Updated: Jan 11, 2021
A story by Danita Snulligan
Ms. Danita J. Snulligan, Ed. S, COMS, CTVI, RT, is an educator, speaker, writer, game developer, and member of the Urban Missiology advisory board. She is also the author of: "The ABC's of Orientation and Mobility Resource"
For many women, nothing compares to the awesomeness of giving birth. It is life-changing. Hearts often are filled with a blissful range of emotions that swirl and dance around parents-to-be who have waited with great anticipatory excitement for the birth of a healthy son or daughter. But it is within those first few moments when the doctor announces to a young couple that their newborn has a severe eye disease rendering him or her blind that a swift transition of feelings to include anger can arise. Futile attempts to disown a new reality begin to emerge. At times, hopelessness, denial, and fear appear to seep inside to consume the mind and settle for a while. Kubler-Ross' model of the Five Stages of Grief (denial, anger, depression bargaining, and acceptance) postulates many feelings that some therapists compare to the exact emotions that typically surface when one mourns the actual death of a newborn. In this case, however, it is the loss of a mirrored reflection that is unable to focus its gaze up from cradled arms. Over time the healing process will commence. With the appropriate professional support, inspiration, and encouragement, some are ready to help parents who are willing to embrace a child with reaching hands, who cannot see.
Real challenges present at the early onset of blindness, and without the intervention of specialists working with families, infants without sight are adversely affected by psychomotor, social, and emotional development. As a visually impaired teacher and as a certified orientation and mobility specialist, I have a vested interest in reassuring parents who are transitioning through the bargaining stage of grief. Hope is real. For over 30 years and with great pride, I have taught and witnessed, year after year, students with blindness graduating from the public school system with a specific compensatory skill set that includes braille and assistive technology.
Such training is required by law to meet a student's individual needs beyond the core curriculum's scope. Some students chose to continue to post-secondary education and achieved even more fulfilling personal and professional goals. I confidently and with great sincerity often told parents of children with visual impairments to "have no fear because it's going to be okay." In time, states and local agencies will provide invaluable resources and supports to deliver early intervention services as needed effectively.
Within public school systems across the country, the incidence of blindness is low. Before the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became law in 1990, persons with blindness were often referred to as "the unseen minority." The ADA standards established design requirements for the construction and alteration of facilities subject to the law. Physical barriers that once made it difficult for those with blindness to safely navigate public transportation and traverse without incident in commercial and government facilities are continually being removed. As a result, training students from a certified orientation and mobility specialist could more easily focus on building confidence while teaching appropriate cane instruction for increased independence as desired across all travel environments. Individuals with visual impairments who have learned to travel in and out of our communities position themselves as the best to inform and educate the public.
Early intervention programs for children ages birth to three with special needs have experienced an increased enrollment which can be attributed to exceptional advances in neonatal care. Smaller and more premature infants are being saved. However, these infants are at a much higher risk for "retinopathy of prematurity" (ROP). ROP is a potentially blinding disease caused by abnormal development of retinal blood vessels in premature infants. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), nearly 3 percent of children younger than 18 years are blind or visually impaired, defined as having trouble seeing even when wearing glasses or contact lenses. The prevalence of blindness in children around the world is approximately 1.4 million. A natural reaction for a mother or father who receives an initial diagnosis of blindness for their child will occasionally search for a second and third professional opinion from other ophthalmologists in hopes that a different examination would yield a different set of outcomes. An emotional state of depression can occur as parents struggle to accept a doctor's recorded diagnosis and prognosis. Out-reach services are paramount to circumvent feelings of loneliness or isolation, especially for parents who live in small cities or rural communities.
My most recent role as an independent contractor for an agency in Georgia was to travel throughout to conduct Functional Vision/Learning Media and Orientation and Mobility Assessments. The result of my findings included recommendations for a triad of in-home services to be provided by the parents and myself ("I do - We do - You do"). The best and most effective intervention strategies included parent involvement that engaged their young child in developmental fine and gross motor skills during play. Children who were eligible to receive age-appropriate toys and materials from the American Printing House (APH) benefited from instruction that piqued their curiosity for learning. Boundaries can then expand far more significant than their little arms could reach. It is incidental learning through play that lays the foundation for one's understanding of math and science. Ongoing expressive speech and language from parents who narrate their child's body-to-object actions (drinking from a cup or putting on shoes) are essential.
ct experiences (stacking blocks or tossing items in a container) help build conceptual understanding so that the child's world begins to feel more organized and predictable.
Focusing on teaching independent self-help skills during natural routines to include dressing, feeding, and bathing the young child with a vision loss begins the journey of self-advocacy. Acquired gross motor skills that involve purposeful steps within the familiarity of the home is a significant milestone. The fine motor act of waving "goodbye" implemented appropriately and without physical prompts to a departing family member follows a path towards other developmental milestones.
As a team, our job in the early intervention process is to provide the young child from birth the roots and foundation needed to grow wings which is an outcome that most parents find acceptable and are willing to embrace. The acceptance stage also includes considering what is possible by witnessing the achievements of others. I believe it is pertinent for certified teachers of the visually impaired to collaborate and facilitate well-designed career fairs for students with blindness and their parents. Such an event presents opportunities to create meaningful relationships with role-models.
They help build mentoring programs with members of shared communities who are also blind and work in fields across the career spectrum (engineering, technology, construction, science, and transportation).
During the COVID-19 pandemic, several school districts and early intervention programs across the nation struggle with the difficult challenge to teach children with special needs by online or remote learning. However, I believe creative and imaginative joint efforts between a visually impaired teacher, a certified orientation and mobility specialist, and the parents can prevail along a continuum of services designed to promote independence and academic excellence. Present levels of progress do not have to be interrupted. If you are a parent of a child who is blind or if you know someone who may benefit from additional supports outside of a local agency during these challenging times,
I am available to share ideas and strategies. Navigating the journey ahead may appear to be too long, obtuse, or wind, but it does not have to be traveled alone. Access the following link if you would like information on some of the do's and don'ts when interacting with a person who is blind.