Note: This is part one of a two-part post about Jeanette Hanscome. Click here to read part two about Jeanette’s journey through divorce and single parenthood.
Jeanette Hanscome was born with a vision impairment called achromatopsia, which causes complete color blindness, low vision, and extreme sensitivity to light. In her words, “We have what is called day blindness. If I go outside during the sunlight hours without my sunglasses on, everything is like a white sheet.”
You would think such symptoms would lead to an early diagnosis, right? Wrong. Jeanette wasn’t diagnosed until she was eight years old.
Up until then, her parents, teachers, and doctors were stumped. They knew she couldn’t see well, her eyes shook, and she wasn’t learning her colors. But it’s such a rare disorder (1 in 33,000 people) that it took a long time for anyone to connect the dots.
Jeanette was the first person in her school with a visual impairment, and they weren’t equipped to deal with it.
“They didn’t know whether to treat me like a blind kid or someone who had a learning disability,” she says.
In those days, most kids with low vision were educated as if they were blind. Her school district decided to start teaching her braille, and she most likely would have ended up in a school for the blind. However, before this could happen, her dad was transferred from California’s San Joaquin Valley to the Bay Area. Her new school system was beginning to provide some programs for kids with visual impairments.
“I was sort of an experiment in every school I attended,” she says, “because it was just when they were allowing visually impaired kids to go to regular school in regular classrooms. So I just had to sink or swim. In some ways that was frustrating, but in other ways it was really good because I had to adapt.”
It’s not surprising to hear that she was bullied. “Kids were mean. … Anyone who stands out as different is going to get picked on,” she says. “But overall I can look back and see that I was blessed. I had parents who treated me and my sister just like any other kid.” (Note: One of Jeanette’s sisters has achromatopsia, and the other sister doesn’t. It’s a recessive trait.)
She attended a commuter college, so she lived at home and took the bus, since she is unable to drive. “[College] was a little more challenging, because I had to explain to every professor that I had low vision.” In elementary through high school, her teachers had known ahead of time that she would need to sit at the front of the room and need extra help or time for reading assignments.
“College was hard,” she says. Through her campus’s center for people with disabilities, she was able to get a reader, so she could listen to an audio recording of the books she was assigned. But it still wasn’t an ideal situation. “Sometimes I wasn’t up to date on the reading and would have to talk to the instructor about delaying taking a test. That actually scared me away from majoring in English, because I didn’t think I’d be able to keep up with the reading.”
Instead, Jeanette majored in early childhood studies and got a teaching credential. She chose the major because she didn’t know what else to do, had done a lot of babysitting in high school, and people told her she was good with kids. It wasn’t always easy, but she got through it with the help of many people.
“Everyone was willing to work with me, and it’s an example of how helpful people are willing to be when you speak up about a need that you have.”
Jeanette graduated and started working in a preschool, but she quickly realized she wasn’t cut out for teaching children. She says if she could go back and do it again, she would have majored in English and conquered her fear of not keeping up with the reading. However, she has discovered that she enjoys teaching adults, and she now teaches workshops at writers’ conferences.
Jeanette has always loved to write. She was that young person who always had a journal and would write stories. She didn’t often share them with others, but on occasion she would get an assignment to write a short story or write about a personal experience. She got a lot of positive feedback from teachers, which made her realize she could actually be good at it.
She got married and gave birth to her first child during college, so she set her writing aside, but it was still something she aspired to do. Eventually some friends encouraged her to start writing again, and she decided she didn’t want to get to the end of her life and say, “God gave me this gift. Why didn’t I use it?” So she looked into writing articles for publication.
Her first piece of published writing was an article she submitted to a magazine for teens with visual impairments. They say to write what you know, so she did. From there, Jeanette started attending writing conferences, where she encountered more opportunities to use her skills. In the ensuing years, she has made a name for herself as a freelance writer and editor, and she is the author of several books.
As an adult, Jeanette’s visual limitations have affected her in various ways. The biggest one is her inability to drive, which was exacerbated by her divorce several years ago. There were a few times when her two boys were left out of events because she wasn’t able to get them there. But Jeanette also stresses that her friends, family, and church have been extremely helpful in that area.
Jeanette also has to explain herself quite often. “On the surface, I don’t appear to have anything different about me.” This means she’s not sure when to tell people she has low vision. It’s not something she always immediately reveals. Some people assume her low vision means she isn’t able to handle doing things, which isn’t true. So she has learned to sit back and observe people before she decides how much to share.
