Editor’s note: Today we are delighted to welcome CareerConnect mentor Dr. Mahadeo A. Sukhai as a guest blogger.
Growing up in the Caribbean, as a partially sighted child, was an interesting experience — I had no appreciation at the time that my childhood was any different from that of my siblings, or that it could have been different from that of any other child. One significant reason for that was that there were, at that time, in the 1980s, no significant supports for blind and partially sighted children, nor were there support mechanisms for their parents and families. Indeed, the only resources we had to draw on, first in Guyana, and subsequently in Jamaica and Barbados, were the ophthalmologists — none of whom were pediatric specialists.
Looking back on that experience now, I recognize that my parents had to operate in near-impossible circumstances, with negligible levels of support. There was no one qualified to tell them what their child could do…and, perhaps more importantly, there was no one qualified to tell them what their child could NOT do. Indeed, for the first 10 years of my life, my parents had to invent their own ways of dealing with my care, my schooling, my social life, and my interests.
When we emigrated to Canada, my parents encountered a support network in the form of the CNIB, and in the form of the special education department of my high school. Thinking about their interactions with those support systems now, I see that my parents weren’t fully comfortable with them, or the advice that they were offering. Certainly, that advice was based upon experience, and would have worked in the majority of cases — my parents’ thinking was that it didn’t hold with their child, and the situations they had evolved and become comfortable with.
As a result of these, and other, choices, my parents gave me three intangible, but very powerful, gifts:
First, the ability to learn in my own space and pursue my own desires and dreams when it came to my education and career. For as long as I can remember, I have always wanted to be a scientist. I honestly don’t know if my parents knew what to do with that desire, but I am quite certain that they didn’t know what NOT to do with it. In not ever saying to me that this was an unattainable dream, and in fostering as best they could my interest and desire to learn, they gave me the space to learn about something that interested me, without the constriction of preconceived notions about what I could or could not do.
Second, the social and transferable tools I would need in order to execute my chosen path, and gain the ability to make a difference to society. Without the benefit of research or the growing literature on the benefits of socialization to blind and partially sighted youth, my parents recognized the important and fundamental requirement that I learn organizational, communication and leadership skills. To achieve this goal, my parents fostered my community and volunteer engagement at a young age — and after a 20 year career as a volunteer and successful leader in the communities I serve, I appreciate this gift all the more, because I see its value in all aspects of what I do.
Third, and most importantly, by their example, the courage and moral fiber to hold fast to my dreams and convictions in the face of conventional thought. Specialists in the Caribbean had discouraged any significant investment on my parents’ part in my development and education – even today, children with disabilities have little in the way of positive supports in that part of the world. In parallel, as I advanced through my education, teachers, instructors and faculty were at various points doubtful of — or outright hostile toward — my ability to succeed as a partially sighted practicing scientist.
I think many might argue against my parents’ choices — in fact, it’s easy to argue against my parents’ choices. Certainly, those choices were not easy, cheap, or safe. Certainly, there was no safety net for a long period of time. Certainly, when a support system became available, it would have been easy to accede to their greater expertise. To put it in other terms, my parents didn’t know what they didn’t know, and, in their own way, were blindly striking out into the unknown. In hindsight, there were probably a thousand ways of doing things differently, or better. We don’t have the luxury of living in hindsight, though — we must make decisions as life puts them in front of us.
I have often wondered how life would have been different had I and my parents had full access to child and youth services supports, such as those offered by the CNIB today. I wonder if, despite the expertise and support system available, some of the opportunities and choices I had would have not materialized in that different reality.
Today, I am Canada’s only congenitally blind or partially sighted PhD scientist in the biomedical disciplines. I know that this would not have been likely, or even possible, without the three gifts my parents gave me, or without their courage and example.