Future Reflections Winter/Spring, Vol. 14 No. 1
From the Editor: Carol Castellano of New Jersey is one of the leaders of the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children. There is a connection between her correspondence of two years ago (reprinted below from the October, 1992, issue of the Braille Monitor), the article about "Choices" by Peter Grunwald on page 32, and another article in this issue-"Possibilities," page 45-also by Carol. If I had to assign a moral-that is, a lesson-to be learned from these true tales, I think it would be this: Correct information about blindness can help parents make choices from which blind children will reap benefits-not suffer consequences.
Here is Carol's letter:
Madison, New Jersey
June 2, 1992
Dear Dr. Jernigan:
Recently I received a phone call from the principal of my daughter's school. I was told that Serena, who is in first grade, would no longer be allowed to wait for me after school at the bottom of the hill with all the other children. She would now have to be picked up in the office. When I asked if something had happened, I was told, "We're concerned for her safety." When I questioned why there was concern for her safety, the principal answered, "Because she is blind."
For two years, kindergarten and most of first grade, Serena had been waiting with no problem for me to pick her up. Putting this restrictive policy into effect in May of her second year in that school seemed ludicrous. When I informed the principal that there were laws against such discrimination, I was assured that school personnel were not discriminating against Serena; they were just concerned with her safety.
I spoke to Mrs. Maurer soon after the phone call from the principal, and it is at her suggestion that I am sending the enclosed letter I sent to the superintendent of schools in our school district.
Had it not been for my contact with the Federation over the years and my familiarity through the literature with NFB positions on issues (the airlines issue in particular), I would not have been able to formulate so persuasive an argument. I am happy to report that the superintendent decided in our favor "in deference to the strong feelings set forth in [the] letter." Serena will continue to come down the hill and wait for me at the corner.
Can't wait 'til the National Federation of the Blind convention in Charlotte.
Madison, New Jersey
May 22, 1992
To the Superintendent of Schools:
I am writing to explain our position on whether or not our daughter, Serena Cucco, can safely wait for me to pick her up at the bottom of the hill at Kings Road School.
Serena has good safety awareness. She knows about the school driveway, the street, the curb, and the traffic. She is aware of the crossing guard and what his job is. She comprehends the scene that is occurring as the children wait for their parents after school. Generally, she does not stand on the sidewalk to wait. The sixth grader who accompanies her down the hill usually stops on the blacktop path, several yards back from the corner. Serena stands in one place, alone or with other children or mothers, and waits calmly, patiently, and alertly, to hear my voice.
Unsafe behaviors do occur at the bottom of the hill outside Kings Road School. Children play tag wildly, sometimes stopping their running at the edge of the curb. Many children push and shove each other practically into the street. Several children are kept waiting for a long time before a parent comes to pick them up. Parents continue to ignore safety instructions and park their cars where the road narrows. As people parallel park along the street, the rears of their cars jut into the sidewalk where children are walking and playing. Parents continue to congregate at the corner, even though they have been requested not to. Serena, however, is engaged in none of these unsafe behaviors.
Has a separate policy been put in place to guard the safety of the children who play too wildly or push and shove at the corner? Is a special watch being kept over the children whose parents do not come for fifteen or twenty minutes? Or is Serena the only child for whom a separate policy has been formed?
We do not believe that our daughter is unsafe when she is standing at the bottom of the hill waiting for me. If we thought she were, we would be the first to request an accommodation. As we understand it, the issue of safety was brought up by a teacher who saw Serena waiting alone one day. This teacher was evidently unaware that there have been many days over the past two years that Serena has waited alone for me for several minutes and that I had explicitly told the sixth-grader that she did not need to wait with Serena until I arrived.
As usual, without any discussion with us, a policy was decided upon and I was issued an order: Serena would not be allowed to walk down the hill; I was to pick her up in the office from then on.
Those who decided on this plan did not consider the effect this separate treatment might have on Serena's confidence and self-image; they did not consider that this action would prevent her from ever learning the skill of walking down the hill independently, safely, and efficiently, and of course did not think that perhaps we, the parents, might have something relevant to contribute regarding the situation.
This safety concern is the product of someone's inaccurate perception, assumption, projection, or fear. It is not based on reality. Reality is that Serena has waited on that corner for almost two years entirely without incident. (The principal concedes that there has never been an incident or even near incident in which Serena was in any danger. The crossing guard, too, stated that there have been no problems with Serena's waiting at the bottom of the hill.)
The perception that a blind person cannot be safe because she is blind is typical of the way our society in general thinks about blindness. It shows a lack of understanding of the fact that blind adults lead independent lives and of the process of gaining skills that leads to that ultimate independence. My husband and I know blind adults who travel wherever they want to go independently; one of our acquaintances (totally blind, I believe since birth), in fact, travels the world as a member of the Foreign Service. Serena will never gain the skills for efficient, safe, independent travel if 1) she is not allowed to participate in activities such as walking down the hill and waiting alone, and 2) her confidence and self-image are undermined by custodial policies based on other people's inaccurate perceptions about blindness.
We wonder if, according to the person or people who decided that Serena can no longer wait safely alone, a magic age will come when suddenly she will be ready to wait alone. Will waiting alone somehow become safe? A child surely will not gain the skill she needs without the opportunity to practice. Independent mobility, like most things children learn, is a process. Serena is learning to cross streets, for example. This year she is crossing quiet streets alone; I do not need to walk beside her because she is well on her way to mastering the skills of knowing when she is in the middle of the street, walking purposefully, looking for the curb or cutout, and stepping up quickly and efficiently. I do not feel she has mastered listening to traffic on a busy corner, and we do not allow her to cross in traffic alone. It is a process, and as she gains skill we, her parents, will allow her increasing independence and responsibility.
The Americans with Disabilities Act, and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act before it, were written to counter historical attitudes of custodialism that were based on false perceptions of what disability involves. There are things my daughter cannot do; but please do not keep her from doing something she can do perfectly well and with safety just because of someone's perception that she cannot be safe because she is blind.
The anti-discrimination laws do not allow exclusionary policies to be made on the basis of a person's disability. The ADA uses such language as "No qualified individual with a disability shall, by reason of such disability, be excluded from participation in or be denied the benefits of the services, programs, or activities of a public entity, or be subjected to discrimination by any such entity" (Title II: Sec. 202). The ADA also ensures that "nothing in this Act shall be construed to require an individual with a disability to accept an accommodation, aid, service, opportunity, or benefit which such individual chooses not to accept" (Title V: Sec. 501 d).
We hope that the seeds of custodial attitudes will not be sown or nourished by policies decided upon by the Madison School District. We don't want Serena or those dealing with Serena to view her as dependent and not capable. We hope you will help us in our striving toward a self-sufficient, independent future for Serena.