I began my lifelong involvement in numerous human and disability rights groups. Those involvements led me to a satisfying career as a civil servant, travel in 24 countries and active participation in community life.

But all of these involvements never succeeded in convincing my mother to let go. From time to time, she would remind me of that space in her house, waiting for my return.

Today, we hear that attitudes towards persons who are blind have improved, and how emerging technology has opened new doors and opportunities for blind adults. There is truth to these statements.

But how much of this information trickles down to new parents? How does a new parent assist a blind child to grow and develop? What services and programs are out there? How can the new parent traverse the labyrinth and find that important helpful individual who might make all the difference to their child's development?

Dreaming is important for every child, and to dream is ok. It isn't necessarily the norm for kids who grow up blind. Too often, we only hear about our supposed limitations, and those things we cannot do or should not even attempt.

We must be encouraged to dream, to explore the world around us, to participate in our communities and to pursue our dreams. Most individuals, regardless of ability, are happier knowing they have followed their heart and pursued their dreams, rather than wondering what might or could have been "if only ". Most likely they would achieve more in trying than not making the attempt at all.

We who are blind are no different. It is important that we try, dream, and not be sheltered from this wide and wonderful world.

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