Essential Elements for Success #2: The Monkey Bars—Blindness Skills

It is my opinion that there are five essential elements needed for a successful playground: swings, monkey bars, a big toy (complete with slide), kickball field, and tetor-tautor.  Without these elements a playground is just, well…not as great as it could be.  Similarly, there are five essential elements for success which I believe help blind individuals to be great.  They are qualities which parents and teachers should help foster in blind children to help them navigate life’s playgrounds as successfully as possible.  Over the next few posts, I will be introducing you to all five of these elements.  So, here is our second element.

When I was younger, it seemed like the most popular thing for girls to do on a playground—aside from playing jump rope or chasing boys—was climbing across the monkey bars.  No matter how much I tried though, I was never good at crossing them. I’d reach from the platform for the first one and be able to make it to the second bar, but after my feet left the platform, it was all over.  I wasn’t the most athletic kid, and didn’t have the arm strength I needed.  (By the way, this was before I lost my sight, so that wasn’t an excuse either.)  After awhile, I gave up on trying because it was embarrassing and I didn’t know how to get better at it.  Instead, I resorted to just being the cheerleader for the other girls, or time keeper as others tried to see how fast they could cross the whole set.  A part of me was always a little jealous of the other girls, and disappointed in myself for giving up on this activity as I watched the other girls.  Fast forward a few years to my last year in college.  I had been selected to serve on a student leadership group that was quite important on our campus and at least to me, seemed like sort of a “Who’s Who”.  I was really excited for this opportunity and looking forward to some of the social aspects as well because there were some really great people on this council.  A few weeks before school started, the council held a leadership retreat weekend up at a lake resort near the campus.  Like many team building conferences, one entire day was devoted to participating in a ropes course.  For those of you who are not familiar with a ropes course, it is a series of physical activities where you are usually tied into a waist harness while participating in tasks with your team such as climbing a rock wall, repelling, walking along a cable as a group, swinging on a sip line–in short, an adult version of the monkey bars.  There are also some leadership or team building elements incorporated into a lot of the activities.  Needless to say, I spent the whole day sitting alone under a pavilion with absolutely nothing to do except talk to the occasional passer-by getting water.  SO BORING!! I missed out on so much that day.  This is so humiliating to admit now, because this wouldn’t even be an issue for me today, but I was scared to participate because I couldn’t see.  I didn’t know how I could do these activities without sight, and I didn’t want to admit to anyone that I was afraid, or be seen as different because I probably would have needed the group to make some accommodations for me.  (Yes, this was pre-cane using days, and before I was “okay” with my blindness.) So, I opted to sit out of the activities that day.  It was like being back on the playground in elementary school and watching from the sidelines as all the cool girls crossed the monkey bars and had fun with each other, only this time, I was letting blindness hold me back, and not just a lack of coordination.

So what does all this have to do with blindness skills?  Well, there are two parallels I can draw from these examples.  The first one is that we can’t let our blindness be a barrier that keeps us from doing hard things, just because we don’t know how to do them non-visually.  The second is the parallel that monkey bars have to blindness skills themselves.  So what are blindness skills?  It’s things like reading braile, using adaptive technology, learning non visual or “alternative” techniques to perform certain tasks like identifying money, cleaning, or cooking, , using a cane and knowing how to problem solve in various circumstances, and knowing how to advocate for ourselves. Blindness skills are techniques blind people do to perform the same tasks as sighted people, just without vision, or non-visually.  These are not inferior methods, rather just different ways of doing the same things.  For example, Braille is not inferior to reading print.  It’s just a different method for accessing the same material.

In order to be a successful blind person, our children need to learn these skills and become proficient at them.  Just like starting out on the monkey bars, these skills can often be hard and even physically challenging to master. But it is imperative that we give our children the support and training they need to master these skills so they can compete equally with their sighted peers.  You could argue that being the theoretical “cheerleader” or “time keeper” on the sidelines like I was from time to time isn’t such a bad thing.  I mean I was still involved and seemingly part of the group right? But I felt forced to these roles because I lacked the skills I needed to interact in other ways.  I want our blind and low vision children to have all the options of these proverbial roles available to them, and not to feel forced into a certain role as result of their lack of blindness skills.

So how do blind and low vision children learn these skills?  You as parents will have to advocate for these skills to be taught by your child’s TBS or TVI and O and M instructor.  There are also a number of summer training programs around the country that teach these skills in a concentrated way to children and youth.  Additionally, you can talk to other blind adults who can help share some of the techniques they use with your child.  Most rehabilitation agencies focus on teaching these skills to blind individuals once they reach adulthood, but how much better off will your child be if they learn these skills early on?

And for the rest of the story…I’ve never really mastered real monkey bars, (haven’t really tried since elementary school I guess), but I’m proud to say that I’ve become pretty good at the proverbial ones.  After college, I attended the Louisiana Center for the Blind where I learned the skills of blindness in full force.  It took a lot of effort, and was even physically grueling at times—just like real monkey bars can be—but I made it to the other side!  Learning these skills opened so many doors to me and really changed my life and my attitudes about blindness.  Interestingly enough, while at the LCB, I attended another ropes course, only this time I had to participate under blindfold the entire time.  I am proud to say that I participated successfully and had such a great time.  I’ve since become a huge fan of ropes courses and have participated in a number of these, and similar activities now that I know it can be done as a blind person.  Never again will I let my blindness be a barrier to me like I did that day.  And, can I just say, it feels great!