WHAT A BLIND BABY NEEDS MORE THAN TENDER LOVING CARE

is the radical therapy a BC social worker has pioneered with astonishing success. By trial and error she has found that forcing an infant to fend for itself can be the kindest thing a parent can do

AUDREY DOWN May 14 1966

WHAT A BLIND BABY NEEDS MORE THAN TENDER LOVING CARE

is the radical therapy a BC social worker has pioneered with astonishing success. By trial and error she has found that forcing an infant to fend for itself can be the kindest thing a parent can do

AUDREY DOWN May 14 1966

WHAT A BLIND BABY NEEDS MORE THAN TENDER LOVING CARE

is the radical therapy a BC social worker has pioneered with astonishing success. By trial and error she has found that forcing an infant to fend for itself can be the kindest thing a parent can do

AUDREY DOWN

ONE DAY EARLY IN Eileen Scott’s career as a social worker, a distracted woman walked into the Vancouver office of the Canadian National Institute For The Blind and dumped a parcel on her desk.

“I don’t want it,” she said, and hurried out. The parcel squirmed and kicked. Miss Scott quickly opened it. Inside the wrappings was a newborn baby — a blind baby. As soon as she recovered from the shock of her discovery, Miss Scott hurried after the mother.

“We can’t keep him.” she told the woman. “But come back with me and we’ll try to help you.” The woman snatched the baby and ran down the street. Next day, she was back in Eileen Scott's hands; this time she had been picked up by police for abandoning her baby in a downtown building. The only “help” that interested her was train fare and traveling expenses for herself and her blind baby back to her parents’ home in the Maritimes. Miss Scott never heard from her again.

Not long afterward, another mother brought her blind child to Miss Scott’s office. He was a plump five-year-old boy. His mother cuddled him affectionately as she announced, “He’s ready for school.” A few minutes of observation and questioning convinced the social worker that he was anything hut ready for school — or for any sort of nearly normal life.

He wasn’t house-trained. He couldn’t feed himself. He could talk, but what he said was a parrotlike repetition of anything that was said to him. His mother, trying to do all she could for her handicapped child, had done too much.

Miss Scott's experiences with those two unfortunate children — the rejected baby and the overprotected boy — were destined to create a new way of life for the blind children of British Columbia. In a very real sense, it is the reason why the University of British Columbia has the largest number of blind students — eleven — of

any university in Canada; and why, as one doctor put it, two hundred blind children in the province “are behaving as if theirs is a minor handicap."

Essentially, Eileen Scott’s early experiences have evolved into a theory that is simpler than it sounds: blind children can be taught to lead a nearly normal life by educating their parents to help them do so. Often, she finds, the principal difficulty is in getting parents to accept their child’s blindness.

A doctor with whom she works closely, Geoffrey Robinson, associate professor of pediatrics at the University of British Columbia, puts it this way: “Many people at first reject the blind child as a reflection on themselves. Some fathers even feel it a reflection on their virility. Many parents are reluctant to accept the implications of the handicap. They know, but they won’t accept it emotionally.

“Parents really react in one of two ways: by blaming someone else, or by pretending it doesn’t exist. It may make a man feel better to blame his wife, but it doesn’t do the marriage any good. It is nearly normal for the birth of a blind baby to disturb a marriage.”

Admitting that the presence of a blind baby in a family creates emotional problems, Miss Scott's solution is to channel the distress of parents into positive attitudes that will help the blind child to grow up as normally as possible.

“If blind babies can be stimulated in the same way as sighted babies,” she says, “then their development can be normal.”

The mechanics of her program are disarmingly simple. The baby’s rattle is an example. Colored bright red or yellow, it catches the eye of a sighted child. He reaches for it and thus develops his arms and back muscles. A blind baby’s mother must encourage her child to find the rattle and must take much more trouble teaching him how to enjoy it.

Even more important than mechanical stimuli is a mother’s love. But to convey it fully can take twice as much fondling as busy Canadian mothers usually give their children; on the other hand, mothers of blind children should not overdo it.

The mother should convey love by touch — by placing her cheek against the baby’s, by stroking his neck or back. The child, like a kitten, will arch himself toward this affection, just as a sighted child will exercise back and neck muscles by straining to touch his mother’s face in a baby’s exploratory way.

Mothers watch while the social worker lays the baby face down on a hard surface. To relieve the pressure on his tender nose, and to voice his protest, the baby must lift his head. The pressure and cause for crying are gone.

Speech, on the other hand, is something the blind child can learn by imitating others. But he tends to overdo it.

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A blind child wants to talk, but he must share what you see

Because he can’t see things to talk about, he falls into the habit of parroting what he hears. “The blind child’s mother must give him experiences to talk about,” says Eileen Scott. “When she takes him to the supermarket, she should tell him about the things there, and let him touch them. When she gets back home, she

should ask him questions about those things, and encourage him to tell Daddy about his experience. Blind children want to talk: the trouble is often they don’t have anything to talk about.”

Learning to walk is another phase where a word from a CNIB worker can help. Mothers hover between feel-

ing upset because their child may be slow to walk and being alarmed at the thought of what may happen to him when he does. Miss Scott has been able to reassure parents that most blind children carefully map the house while they are pulling themselves around, hanging onto things. Then one day, they step out and walk right into

the kitchen without mishap. Balance and walking freely are harder for a blind toddler, but once he has mastered them he makes his way confidently around the house.

