Having a disability does not prevent anyone from being a capable and loving parent. Yet, it does present a set of unique challenges – challenges that Nicole Schultz-Kass, a 37-year-old blind mother from Woodbury, Minnesota, feels are often misconstrued by people.
"It seems sometimes that people see a parent with a disability and assume that the person must be less capable, must behave in a way younger than his peers, or that his children must help him. These things are simply untrue," said Schultz-Kass.
Schultz-Kass was born with a condition called oculocutaneous albinism – an inherited genetic condition that causes a lack of melanin pigment in the skin, hair, and eyes, and is accompanied by visual impairment. Her husband is able-bodied, and she uses a guide dog for mobility.
Schultz-Kass admits the challenges around parenting with a disability are definitely there; however, they do not impact the quality of parenting, nor do they affect the child in a negative way.
"Truly, I think the most significant difference as a blind parent, as opposed to someone with no disability who is a parent, is in transportation, and the way we plan and execute travel plans with children, since we are unable to drive. Some activities involve more planning and travel time, as well as oftentimes using public transportation with kiddos in tow," she said.
In addition to having transportation issues pop up from time to time, Schultz-Kass also shares that overall mobility can present some problems – especially during pregnancy. She said, "The most difficult thing about being pregnant and blind was that my body was changing throughout that entire nine-month period, and I was constantly adjusting in terms of mobility, balance, and other areas of travel, to keep myself and baby safe when running around town."
But despite the daily hurdles her disability brings about, the cheerful mom feels both her daughters, ages 4 and 11, are growing to have an exceptional understanding of differences – different abilities, and different concepts of beauty, respect, and empathy for others – all characteristics that may not have developed at such a young age if they did not have a parent with a disability.
"When our children were very young," Schultz-Kass said, "we utilized babywearing in order to keep our children close, safe, and secure. In terms of baby playing, I used various methods, including closing off certain spaces, childproofing all areas, and, as our children became more mobile and independent, we would stay in close proximity.
"I utilize magnifying technology," continued Schultz-Kass, "and tools and some text-to-speech products for reading food preparation directions."
For Heather French, a lesbian and dean at Holy Names University in Oakland, magnifiers and other tools for the blind stir up fond memories of her childhood in Maine.
"Something very concrete that stands out to me about my mom was that she would read to me, and taught me to read before kindergarten by her using a high-powered magnifying glass to see the text of a children's book," French added.
French, 42, who, along with her seven siblings was raised by a legally blind mother, and a father that later in life became hard of hearing, feels that the experience of being raised by a parent with a disability made her a more aware adult. She also feels her mother's impaired vision brought about some very neat and unique experiences.
"I can recall a few times when friends visiting our house would be shocked by my mom's keen hearing (she could hear us whispering to each other from the next room), or when my mom's keen sense of smell would get me in trouble (I wasn't allowed to wear makeup before high school, and my mom could smell when I was wearing compact powder)," she said.
When asked about any drawbacks about being raised by a parent with a visual disability, French noted the challenges of getting to places.
"My mother could not drive," she said. "My father often worked nights or would work on job sites far from home. Since he was the only one who could drive, and he was often working or sleeping during the day, it was considered an occasion to go anywhere."
It was not until she became an adult that French realized she did not know much about her home state, and she began to explore and travel. With her son, she took the five-hour car ride to Quebec, Canada from her hometown, which she never took as a kid.
French relates her successes as a parent to her mother's ability to thrive as a stay-at-home mom, despite her challenges.
"I was a single parent for some time when my son was young," said French, "and although I wouldn't change a thing, I can say there were definitely challenging times. Seeing my own mother's resilience to life's challenges, and recognizing how she did the very best she could given her situation, has absolutely put my own parenting in perspective."
Belo Cipriani is a disability advocate, a freelance journalist, the award-winning author of "Blind: A Memoir" and "Midday Dreams," the spokesman for Guide Dogs for the Blind and the national spokesman for 100 Percent Wine – a premium winery that donates 100 percent of proceeds to nonprofits that help people with disabilities find work. Learn more at www.belocipriani.com.