However, she sees her impairment as more of a positive thing than negative.
“It forced me to adapt from a very young age. I always had something to overcome. I don’t give up easily on things. It also gave me a lot of compassion for people who are different.
“When I was in school I gravitated to the kids who had disabilities. The ones the other kids ignored or made fun of were usually the kids I hung out with because I didn’t want them to be without a friend.” Her limitations have been good for her two sons, too, as it has made them more compassionate and helpful.
Jeanette’s condition has also deepened her faith. “I’ve been able to see God really work through it and bring a lot of good out of it.” Plus, she appreciates things she might not have otherwise, such as her love of fragrance and her sensitivity to the tone of people’s voices.
She also received the opportunity to co-author a book with Michael Hingson, a blind man who survived the attack on the World Trade Center. Michael and his guide dog, Roselle, walked down 78 floors to safety.
He began speaking at schools about his experience, and teachers would ask if he would write a book for kids about his experience. Jeanette’s friend Susy Flory had co-written Michael’s memoir, Thunder Dog, but she didn’t feel up to the task of writing for children. So she reached out to Jeanette, who had experience writing for a younger audience, and who would be able to connect with Michael over their vision impairments. Jeanette and Michael immediately clicked, and they wrote Running with Roselle together.
The book’s chapters alternate between stories of Michael’s life from childhood and Roselle’s stages of training as a guide dog and becoming Michael’s partner. It continues through their experience of surviving 9/11 together. The book educates kids about blindness and guide dogs. It also shows the partnership between a guide dog and his handler and how that connection is what helped both of them make it out of the building.
Jeanette says, “When people ask Mike, ‘How did you survive that experience?’ he always accredits it to the partnership he had with his dog. He didn’t freak out, because Roselle wasn’t freaking out. And guide dog experts would say the dog didn’t freak out because Mike wasn’t freaking out. … It really ends up being a story about partnership and about overcoming whatever obstacle is in your way. Not only did Mike have to overcome blindness, but he also had to overcome the traumatic experience of surviving 9/11 and use it for good. He immediately started speaking and using his story to encourage other people.”
The book is a great resource for parents and teachers to use to help kids understand vision impairments and encourage them to overcome the obstacles in their lives. Click here to find out more about Running with Roselle .
Next week we’ll continue Jeanette Hanscome’s story and focus on her experience as a single parent to her teenage son, Nathan, and her adult son, Christian. (Click here to read it.) But for now, let’s see how Jeanette can help us to better understand and interact with people who have vision limitations.
Q&A with Jeanette Hanscome
What’s important for people with normal vision to know about interacting with people with vision impairments?
- Know that there’s a really wide range of vision impairments, so it’s important to ask questions. I would rather people ask questions than be sitting there wondering or to feel uncomfortable.
- Treat us like normal people. We all have some kind of limitations, and vision happens to be ours. I think when we look at people that way, it eliminates a lot of misconceptions and puts everybody on even ground.
- Get to know us beyond the vision limitations, instead of focusing on what we can’t do.
- Ask questions about how much help we need. Some blind and visually impaired people are just getting used to low vision and they might need more help. But those of us who have been visually impaired since birth or childhood have learned how to navigate and maybe don’t need it.
How can adults guide kids to interact well with other children who have vision impairments?
- It’s not always a great idea to just say, “Be helpful,” because that can sometimes lead to other children treating the visually impaired child like an invalid, which is not actually helpful. Instead, encourage them to do the things below.
- Be their friend.
- Treat them like a normal kid.
- Invite them over to play.
- Eat lunch with them.
- Be the nice person in their life that they can someday look back on and say, “I remember this girl, and she was always so nice to me. She always invited me to her house. She never stared at me.” Keep in mind that they’re probably being picked on by other kids and stared at or treated differently. So try to be the one who doesn’t do that.
- Be the person who is willing to stand up for them. I have a cousin who stood up to some bullies at a local pool who were teasing my sister and me. He was my hero after that. Be that hero for someone else.
Want to give your kids some experience in showing kindness to others? Click here to check out our “30 Days of Kindness Challenge” printable.
You can connect with Jeanette Hanscome at jeanettehanscome.com and on her Facebook author page. She would love to hear from you! And click here for Part 2 of Jeanette’s story about her divorce and single parenting journey.
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