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Dealing With Unwanted Help as a Blind Parent of Blind Children

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One of the most vexing aspects of raising children is the struggle between two opposing desires. On one hand, we want our children to be independent, so they will grow up to be mature, confident adults and because let’s face it, we want an end to the rear wiping, feeding, dressing, and bathing of those little persons as soon as is possible! But while we are yearning for them to become self-sufficient, the process of getting there can be exhausting. Sometimes, it’s just so much easier to do the task for them, rather than dealing with the mess that ensues from their efforts. It can be hard to know when to offer help, do it for them completely, or let them do it entirely on their own, hopefully, to facilitate learning and growth and not simply just more work for us as parents.

As if this daily scenario of parenting were not complicated enough, my family’s dynamic makes this situation all the more interesting. I and two of my three children are blind. My husband was previously the only sighted member of our family, until our third son was born. When blindness is added to the mix, working through the decisions of when to help or when to allow for a learning opportunity often seems more uncertain. I am capable of doing almost everything a sighted person can do, except driving (although I am eagerly anticipating the arrival of the self-driving car, come on Google) but said tasks often take longer. I am sad to say that there have been moments where I have been or felt, even if not actually, rushed and pressed for time, and have simply done the task myself because it was faster and less stressful to do so. But these are my decisions, as the parent to make. When others, especially total strangers, try to impose their decisions on my children, well let’s just say that is not acceptable!

I have had many odd and weird experiences living as a blind person. I’ve had awkward or just foolish questions put to me, been spoken to much louder than was at all necessary or even logical, and had help forced upon me when I didn’t need or want it. I had grown accustomed to these incidents and was rather used to them. But now that I have kids, and two of them are also blind, the range of experiences has shifted to another level of awkwardness and sometimes absurdity. This is especially true when my children are dragged into people’s oddities and I am forced to try and explain to them why well-meaning adults often act quite ridiculous and impolite.

I often take my kids to playgrounds. After all, this is a very normal and healthy activity for children, even if they can’t see, not to mention a nice break for mothers, even if they also happen to not be able to see. A specific playground that we often frequent is in our apartment complex, which is an added convenience. My daughter, in particular, knows the layout of this playground better than I do! She has no problem getting to her desired destination, although she may still have issues with sharing slides, but that has nothing to do with blindness and everything to do with just being a typical kid. We are working on that. So there we were, happily partaking of this usual routine, when a lady approached who just knew, without a doubt in her own mind, that my daughter desperately needed her help! She was on a mission to provide it, no matter who might object!

And so began an experience that I won’t ever forget and which my 8-year-old daughter still talks about. This lady was absolutely certain that my daughter wanted to go to that slide over there! This was in fact, not true, as my daughter continually, in a polite yet still firm manner, tried to tell her. However, there was a problem, as this well-intended person did not speak English, only Spanish. Although, be that as it may, I thought the word “no” was pretty universally understood. My daughter repeatedly said things like “No thank you. I don’t need help,” or “No, I know how to get around this playground.” Understandably, she was getting frustrated that this person was not listening and did not fully understand the issue of the language barrier.

I was nearby and could discern that my daughter was not in any danger. I let her know where I was and she came over to me. She stood close by me and I had my hand on her shoulder, as a reassurance. It was obvious, or should have been to any halfway observant and sensible human being, (whose vision and cognitive abilities were functioning, even if they did not speak the same language) that this little girl and I knew each other well and that I was a trusted caregiver. My daughter told me what was happening and I could hear the frustration and nervousness in her voice. I was explaining to her, that this person was not trying to be mean about the language issue, when the lady decided to cause me to question people’s competence.

As I was in the act of speaking with my child, essentially doing my best to defend that people aren’t generally mean and rude, this woman came over and took my daughter’s hand and pulled her away from me to try and take her back to that slide, which apparently was the only item that my child could possibly want to play with on that playground filled with equipment! This woman obviously knew best, as blind children apparently aren’t capable of making decisions about where they want to play.

Even now, almost two years later, I still do not think I have the words to adequately articulate my disbelief at what I witnessed. I still cannot fathom, language barrier or not, what possibly could have caused this person to think this was at all a helpful, kind, or even sensible thing to do! I quickly stepped forward and seriously considered swinging my cane toward the woman’s head, whose voice I had come to recognize, and with as much broken Spanish as I could muster, told her to stop! Whatever I said drove the point home or perhaps I looked angrier than I was aware, because she let go of my daughter and promptly left the playground. My daughter and I were much relieved and I’m happy to say, I haven’t seen her since.

I then was tasked with trying to explain to my confused child what had just happened. I told her about a similar incident that had happened to me in high school, when another well-meaning student really thought I wanted to go to the library and took my arm to turn me in that direction. He did this without asking me if his assumption was correct. At that time, in my awkward adolescent years, I was very polite and tentative. If this happened to me now, well let’s just say I would not be so sweet. My little girl was intrigued by my story and it gave us a good opportunity to talk things through. We also talked about the fact that if a similar situation happens again, she can and should pull away and be much louder and more forceful in voicing her objections.

In case there are those who want to grumble that I should have taught her this principle sooner, I would point out that I just assumed people would not be so absurd as to try and forcibly “help” a child who was clearly with their parent. My only fault is apparently giving people too much credit for common sense and courtesy! I of course have taught her the proper response to an outright kidnapping attempt, but someone putting their hands on my child in the guise of “help,” in front of the parent, seemed like quite a different matter entirely. While I am grateful that I was close by and was able to intercede quickly, it was still a bewildering experience for both of us. It has continued to provide us with good conversations and I am happy to say that even after that incident, my daughter still wanted to stay and play. So we did, enjoying hide and seek and tag.

What do I want people to take away from reading this little snapshot narrative of a moment from my life? First, even if you don’t speak the same language as someone, pay attention to the person’s body language. It should be pretty transparent if they are unhappy with or uncomfortable with what you are doing. And if you also hear the word “no” emphatically, loudly and often repeated, chances are, you should probably stop what you’re doing! Second, just because someone is blind, or has any other disability, that doesn’t automatically mean they need your help. Ask first, don’t just assume, and if they say no, for goodness sake, leave them alone! If there is a child involved and they are with a caregiver, it is that individual’s decision and responsibility to offer help or not, not yours. And lastly, and I can’t believe I even have to write this, don’t walk over and try and physically take a child from someone! Unless you can see that said child is clearly in imminent, physical danger, this activity will probably never end well for you.

There you have it, I hope that this public service announcement has been helpful. I’d very much appreciate it if you would take it to heart and pass it along to everyone you know. Let’s leave the helping to the parents, unless specifically asked. Let parents be parents — this seems reasonable enough.

Originally published: February 18, 2022
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