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The Quest For Independence

Editor's Note: Parents of young blind children are often bewildered and frightened. What can they do to ensure that their children learn the skills they need to become competent adults? The professionals in work with the blind have written volumes on the subject. In her practical common sense way Carla McQuillan speaks volumes in a few paragraphs. Here is what she had to say to the NFB:AE convention.

I'm going to begin by discussing a developmental model that Dr. Marya Montessori presented a number of years ago. Montessori described the quest for independence-the drive to reach out and gain ever-increasing control over one's environment. She considered this initial drive one that every individual feels from the moment of birth; this is one of my favourite of her theories. The notion that an infant reaches out to those things that he or she can touch in order to gain a greater understanding of the environment has always struck a chord with me.

Montessori goes on to say that the knowledge gained from this initial tentative exploration then grows into a motivation for the infant to creep beyond his or her immediate perimeters. And so the infant begins to crawl and the young toddler begins to walk. Thus they become confident, they become comfortable and they gain an understanding of all of the world in their immediate area.

Now let's look at the blind child. Frequently that quest for independence is stifled because the well-meaning sighted individuals in the child's environment bring things to the child rather than expecting or encouraging the child to discover and explore for himself. So rather than the child feeling the conquest of independence and mastery of his own environment by his own exploration and his own development of skills and mobility, the child has the environment brought to him. Food is brought to him, he is picked up and carried from one point to another. In fact, unfortunately, many parents are afraid for their child to wander very far for fear of his safety. So if a child is not feeling that he is conquering his environment and he still has that unquenchable drive, what is he going to gain control over? Frequently it's those people who are controlling the environment for the child. He begins to manipulate through temper tantrums. Instead of going out to get something on his own he begins calling out for someone to bring it to him. Instead of moving to where the object he wants can be found he settles for reaching his hands out and expecting someone to hand it to him.

All too often we comply without even thinking about it. We have a three-year-old totally blind student at our school. I think most of my staff are ready to beat the itinerant teacher over the head because he doesn't have the expectations of the child that we do. The boy lost his vision from a brain tumor when he was two. He visited the school only a couple of months later. The child explored the environment-walking independently reaching out touching everything on the shelves--just as one would expect a two- and-a-half year old child to do. When he finally came to our school two months ago at just over three-and-a-half he wasn't reaching out; he wasn't walking freely. In less than a year the child had learned to wait for someoone to take his hand and leadhim. He had come to expect that he should wait for someone to hand him objects for his exploration. It was frightening for me to see how such a young child could have lost that drive so very quickly. We're working with this particular child and I think we can help him gain back the drive he has lost.

But I worry about children who continue to have their quest for independence twisted into an acceptance of dependency. They will grow into adults who do not have the skills of independent travel or the initiative to go out and do things for themselves. They will have skills-- skills in getting others to do things for them. Let's take this one step further and look at blind adults who reach out for someone to take their hand and lead them. Let's say they need to go to the bank but don't have the confidence to manage on their own. They reach out to the bank president who happens to be standing nearby-who walks them up to the teller, helps them with a transaction then walks them back out to the street. Now if a capable blind person comes back into the bank the next day asking for a job, what do you think the bank president is going to say? The bank president will believe that all blind individuals will need someone else to help them get from point A to point B. That's rudimentary. One can only imagine what that bank president will think about the ability of a blind person to perform a complex and responsible job!

So what does all this have to do with NFB camp? Well, it has everything to do with it! Everyone has the quest for independence. If we can reach the children when they are young, we can help fan that little spark of independence into a life-changing flame. Through NFB camp we put blind adults in front of children who can give the children that spark that says I want that. I want more than taking someone's hand. I want to go myself. I want to be a lawyer. I want to be a Montessori school director. If we can reach children at that age, look at the jump they will get on developing skills and conquering their environment in their quest for independence.

We can bring them back on track. I organize the NFB Camp. This means that I hire the staff and plan the activities. I bring in a staff member or two from my own school who have a great deal of experience working with blind children. Their expectations are what they should be. In addition to this corps of experienced staff members, we hire local teachers and Head Start workers. We also rely heavily on blind adults. In addition to having high expectations for blind children, the staff expect a great deal of the blind adults as well.

One of the other things we do is organize games. Last summer, the children, both blind and sighted, played Brain Quest. We had versions of it in Braille, large print and standard print so all the children played the games together. We have a variety of art activities that are put together by Corinne Vieville from our California affiliate. All of the children are encouraged to participate. Blind professionals come through and talk about what they do for a living-hoping to catch a little bit of that spark of independence for some of the children. The children go out on trips through the hotel, and also out in the community. My staff member, Mary, takes the children to the elevators while the convention is in session. She lets them push the buttons and go up and down because they never get a chance to do that when they are with their parents. This was one of the favourite trips in New Orleans. If any of you remember, the elevators were spectacular glass elevators, and they moved very quickly. Mary took the kids in little groups up to the tower on the top of the hotel through the elevators.

The kids didn't just stay in the hotel, they took trips into town as well. They went to the French market, and they took the ferry boat over to Algiers. All children were encouraged to participate. If one of the blind children was a little uncomfortable, we encouraged all the harder to make sure he at least got some of those basic experiences. They were so excited at their own capabilities! It meant a great deal to them to know they could do these things without their parents' presence.

It's really a wonderful transformation for the children and, quite frankly, for the staff. We bring in a lot of teachers from the local area. Without exception, they all say, "If you ever come back to this area, please call us first." People who walk in with very little knowledge about blindness, walk out with a great deal more education. They're in a better position to help the children they may be dealing with in their own professional settings later on.

In closing, I want to emphasize what you as parents can do to help your blind children. The more experiences that you can provide your children, and the greater your expectations, and the more exposure they have to successful blind adults, the quicker they will catch that spark. The greater their quest for their own independence becomes, the more successful, productive blind adults they will be.

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