Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Blind couple in New Zealand shows parenting is not a problem

From the Manawatu Standard in New Zealand:

They are both blind, and they have a baby, but the Godfrey family of Palmerston North could be the poster family for independent living.

They take time out from a busy family life to explain that being blind isn't their problem, it's society's.

Olivia (pictured) and Jonathan Godfrey have never seen their six-month-old baby son, Callum (pictured), and it doesn't matter a bit.

They're blind.

"We're just doing what every mum and dad does," Mrs Godfrey says."We've had a baby and we're just struggling along learning baby the way all first-time parents do.

"It's everyday life, plus our baby. There's nothing different or special about being blind."

It's rare in New Zealand for a blind couple to have a baby, although one blind and one sighted parent isn't so uncommon. Mrs Godfrey doesn't know why blind couples appear dissuaded; perhaps people believe what sighted people tell them – that it'll be too hard to cope. But it's not. And that's what she wants people to realise; that she doesn't have the problem.

"This story you're doing, it's an opportunity for me to say, yeah, we can cope with this. It's really a matter of education."

What's been hardest for her, she says, is nothing to do with being blind or sighted. It's been the transition from having a professional career – she's a lawyer – to being a mother. And every new mother goes through that one.

"Work's easy. Your day is set up, the diary is there, things happen according to plan. But parenting doesn't stop at 5pm; it isn't controllable like a career. I've found that hard at times, from being at work to being a stay-at-home mum."

Callum's on the floor, on his tummy, determinedly working at getting his arms and his knees under him. His big brown eyes are fixed on his orange-and-brown giraffe. He's got a second tooth coming through, and he wants something to bite. He can caterpillar forward and backward, and he can reach and grab, but not simultaneously yet. There's a running commentary of baby gurgle which roughly translates to: "It's there, I can see it, I can almost reach it. Want!" He lunges forward, and there's a crow of Callum triumph and chuckles from both mother and son.

"Got it, did you? That's clever." Mrs Godfrey mightn't be able to see him, but she knows exactly what he's doing. Mother's eyes in the back of the head have never needed actual sight, after all.

Ad Feedback "It's not the baby stage I'm scared of, it's the toddler stage, when he's on the run. We joke that we'll put a GPS locator on him," she says.

"He'll probably learn that if he stays really quiet, he won't have to hide."

Mrs Godfrey lost her sight at 18 months, after having measles. She can't remember seeing. She's grown up without sight and that's what's normal for her.

"Probably it was harder for my mum and dad than it was for me."

She's a lawyer; got her degree from Otago University and was admitted to the bar in Wellington. She's worked three years in public service law, and plans to work part-time for a Palmerston North legal firm when Callum's a bit older.

Mr Godfrey's sight has deteriorated slowly since his childhood. He's a lecturer at Massey University, in statistics. Mrs Godfrey says his memories of vision might be helpful, because she thought statistics was a particularly visual subject.

"All those graphs and diagrams. Law isn't particularly visual, though."

Both can distinguish the difference between light and darkness, but lack of sight isn't making any difference to their parenting.

"Your bib is covered in banana. I'll just get you another one," Mrs Godfrey says to Callum.

Quizzed on how she knows, she laughs.

"I smelled the banana. And it felt a bit sticky ... like every Mum, I use everything I can to look after him. We know all his cries, we know if he's off-colour because his behaviour changes.

"He's a lovely, easy baby. He's gorgeous, he's healthy, very easy-going. We're so lucky ... especially now he's sleeping through the night."

The Godfreys met at the 2002 conference for the Association of Blind Citizens. The association looks at ways to improve life for blind people. Mrs Godfrey thinks the theme that year might have been a now-prophetic topic about families, relations and blind people having sighted children, but she's not sure. Life's busy and it was a long time ago.

Callum's entry to the Godfrey household was a case of "and baby makes five". Both his parents have guide dogs; Mrs Godfrey has a black labrador, Hershey, and Mr Godfrey has a german shepherd, Jenna. The dogs are trained to work with their owners; they're interested in Callum, but he's not their primary focus.

One parenting problem they had to solve was finding a pushchair that could be pulled, so they could take Callum out without getting tangled up in guide-dog harnesses.

"Your dog walks in front of you and beside you, partly in the space where you'd normally push a pram. We had to have a pram that could be pulled and that was surprisingly hard to find. They're all set up to be stable when they're pushed."

Working with the Foundation of the Blind, a Massey University engineering student added a height- and width-adjustable bar to the pram's handle.

"It must look like a train, Hershey in the front, then me holding on to the pram bar, then Callum behind me in the pram."

Another issue was the lack of blind-friendly material for expectant mothers.

"They do give you a nice pack at MidCentral Health, but they expect you to be able to read print without modification. It's got all the languages, Tokolauean even, but there's nothing in braille."

The lack of braille didn't phase her. She found a good midwife, and spent five days in hospital after Callum's caesarean birth.

"I wasn't going to leave until I felt confident I had Callum's breastfeeding sorted. That was a bit tricky, normally mums can see when the baby's mouth is open. When you do it by touch, they turn their head by reflex. But we both learned fast."

She also hired help from the Palmerston North Doula service; help for new mothers, until their new family's routine was established.

Mrs Godfrey says there's a lack of braille everywhere in every day life in New Zealand – lift floor buttons, shop doorways, you name it. If she could have a wish granted, it would be to get more braille in use, but she suspects it isn't because a surprisingly large number of blind people can't read braille.

"Especially those who haven't grown up blind. I had to teach it to Jonathan."

Technology now made it simple to convert printed information to a useable format. Scanning documents was the first step towards talking software "reading" the words out loud. Or Mrs Godfrey uses her electronic brailler – a computer with a braille display.

The foundation helps with this as well, supporting funding applications for the $9000 braille noters.

She's also used the foundation's other help services, such as job support and Guide Dog services. And the foundation does a nice line in sticky labels that can be brailled, and the Godfreys use these extensively on household items.

Those include a big stack of children's books for Callum. Mrs Godfrey's brailled the words and a sighted friend put the braille stickers in the right places, next to the text. She picks up Lynley Dodd's Hairy Maclary's Hat Tricks and says she loves the language in it, the rhythm and the extending vocabulary.

At six months, Callum already knows all about books; that they're fun and bright and exciting and that mum and dad do all the special voices for the characters.

"When he goes to school, we'll have to meet teachers and work a few things out. Notices and reports, we'll need them emailed to our computers.

"That's how I did my degree, all the written information on CD. Being blind's no barrier."

She says they're gadgeteers; lots of computers to help translate written words to spoken or braille, and lots of helpful widgets.

"I've got little gadget that'll tell me when the water's the right level in the cup – no burned fingers."

Mrs Godfrey sings with the Manawatu Choral Society, and plays the piano. Her music is written in braille, the notes embossed for sensitive fingertips to read.

If she had a wish, it would be for sighted people to understand that blind people are competent in everyday life.

"I think people think I go through my life thinking how difficult it is, because I can't see. But for me, that's just my life. I can't, so I don't miss it."

One tip for the sighted is to not assume a blind person can't do something. If they need help, they'll ask.

"I can use an eftpos machine. I so can!" she laughs.