Connecting through dots
Two moms learn Braille to better understand their blind children
By Noh Hyun-gi
Even for the mothers who are daily at their side, the world of visually-impaired children remains largely a mystery.
The darkness, loneliness, and frustration are difficult to imagine for people with sight. Fortunately, Kim Young-mi and Byeon Hyun-jin are taking this matter into their own hands.
The two mothers of preschoolers have been attending weekly Braille classes with instructor Jang Yong-jeon. Byeon is the mother of a seven-year-old boy who was born completely blind, and Kim has a five-year-old daughter who can only detect light.
During the 50-minute classes at the Korean Braille Library for Students in Nuha-dong, northern Seoul, they not only learn to read the raised dots, but also get a glimpse of the children’s unseen world with the help of Jang.
The 33-year-old teacher was born completely blind and has trained professional Braille translators. He shares memories of his childhood with Kim and Byeon to help them relate to visually challenged people.
The library is a subsidiary of the Siloam Center for the Visually Handicapped, located near the Seoul National School for the Blind. Since it opened in December 2009, the institute has offered Braille classes to 23 mothers and houses a collection of books and toys for children to borrow.
The following is edited excerpts of a recent interview with Jang and the two mothers. — E.D.
How long have you been learning Braille and why?
Byeon: I have been studying for a year. My son will start learning Braille at school next year, and I wanted to be able to help him.
Kim: Same here. Though she has two years left, I wanted to get started.
What is your approach to your child’s condition?
Byeon: I used to obsess about what I could do to help make him see. But since my son enrolled at the specialized school, I have accepted that my role is to aid his socialization.
Kim: I want to prepare my daughter for the time when she will have to take care of herself. I can’t be around forever. I want her to be independent, have a job and be happy.
How are your children doing?
Byeon: My son is starting to realize that he is different from others; that other people can see. I think it’s making him angry and frustrated. For example, I told him about Kang Yong-woo, the visually impaired policy advisor to President George W. Bush, when he passed away. My child would get mad when I tried to explain that many great people overcame their disabilities. He doesn’t want to talk about blindness.
Kim: My daughter is still too young to understand that she can’t see. She can sense light, so she’s been complaining that it’s too dark or that she is scared in the dark. I know I have to bring it up soon.
From your experience, what is the single most important advice for parents?
Jang: Don’t tell your children to wait. When I was a child, my mother would take me to a market and tell me; “Stay right here.” So I would stay by the entrance until she came back — sometimes after an hour.
I waited without anything to look at or other way to pass the time. Also, many blind people have spontaneous eye movements, so passerbys would come up to me ask me what I was doing alone. Though I understand now that my mother didn’t have a choice, I felt abandoned then. These experiences are not constructive for building self-esteem.
Kim: I participated in a program at Sungkyunkwan University on May 5 where visitors could spend a day in the dark. I had to wait until everyone was seated to get my meal. Being the first to arrive, I realized that it was unbearable; I couldn’t even see how many people still had to take seats or take in the surroundings to kill the time.
So I have been trying to take my daughter with me everywhere I can, and when I can’t, I try to hand toys to her so she doesn’t get bored and inform her how long I will be gone.
How can parents help children accept their disability?
Jang: It’s crucial to help your child understand that he or she is different, not wrong. Be sensitive with your language. Also, visually impaired children feel lonely even when they are with a loving family. Therefore, parents should seek out channels of connection. For example, learning Braille provides a common conversation topic between the children and the parents.
Byeon: My son doesn’t like it when I say I will do something for him. He wants to assert that he’s a big boy. So I have been avoiding such tone.
Do you work?
Byeon: I had to quit my job last year because the so-called integrated daycares didn’t look after my son. Also, the facilities can’t provide necessary assistance to blind children such as Braille lessons and cane training.
Kim: I don’t work because I have to be available for my daughter. Many kindergartens refuse to take children with vision impairments as well. Kids who can’t see, for example, need teachers to bring them toys and help engage them in activities. However, teachers often neglect such children to manage those who are more active.
What types of support does the government provide?
Kim: Families with visually handicapped children are exempt from gas bills and get tax breaks. Also, the tuition for the school is free. The Ministry of Health and Welfare awards vouchers depending on income levels to spend on different therapies.
There are taxi services for the blind you can call. However, the lines are always busy and you can’t actually benefit from the service.
Byeon : When a child turns seven, we get “Activity Support.” This includes 72-hours of babysitting by social workers and access to transportation services.
Do your children have friends who are not visually handicapped?
Byeon : She used to but it became difficult after she started to attend to the school for the blind. It gets more difficult because as they get older unlike other kids, I have to assist her when she is hanging out with friends.
How do you feel at the end of your day?
Byeon : Exhausted. I spend every waking moment with my son except for the few hours he is in class. Because we live faraway, I wait around the area until school finishes and drive him to extracurricular activities and therapies. When we come home, I help him with his homework and stay up until he falls asleep.