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Parenting without sight

Parenting without sight – what attorneys and social workers should know about blindness, published by Blind Parents Interest Group, National Federation of the Blind, US, 2010, is reviewed by Chris McMillan, a partially sighted mother, from Berkshire, UK, and Simon Robinson, barrister and Royal National Institute of Blind People Legal Rights Service Manager, UK.

Free copies are available from National Center for the Blind, 200 East Wells Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21230-4998. The publication is also available on the NFB website.

Front cover of the Parenting Without Sight booklet, showing two visually impaired parents, their young child and guide dog.

I am a partially sighted mum, married to a registered blind dad, with a 27-year-old sighted daughter and we live in the UK. Despite the title of this booklet, it has a much wider appeal than first meets the eye, and could be used by any health professional as well as handed to a doubting relative.

This is a very well thought-out and constructed booklet. Each topic which might cause an attorney or social worker to worry about the worthiness of a person with a visual impairment to be a parent is very carefully covered. The approach taken is one of ‘normalcy’ and ‘equality’. For example, “By not focussing on the blindness, in a situation such as the delivery suite, it is not a problem to the staff.”

Each section of the book takes only a minute or two to read which could fit into a busy professional's free moments at any time. It also ‘travels well’ to the UK. There are one or two descriptive words we may not have met in the UK but the context makes the situation clear. I should point out that the UK also has an organisation named National Federation of the Blind but this is in no way connected to the US organisation.

Every situation and its remedy has been tried and tested by visually impaired parents. Throughout the booklet, the terms ‘we’ or ‘blind parent’ are used to refer to the parent. There is no distinction between male and female roles unless absolutely obvious.

The booklet makes it clear where a given problem would apply to both blind and sighted parents. To ‘highlight’ the blind parent's solution to any given task the words ‘alternative technique’ are used before introducing the technique and ‘every day’ or ‘specialist equipment’ is used. For example, “bells on a toddler's shoes to alert the blind parent to their whereabouts, or using Braille to mark a small child's clothing with its colour for matching or teaching colour purposes."

I was particularly struck by the fact that a rash can be felt and that one parent related how her general practitioner had gone to the trouble of explaining how she could detect with her fingers what chicken pox would feel like so she had no need to call in sighted help when her children both went down with it the same week.

The situations are illustrated by statements and photographs from blind parents living in different parts of the USA. There is also a small number of beautifully photographed situations showing adapted equipment such as ‘board games’ in the later pages.

Drawbacks: The National Federation of the Blind is very ‘pro Braille’ and, as expected, all situations involving ‘labelling’ or reading mention Braille only. This is in line with its general policy but I feel strongly that it would make this booklet of less use to anyone who cannot or does not wish to use Braille.

Chris McMillan

Parenting without sight is an informative and helpful publication and should be a welcome addition to the library of a family court lawyer or social worker. Written in an engaging and warm tone by blind parents, this publication dispels some common myths and misconceptions, explains how blind people address the challenges of parenting, and how parents and professionals can work together to support each other and children.

While the publication's tone is positive, it remains realistic. The authors acknowledge the difficulties which blind parents may face, and present credible strategies to address such difficulties based on actual experience.

Dividing the publication into sections focussing on different aspects of parenting and parent/child interaction is very useful. It presents a holistic view of parenting, and this can be helpful when searching for information on a specific area as well as understanding how that fits into the larger picture.

Although the publication is well written and has a very good overall impact, the impression is that it is not as closely targeted at legal and social work professionals as it could be. Although the title indicates that the publication is aimed at attorneys and social workers, there is relatively little reference to these professionals in the majority of the text. While the information provided is very useful, and the case studies illuminating, the publication does not link these closely enough to the situations which lawyers and social workers will encounter, and the professionals appear to be left to make those connections themselves. As this publication was intended to help professionals to understand how blind people care for and raise their children, it would have been helpful to have made at least some more explicit connections. This approach might help professionals to gain a deeper understanding of the issues and to more readily apply them to their own practice. The information and advice are good, but the focus on providing it to professionals is not as sharp as it could be.

It would also have been useful if the publication had pointed out that in some jurisdictions, such as the USA and UK, there is a legal duty on public authorities to provide information in alternative accessible formats. This includes, for example, ensuring that adoption forms are provided in electronic format or that schools email blind parents rather than using handwritten notes.

The impression is that the publication was aimed solely at USA-based lawyers and social workers, for example, as it refers to ‘attorneys’ rather than lawyers, advocates or solicitors. However, the key messages are applicable to other jurisdictions and professionals outside the USA can gain valuable insight which they can follow up by approaching organisations of blind parents within their own jurisdictions.

Overall, this is a useful publication which professionals should find useful in helping to start to understand sight loss and parenting.

Simon Robinson

First published DPPI Journal, Issue 73: Summer 2011

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