Mon, Aug 07, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Growing up in a blind household

Etta and Fred Reid held down successful careers, had three children in quick succession and managed to raise them with hardly any outside help. No big deal -- except they are both totally blind


Mine was a pretty ordinary childhood. But not everyone saw it that way. One word sums up people's response to the news that my parents are totally blind: incredulity. Incredulity that they could cook, get around, perform the general tasks of everyday life -- let alone raise three children, including twins, while holding down successful professional careers.

My father Fred and mother Etta were both born, fully sighted, in Glasgow in 1937, but lost their sight during childhood. Etta was six when it happened; Fred, 14. My mom was involved in a traffic accident; my dad, I was told from a very young age, "got a germ in his eye." (It was actually a condition called double detached retina.)

They met at the Royal Blind School, Edinburgh, at the age of 15, married at 26 and had three children, all fully sighted, 15 months apart: Gavin in 1966, then, in 1967, my twin brother Leslie and I.

They did not meet overt hostility when they decided to have children. They were not told by a maternity doctor, as one of their blind friends was, that "You shouldn't be having children." All the same, it was a rare thing that they did, and as I approach 40, with two small children of my own, I've begun to revisit my early years, and wonder how on earth my parents coped with three small ones born so close together.

"I was aware of people judging me and people waiting for me to fail," Etta says. "But my mother had 10 of us and she had loads of energy, and I think I inherited that."

My father has a slightly different take on it: "Every blind person in any walk of life, if they've got any kind of desire to succeed, has to work 50 percent harder."

As a schoolchild, I was always asked what it was like to have parents who were blind. I had a stock response: "My parents are just the same as yours."

They weren't, of course, but as far as I could see, my life was pretty much the same as that of my friends, except that we had a few more strange gadgets: the bleepers that let you know you when a mug was full and when a light was on, and one that told you when it was raining so you could bring the washing in; the weird contraption for writing Braille and, later on, a talking microwave. (To this day, I give a very wide berth to the talking scales that announce the user's weight to the entire household.)


I did have one major gripe, though: I would have loved us to have had a car. No school run for me. We always caught the bus, cycled or walked.

We lived in a handsome, four-story Victorian house in Kenilworth, a small, affluent town in Warwickshire in northern England. My friends assumed that we children must have had lots of chores to do: "Who does the cleaning? How does your mother turn the cooker on?" But aside from the occasional shopping and washing-up duties and lawn-mowing (which I was paid for), we did little around the house except mess it up.

My mother had weekly hired help with the cleaning, but she still spent all day Friday in a whirlwind of scrubbing and polishing. The stair carpet would be swept at the edges before vacuuming; the entire basement floor would be scrubbed on hands and knees. Windows would be cleaned, light bulbs changed -- Mom thought nothing of skipping up a stepladder.

There was the occasional painless task: Sometimes, on a Sunday night, a basket would be presented to me full of socks waiting to be paired up. And there was one almost daily chore that I hated, as it tended to clash with my favorite TV show: tatty inspection. My mom peeled the potatoes herself, but would worry that rogue "bad bits" would escape her probing fingers, and ask one of us children to check them over for her.

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