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Helpful Hints for Parents of Blind Infants & Toddlers
by: Christine Faltz

Editor's Note: Blind herself, Christine is the mother of a beautiful little girl, Samantha, who is also legally blind. Christine is a former NFB scholarship winner, and an attorney who has chosen to stay home to be a full-time mom. Like so many full-time moms, Christine has taken on other volunteer jobs. She is the president of the NFB Long Island parent's chapter and editor of the chapter's very fine newsletter, "Stepping Stone." Here is an example of some of the excellent advice and information Christine shares with her chapter's members:
When a blind or visually impaired child is only a few months old, most parents are still trying to cope with the fears and uncertainties of having a disabled child. Conflicting information and advice is especially overwhelming at this time. This is often compounded by the unfortunate attitudes of many in the medical profession and, worse yet, by those who work with the blind. We have come a long way but, even today, an alarming number of professionals working with blind children and adults have low expectations for their clients and such negative attitudes that they act surprised when confronted with successful, self-sufficient visually impaired men and women.
Despite these attitudes we must remember that our attitudes are the ones which will affect our children the most. Even in the face of deeply entrenched stereotypes and professional misinformation and biases, we must hold fast to the idea that if we pay our dues now, our children will reap priceless benefits in self-esteem, self-advocacy, and the knowledge that we believe in their individual potential.
Positive attitudes and matter-of-fact adaptation of the world for our blind and visually impaired children starts at birth. As far as basic needs—holding, feeding, dressing (assuming no medical complications)—there is nothing extra or special that must be done for the blind infant. There are, however, very simple techniques that can be employed to give your baby as much information as possible about his or her environment.
When a baby is only a few months old, her ability to hear you does not necessarily mean your location is known, and she has no way of knowing that you are, perhaps, about to pick her up or fix her blanket. Before you pick up the child or move something nearby, state what you are going to do, or at the very least say the child's name before touching her. There is no need to handle a blind child more carefully than you would a sighted child; she is not more fragile and is not predisposed to being extra anxious or fussy. Keep in mind that for the first few weeks of life, sighted babies are only able to see people and objects very close to their faces anyway.
When you take your child from room to room, outside to the car, or into the store, to the extent that you are able to do so under the circumstances (time, who's with you, etc.), you should state simply where you are going and what you are doing. Hearing everyday speech is good for all babies' language development, but the blind child will be able to use your verbal cues to begin distinguishing, with her other senses, a change in location. For example, my 20-month-old daughter was able, at about one year, to go to the kitchen or the bathroom when told to do so. I spent a lot of time telling her: "We're going to go into the kitchen so Mommy can clean up. We're going out of your room," (putting her hands on the door) "and we're going straight. Mommy and Daddy's bedroom, where we sleep in the bed at night, is on the right. The bathroom, where you have your bath, is on the left. After the bedroom are the steps going downstairs to outside. Now here's the living room, with the television and the stereo. We turn left, and here's the kitchen."
I tried to use the same descriptions as often as possible. When I had the time, I showed her the furniture in the room, spoke its name and its purpose. Even when very young, Samantha was very attentive when I spoke, and though she obviously didn't understand most of what I was saying in the beginning, repetition eventually led to absorption and understanding.
An older baby and toddler will often attempt to do what Mommy and Daddy are doing: fold laundry, clean the table, wash the dishes. When it is safe to do so, I show Samantha what I am doing and explain: "Mommy is giving the dirty dishes a bath. They have food on them. Then we'll dry them with a towel, just like you after your bath."
Don't take anything for granted. If your child is curious, show whatever it is safe to show him. Then, when your attention is desired at an inopportune moment, "One minute, sweetheart; Mommy's cleaning the table" will actually have a concrete meaning; it will not merely be a jumble of words that he has heard but doesn't understand because he cannot see what it is you are doing. Eventually, he will put together your location, the sound of the water on the rag, the sound of the rag on the table, and will know on his own what you are doing. But until you give meaning to the sounds and smells and textures in his world, your blind baby cannot learn the function of the objects in his environment. Do not feel foolish describing every little thing and activity to your baby. It can only help him.
I personally don't like playpens, especially for totally blind infants. Put your child on the floor with some toys; place a noisy toy out of his reach to entice him to move to find it. This way he can learn that his environment is far more than what he is readily aware of. When he begins to creep or crawl, show him the boundaries between rooms, the extent of rooms, how he can move around tables and chairs, but not around walls. Expose your child to everything: show him the steps, the trees in your yard, the grass. Take him to the beach and show him the sand, how the water moves, sea shells. Show him the inside and outside of the car his car seat is in. Show, show, and show some more—hands on whenever possible—with constant explanations using simple statements. Teach care providers to do the same. Place toys on accessible shelves and show him where they are in relation to other objects in the room. As he begins to show understanding of words and begins to use words to express needs and desires, you will see that these efforts have paid off. By the time he is walking, your child will know "right" and "left" and will have no trouble moving about familiar surroundings with ease.

