A 2011 graduate of the Institute on Blindness at Louisiana Tech University, Cindi Eskew is a contract braille instructor for middle and high school students in northeast Mississippi. As she describes in this recent, frank interview, her parents’ struggles are the basis of her determination to help her students to succeed.
Cindi Eskew: My mom is legally blind and my dad isn’t quite legally blind…but very close to it. My mom was born premature in the 1950s and the doctors said it was a result of too much oxygen that damaged her optic nerve. She’s one of five siblings that lived…she lost two siblings when she was very young. They moved around a lot as a family, so she went to the Kentucky School for the Blind for awhile and a lot of public schools. But she learned to read large print, so her reading level is very low, especially for her intelligence level. It just never made sense to me why she never read and they were really never able to help me with my homework.
Institute on Blindness (PDRIB): How did students and adults react when they learned your parents were blind?
CE: From a real young age, I’d tell people that my mom was “blind,” and people would say, “Oh, so she can’t see anything?”
So, from third or fourth grade on, I’d say she’s “legally blind.” They’d ask, “What’s that mean?” And I didn’t know any different…that was my whole life. I didn’t really know how other people lived. That’s just how my life was.
My friends didn’t understand. It was mostly for adults when I would differentiate between “blind” and “legally blind.” At that young age, kids thought she’s blind, whatever. But adults had to know that she could see some, otherwise they’d feel sorry for me and us in general.
PDRIB: How did your parents learn to read?
CE: They both were taught to use large print or other devices, but they really couldn’t read much. It made me feel like the educational system had failed them and they didn’t get everything they could have gotten. Seeing how they weren’t able to do the same things like their siblings or peers were doing as far as work — they were forced to work in factories and sheltered workshops — where my mom’s siblings went to college and got more professional jobs.
PDRIB: So, growing up did you see that education gap in your parents?
CE: I realized it in high school, and it took me a long time to figure that out. I think to put the pieces together — because there were so many pieces — I never understood. She could still see some, but I never understood what legally blind meant.
So, in high school, I realized that my parents lack of opportunities in work, with college and things like that all stemmed from their lack of education. Because they didn’t have the ability to read the smaller print, they weren’t able to read all the books that I could in high school or that their peers could. So, they didn’t get to learn everything that they needed to be competitive at that time. Today, my mom still works at a workshop and my dad is on disability…he worked in manual labor so long that it messed his back up.
PDRIB: Does it make you mad now?
CE: It makes me mad. It was unfair, and it was partly because of where they lived. My dad moved to Mississippi in his teenage years from Memphis, where they had everything for him like equipment and teachers. He wasn’t learning braille, but he had many more resources available there, and when he came to Mississippi, there was nothing available to him. He had to go to the local library if he wanted to use the CCTV they had for him and his brother. it wasn’t at school, so reading books at school was almost impossible.
PDRIB: Do you feel like you have a different view on education than most of your friends?
CE: Yeah, I do, because a lot of my friends saw education as just happening and they got it. and their parents were always there to help them. For me, I’ve seen how your education isn’t just thrown to you, sometimes you have to work for it, and not everybody is given the opportunity. Even today, blind students, those in special ed, and lower-income students still don’t get an education sometimes, because people still don’t understand how to advocate.
PDRIB: There are lots of programs that train teachers for the blind. Why did you choose Louisiana Tech?
CE: When I was looking for a program, Louisiana Tech appealed to me because, for one, it was still close to home, so I could move there without being too far from my family. Then, as I got to look into their programs and their philosophy on blindness, both fit with what I’d already experienced in my life.
A teacher’s philosophy is going to determine their students’ success, because if a teacher believes that a student is able to do anything, the student will also feed off that positive vibe and know they can. Too often, blind students hear, “You can’t.” At Tech, we learned to teach our students that they can. Those kids need someone in their lives that believes they can succeed and to show them how.
PDRIB: It sounds like teaching literacy matters so deeply to you.
CE: This matters to me, because I want to see all children be able to succeed in life. To see blind children be left behind and neglected in the educational system really upsets me. In most cases, nobody knows what to do with those students, but if they’d just find the right teachers, those students can succeed and they can be just as successful as their sighted peers…and sometimes more so.
PDRIB: Finally, do you look at students and think about parents?
CE: Sometimes…the cases are different, but I do see how learning braille earlier—even if it’s not as early as it should have been—is more helpful to the student because it reduces eye strain and they do enjoy reading more. Even if they’re not reading as fast as their other classmates, they’re still enjoying reading the stories.
We’re eager to discuss how training or a master’s degree in the field of blindness may be the next, right step in your professional development. Give us a call today: (318) 257-4554
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