Growing Up Blind

Our guest blogger today is artist Leslie Ligon. Leslie creates jewelry using Brailled letters for At First Sight, her jewlery line that won the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt People’s Choice Award in 2010. Last year for Art Beyond Sight Month Leslie brought her son, Ethan, who is blind, and he showed families how to translate words into Braille using a Braille machine. Children used a Brailled word of their name or favorite hobby and incorporated it into art to wear – either a pin or a hair barrette. In honor of Art Beyond Sight Month, we invited Leslie to be our guest blogger for the day. Leslie, thank you for sharing your story!

Leslie’s family portrait taken in July by Michael Clements at the University of North Texas.

When our oldest son, Ethan, was born, my husband (a visual artist) and I were thrilled to be parents; we loved learning about all of the things our new baby would be doing in his first year, and tracking his advances. Our traditional expectations came to a sudden stop when we took our two month old baby for a scheduled exam. We were laughing one minute about how much weight he’d gained in a month, and reeling the next, when the pediatrician told us, “Brace yourselves; I don’t think Ethan can see.”

At some point around six to eight weeks, Ethan’s retinas had detached for no known reason – probably just a fluke – and because babies in their first few months don’t see any better than an extremely near-sighted person (and they can’t exactly tell you things look funny), we didn’t know there was anything wrong. After a surgical attempt to reattach his retinas failed, I got to work finding resources to turn to. Several months later, we began going through the emotional stages people normally go through when there’s a loss of any kind: denial, depression, anger – finally acceptance. Then, something unexpected happened: my husband’s visual arts profession and my background dancing and teaching ballet, came front and center for our baby who was totally blind.

My comfort moving through space led me to push Ethan first to roll like a modern dancer, then crawl, and finally walk without any preconceived ideas. (In fact, when he was about two years old, he would fairly frequently bang his head into table tops and chairs and after he did, he would stop, get his bearings, and then shake his head. We used to believe he probably thought that’s what everyone went through when they went walking!) In the early days of his life, we would sing, dance and play to lots of musical theater shows – he really did know the entire book for Gypsy when he was only 22 months old! He loved the word play, rhymes, rhythm, and story involved in musical theater, and I firmly believe that propelled his language skills. We also did different things with fabrics and paint. A friend made a Quilt of Many Fabrics for Ethan to explore, and I tied noise-making toys to strings, attaching them to an innertube he could sit in before he could sit completely independently. When he pulled on one of the strings, he would hear a toy, and then have to reel it in to get it.

My husband and I both have always enjoyed going to fabric stores and buying different fabrics, so we’d take Ethan and let him run his hands over the different textures. When I took Ethan shopping, he’d be in his stroller, and I’d walk him directly under and through some of the women’s dresses hanging on racks, talking the whole time about whether it was velvet (snuggly) or chiffon (light and floating) or taffeta (lightweight, but crinkly), and whether it was long or short. Those experiences were explored further when we began watching Project Runway. I’d sit next to him (I still often do even though he’s a teenager) and I’d describe things designers were making, but the real challenge came as the models went down the runway. As quickly as possible, I’d describe pieces as the models walked, drawing on his body in front or back to help him understand the cut of a piece.  I often talk about how a model or two walks, as well, because he knows from living with a former dancer, people move differently – and not everyone is graceful about it!

Ethan certainly had opportunities painting and coloring, and has done that similarly to how John Bramblitt teaches his workshops, using sand and other textures mixed into paints for a better idea of where on a page he’s painting. And we do try giving him plenty of opportunities to talk about art and classic works. Ethan gets them in his own way, but I believe it’s imposing and presumptuous to believe he’ll ‘see’ things the traditional way. Rather, we try leading him to art and design, talking a lot about how they affect peoples’ lives and change the lives, minds and moods of sighted people, and that he can just know about art and design, and keep that relationship in mind as he goes through life.

We joke a lot about blindness, and more often than not, fly in the face of what many people think is one of the worst disabilities to have …

Come to the edge.
But we’re afraid.
Come to the edge.
But we’ll fall.
So they came and he pushed …
And they flew.

~Christopher Logue

Posted by Amanda



1 Comment

Filed under Parents, Uncategorized

One response to “Growing Up Blind

  1. John Bramblitt is so amazing! Thanks for sharing.

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