by: Carol Castellano

My daughter Serena loves our weekly trips to the supermarket. Her fun begins outside the store, where she chooses just the right basket to sit in. Then we make the automatic doors open. This must seem like some sort of magic to a child, opening onto an interesting world of smells and sounds and tastes and people and, from a parent's point of view, learning opportunities. Serena was three years old when we began our supermarket routine. You can adjust your "lessons" to the level and age of your child.
"Serena, Daddy needs some pears," I announce as we enter the produce department and we begin to choose a few. "Is this a good one?" I ask her. "Does it have a good smell? See how it feels. Here's the stem. Oh, look, there's a leaf on that stem! Let's get a plastic bag to put our pear in." Serena helps me peel a bag off the roll and helps to tear it along its perforated edge. As we put in the pears, we count them. "One, two, three, four. That's one for Daddy, one for Mommy, one for Serena, and one for John. Do you think that's enough pears? Let's feel them through the bag. Can you feel four pears in there?"
On to the apples. "Hmmm, these apples feel different from the pears, and they smell different, too. But look, they have stems. Apples and pears both have stems."
We go on through the produce department discussing each of the fruits and vegetables that our family eats. I find that giving Serena a personal fact or two about each item makes it more meaningful to her. "Mommy likes Delicious. Daddy likes Macintosh." Or we might sing a song (Apples and Bananas or Day-O) or talk about the guacamole we're going to make out of the avocado. I also use storybook details to expand Serena's world. Look, here is parsley, just like Peter Rabbit was looking for in Mr. MacGregor's garden. In these circumstances, Serena is very willing to handle and explore things she ordinarily might be reluctant to touch, such as lettuce or broccoli.
In order to give her an idea of how much food a supermarket sells, I tell her to lean over and reach out her hand. "This is a long aisle! Serena, they have cookies and cookies and cookies and cookies and cookies and cookies in this aisle!" I tell her as her hand passes over package after package. We do this in several aisles, using items that she is particularly fond of or interested in. I include as much incidental information as I think Serena can absorb while still having fun. If the new information can build on something already known, it will be easier for the child to learn. For example,"The bread in this package is made from wheat. Do you remember when we saw the wheat at the farm?" You could include whatever information would be relevant to your child. Think about what knowledge he or she already has that could be added to.
Serena's favorite aisle after cookies, is the dairy aisle. She loves to handle and count the packages of cheese, the containers of milk and orange juice, the eggs in the carton. All kinds of learning can go on here, "This carton of milk is much smaller than the carton of orange juice." (Use the terms quart and half- gallon if your child is ready for them.) "Wow, the orange juice is so heavy I can hardly pick it up." We drop it cautiously into the cart behind her and listen for the thud. "The juice inside the container comes from oranges just like the ones we chose before. You have to cut the orange open and squeeze it to get the juice out. Serena, help Mommy check the eggs. We don't want to bring home any broken ones. Let's count them. Twelve, that's a dozen. We'll have these eggs for breakfast tomorrow."
I try to let Serena take each item from the shelf. If she cannot reach, I put it in her lap so she can look at it. Then I say, "Let's put it in the basket BEHIND you." Heavy emphasis on the "behind" got Serena to learn that particular preposition and its meaning very easily. The supermarket cart seat is also good for "beside you" and "next to you" and Mommy is standing "in front of you." You can practice memory skills by asking "Do you remember where we put the bananas? Yes, they're on the seat next to you."
Throughout the store we talk about shapes and sounds and textures. "The peanut butter jar is round." "The macaroni in this box makes a lot of noise when you shake it. When the macaroni is cooked, does it still make noise? No, soft things don't make much noise." "These potatoes are dusty with dirt. They grow in the ground, right in the dirt. We'll have to scrub them really well before we cook them."
We make a stop at the courtesy desk. "Mommy has to get the check approved. Here, Serena, could you hold the checkbook for me? Now hand it to me, please, and hold my pen." I think using proper terms such as "courtesy desk" and "approved" gives the child the best exposure to the activity and expands the vocabulary as well.
Finally to the checkout. "Serena, do you hear the cash registers ringing? We're at the checkout counter now. Mommy is putting the groceries on the conveyer belt. Do you want to feel it move? Look, here are the pretzels we took off the shelf before. I took them out of the basket and put them up here. Now the cashier will tell me how much money our groceries cost. As soon as I pay we can take our groceries home."
Usually by this time three packages of snacks are open, we are both tired, and we can't wait to get home. But I know the fatigue is worth it, because after every trip to the market, Serena has learned at least a few things and has further solidified the knowledge she had before. She is more understanding of and drawn into the comings and goings of the world around her.