BALTIMORE – At just past 11 a.m. on a Thursday, Melissa Riccobono sits at her computer while her 3-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, plays on the floor next to her with a pillow and some toys.
Using a Focus 14 Blue keyboard with Braille display and text-to-speech readout, Riccobono scrolls through her contacts, searching for a friend’s email address. Suddenly, seemingly unprompted, she turns to her daughter and says, “Elizabeth, I think your bus is here.”
Sure enough, idling in the street outside their Baltimore home is a big yellow bus, waiting to take Elizabeth to a city nursery school for blind children.
Reluctantly, Elizabeth finishes her game and stands up. Riccobono helps her daughter into her coat and school backpack, and the pair move to the front door, collecting their long white canes from the umbrella stand in the corner.
The rumbling sound of the bus was subtle, nearly imperceptible. Did Riccobono, a woman blind since birth, use some sort of superhero-like heightened sense to hear it pull up outside?
Sensitive though Riccobono’s hearing might be, she is a parent, and at just past 11 a.m. on Thursdays, she knows to expect her daughter’s school bus.
These sorts of assumptions about blindness are common, said Sharon Maneki, president of the Maryland chapter of advocacy and support organization National Federation of the Blind.
Sighted people, even courtroom judges, often resort to “what ifs” in evaluating blind people’s parenting abilities, she said.
Under a bill passed by the Maryland legislature on the last day of session, in cases assessing parents’ ability to care for their children, judges and claimants will need to follow new procedures before introducing a person’s disability in court. Originally written for blindness, the bill was later amended to include all disabilities, physical or mental, and covers only private cases that don’t involve public agencies, such as custody or visitation, as well as adoption or guardianship cases.
“The bill provides a lot more protections for disabled parents that we’ve never had before,” said Riccobono.
Riccobono and her husband, Mark, president of the National Federation of the Blind, as well as Maneki and other advocates, have spent years working to create legal parity for blind people. This legislation is an important step in protecting the blind from being pre-judged for their disability, she said.
“As a blind person, you’re always thinking, what if this (situation) is blamed on my blindness?” said Chris Danielsen, director of public relations for the National Federation of the Blind.
A change in the burden of proof
One of the bill’s key provisions is placing the burden of proof on the person making a legal claim against a disabled parent, Maneki said. In past cases, blind people were required to prove that they were capable of caring for a child, she said.
“This has been a long-standing problem that we’ve had,” Maneki said.
In 2007, Michael Bullis was sorting through a difficult divorce and custody proceedings over his then-5-year-old daughter, Julianna. A Baltimore County court had ruled Bullis, a blind man, was not fit to be left with Julianna without supervision. So for almost two years, Bullis said, he only saw his daughter in public places with either his ex-wife or one of her parents there.
“Needless to say, it was pretty humiliating,” he said.
What bothered him the most, Bullis said, was that the court had determined his visitation rights based on a prejudiced assumption: that he was not a capable parent because he was blind.
“They say things such as, ‘The blind person can’t do anything and they’ve never been able to do it,’ even though they’ve been doing it for years,” Maneki said.
He fought the decision in court, and the judge called for social services to conduct a home study to determine whether Bullis could provide appropriate care for his daughter.
After performing the study, the social services caseworker said he would have approved the home for a sighted parent, Bullis said, but he was hesitant to clear it for a blind person. So Bullis spent the next hour addressing all of the caseworker’s concerns and questions, demonstrating everyday tasks around his own house.
With Bullis’ explanation, the caseworker filed a positive report that did not express any concerns about disability, and in 2008, the judge granted Bullis unsupervised visitation rights of his daughter.
“I wasn’t going to let him go until he heard everything I had to say,” Bullis said. “His report could have killed me.”
The caseworker submitted the proper report, Bullis said, because the judge’s letter only asked social services to evaluate his abilities, not his blindness.
“For some reason, with disability, you could bring up imaginary subjects and the court listened to it.”
Fighting for legal parity
While his own case was ongoing, Bullis joined the National Federation of the Blind in pursuing state legislation to ensure other blind parents would not have to face the same uphill legal battle he faced, he said.
In 2009, the Maryland General Assembly passed a bill limiting the way courts consider a parent’s disability in custody, visitation and Child in Need of Assistance cases. Under the law, disability is only relevant if a court finds it affects the parent’s ability to care for a child.
Sighted people sometimes forget how much experience the blind have with their disability, Riccobono said, and that they are not newly blind before becoming parents.
“Not every blind parent is perfect because not every parent is perfect,” Riccobono said. “I always say, blind people don’t keep emergency rooms open all by ourselves. There are plenty of sighted parents who have accidents, and that’s why they’re called accidents.”
This year’s original bill also set new rules for social services’ treatment of disabled parents in Child in Need of Assistance cases. These are brought when the agency tries to prove that a person is not fit to be a parent, whether because of abuse or neglect or simply because they aren’t capable of caring for a child. But after pushback from the Maryland Department of Human Resources, the social services cases were excluded to ensure a bill was passed this session, Maneki said.
The Maryland Department of Human Resources, which oversees social services in the state, felt that the new rules would place an extra step in removing children from situations of neglect and abuse, Maneki said.
Supportive parenting services
If a court finds a parent’s disability does affect the best interest of the child, the bill also introduces supportive parenting services as an alternative to limiting custody or visitation rights. A person will have the opportunity to show that with these services, their disability would not impede their parenting abilities.
Supportive services could include parenting classes, skill-building and connecting with other people who have the same disability, Riccobono said.
“Why reinvent the wheel if there are other parents out there who are doing it, and doing it well?” Riccobono said.
As president of support organization Maryland Parents of Blind Children, Riccobono is accustomed to educating others about blindness and parenting. Two of her three children are legally blind, and she has used some of these parenting techniques with her own family.
Some blind parents use noise-making tricks as ways to keep track of their children in busy areas. When Riccobono takes her young children to the playground or the mall, she sometimes attaches bells on zip ties to their shoes so she can follow the ringing sound. Other parents have their children carry Tic Tacs in their pockets or wear shoes specially designed to squeak, she said.
The National Federation of the Blind may also be able to provide support, Danielsen said. Products like the KNFB Reader, an app that converts printed text to audio, and services like the NFB-Newsline, a free phone line that reads newspaper articles to subscribers, are available through the federation’s website.
And if the National Federation of the Blind cannot provide the support, they can help others find the services they need, Danielsen said. In some cases, the organization has taken on legal representation of blind people, he said.
However, supportive services do not have to be limited to resources provided specifically for people with disabilities, Riccobono said. Any skill-building class that helps a blind person could potentially work in court, she said.
“Not all issues have to do with blindness,” Danielsen said. “But where blindness has to do with it, the National Federation of the Blind can help.”