All these aids that Miss Scott and her fellow social workers give to parents are not the result of a planning session by CNIB board of directors and social workers. They stem from common sense and experience accumulated over the years. One of the most valuable sources of such insights is the monthly parents’ meeting at CNIB’s Vancouver offices. Experiences are swapped and children proudly compared. It started out as a mothers’ meeting but now fathers are showing up, too. A major project this year is the compiling of an instructional booklet for parents living too far away to attend.

When Eileen Scott, who had been a schoolteacher in Saskatchewan, began her new career as a CNIB social worker in Vancouver in 1946, there was no program for blind children. But there was a major problem in blindness. A new form of blindness was showing up with alarming frequency in the newborn. The doctors had a name for it — retrolental fibroplasia —but for eight years the cause baffled medical researchers. There was one clue: most of the babies affected were premature, and had been placed in incubators. This clue eventually led to the discovery that the cause cf blindness was excessive quantities cf oxygen provided by the incubators. Since then hospitals have made sure that safe amounts of oxygen are given — but nothing could restore the sight of children already blind. Approximately seventy retrolental cases were referred to CNIB in British Columbia alone.

This new crop of blind children particularly interested Eileen Scott. As more and more babies blind from birth came to her attention, it became clear that parents must have help as soon as possible, but she had a hard time convincing others of the need.

“Doctors are among the unconverted,” admits Dr. Geoffrey Robinson of the University of British Columbia. He points out that one reason specialists may hesitate to refer parents to the CNIB right away is that there may still be a chance that an operation might help the child. Parents are already upset, and to be referred to “the Institute for the Blind” sounds as if the doctor has given up hope. Another reason is that a doctor may have only one or two cases during his years of practice and may not be aware of what the CNIB has to offer, or the importance of early referral.

Ideal time for referral is as soon as the diagnosis is made. Baffled, frightened parents can be relieved of some of their heartache. The crux of the program is to help them form positive attitudes.

Feeding is an example. A child's instinct to put things in his mouth is greatest between six and twelve months. The mother must take advantage of this and place food within his grasp at that time. “If you lese that first year, it keeps them behind.” Miss Scott warns.

There is much more to being blind than not being able to see. Some social

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He can cope with the world, if only adults will let him

workers claim the blind are confronted with a prejudice “almost as strong as racial prejudice.”

“When 1 attempted to enroll my first blind child, in 1949, eight kindergartens turned us down,” recalls Miss Scott. "Now we’re never refused.”

The little girl whom Miss Scott led from door to door until she was

accepted proved she could fit in with her playmates. By the end of the year she was chosen leading lady for the kindergarten’s operetta. Since then there has been a slow change in attitude among teachers and school officials, with each child winning a little more of the battle for the betterment of children who follow.

Putting a blind child among sighted children at kindergarten is valuable because they learn they are different while they’re still young enough to accept it. Doctors point out that blindness is not in itself a source of emotional torment. Blind children are not perpetually yearning to see, because they haven’t lost anything. They never

have been able to see. And since they’re not self-pitying, they become upset by persons who pity them.

“Children are philosophical,” declares Eileen Scott, “but if you keep the child overprotected until he is fifteen, he will never be able to cope with the sighted world.”

A child’s superiority in coping with such matters was shown in the crisis between two adults over who should tell the kindergarten class that the new child was blind.

“I just couldn’t,” explained the elderly teacher, in a way that indicated she was too soft-hearted and hoped the social worker would do it. Just then a husky youngster appeared at the social worker’s elbow.

“Lady, can’t that little boy see?” “No, he can’t,” she replied, searching for words to explain.

“What’s the matter — did his sister drop him on his head when he was little?” He obviously had experience with older sisters.

Things were moving too fast for the social worker. “Not exactly.” “Are his eyes broken?”

“Yes.”

“Can’t he get them fixed?”

"No.”

“What’s his name?”

“Billy.”

“C’mon, Billy. I’ll take you to the sandbox.” And the five-year-olds marched off, leaving the women with their problem solved.

Joining Cub or Brownie groups is another way youngsters can keep in touch with the sighted world while attending school with other blind children. Ross C. Purse, superintendent of the British Columbia-Yukon Division of CNIB, says there will always be a need for schools for the blind. Here children learn special skills such as Braille and typing, which they need for regular schools and, later on, for jobs.

While CNIB policy for adults is uniform across the country, work with blind children has had to differ to fit into the program of each province’s educational system. In BC more and more blind children are going into sighted schools at the senior secondary level.

“I don’t think there’s any section in the country that’s as far advanced in this program as we are here in BC,” says Dr. A. J. Elliot, former head of the Department of Ophthalmology at the University of Toronto, and now at UBC. “It sets the pace for other parts of the country.”

No blind child can go into any sighted group unless he or she is ready, of course, and not all children are adaptable. Nor do Miss Scott and her staff claim constant success.

The way things seem to a blind boy depends on his state of mind or the circumstances, as Miss Scott found out one day. A small boy was busy coloring a piece of paper. Even though the children can’t see, they paint and color with other children in the kindergarten. They can feel with their fingers the texture of the wax or paint they put on paper.

As she walked by, he asked, “What color is this?”

“Blue,” she replied. “What are you making?”

“I guess I'm making a fine day,” he said, and went back to work. ★