This issue: Summer 2019

‘Blindness Does Not Define Us’

Tracy Boyd has found community, support and purpose in a group she created for parents who are blind

By Andrew Shaughnessy

One soggy, winter day in early 2019, Tracy Boyd’s phone rang. Facebook was on the line.

“We’re thinking about doing something to celebrate International Women’s Day,” the voice on the phone said. “Your name came up.”

Boyd, a mother of four who is blind, serves as president of Mommies with Guides, a Facebook group for blind parents with guide dogs to share the struggles and joys of parenting, offer tips and tricks, and celebrate their trusty canine partners.

In March, the social media platform recognized and honored Boyd as one of nine women who had positively impacted their communities through Facebook. They flew her and her guide dog Chiffon down to the company’s California headquarters, all expenses paid. There, Boyd and the other women participated in a live Facebook video where they talked about the community and support that they had found and built through their Facebook pages.

It was a rare and well-deserved moment of acknowledgement for Boyd. But then, she doesn’t do it for the recognition. Boyd’s story is one of grit, perseverance and active compassion. She has faced countless challenges over the course of her life. Yet, she not only continues to fight, hope and dream for herself; she has built a community that supports and inspires others to do so as well.

“Blindness does not define us,” Boyd says. “We are all kinds of women and men, parents and grandparents, and we participate in parenting just as fully as sighted people.”

Building Community

Boyd was born with congenital glaucoma – a condition in which pressure builds up in the eyes, damaging the optic nerve and gradually causing blindness. The doctors didn’t catch it at first. Then one day, when she was about six months old, her mother opened the blinds in her room to let in the light, and Boyd began to scream.

“I had my first surgery that night,” she says.

Since then, Boyd has had over 100 surgeries and seven cornea transplants to keep the pressure in her eyes under control. In the years to come, her sight gradually deteriorated. By the end of high school, she needed a magnifying glass to read a book. After each of her children was born, a bit more of her sight slipped away, the shapes and colors fading until light and dark were all that remained.

“When I was parenting for the very first time, there was no blind parents’ support group for me,” says Boyd. “I only knew one or two other blind moms, and they were not local.”

There was no one to show her strategies for parenting blind, no one to tell her to safety pin a bell to the back of her toddler’s shirt, to talk through the hard days or celebrate the wins. She had to figure it all out for herself.

Then, in 2013, Boyd attended an event hosted by Guide Dogs for the Blind, and everything changed.

“I was there with my 17-year-old daughter, my six-month-old baby and my husband,” Boyd recalls. “And my baby was moving around and making baby noises.”

“Do you have a baby?” asked a woman sitting at Boyd’s table.
“Yes,” Boyd replied.
“I’m a blind mom, too!” she responded.

By the end of the evening, Boyd had met three other blind moms. Together, they decided to form a Guide Dogs for the Blind alumni group specifically for blind parents with guide dogs. Early on, the group had telephone conference calls once a month, sharing stories and encouraging one another.

“We realized that there weren’t a whole lot of resources out there specifically for blind parents with guide dogs,” says Boyd. “I decided we needed to be bigger. We needed to be able to invite more parents than just people in Portland and Vancouver, and the best way to get out to more people was through Facebook.”

With her daughter’s help, Boyd built the group a Facebook page, and Mommies with Guides was born.

Offering Support

Tracy and Chiffon

Today, Mommies with Guides boasts 2,400 followers from across the globe. Blind parents share their ups and downs, their triumphs and trials. They celebrate when puppies become fully certified guides, and mourn the heartbreak when an old and faithful companion passes away.

The page is full of photos and stories. In one post, Mommies with Guides secretary Braden Dashney tells the story of walking through a parking lot when his guide dog, Fonzie, suddenly pulled him into the street. He was about to scold the dog when he realized a car had been rapidly backing out of its parking space. It was a close call, and Fonzie had saved his life.

“That’s got to be about five times that he has either refused a command that would have put us in danger, or taken some crazy evasive action to avoid getting hit,” Dashney wrote in the post. “Thanks buddy, extra treats today.”

Many people use the page to ask parenting questions like, “What’s the best way that you have found to feed your baby with a spoon?”

Feeding a squirmy baby is a relatively straightforward task for a sighted person. When you’re blind, it takes some strategy. And so people will give tips like, “I find the corner of my child’s mouth with my finger, then I guide the spoon there with my other hand.”

The group has encouraged people who wanted kids, but thought that their blindness would make the task impossible, to go for it and have children. It’s spurred others to try the guide dog lifestyle.

he community has encouraged Boyd, too. Several years ago, doctors began to suspect that Boyd’s youngest son, now 6, had glaucoma. To be sure, they needed to examine her son under anesthesia. Boyd was terrified. Would her son be OK under anesthesia? Had she somehow passed on her eye disease? She posted about the situation and her fears on Mommies with Guides, and the support poured out.

“All of these other moms and dads shared their stories of how the same thing had happened to them,” Boyd recalls. “It was so reassuring to hear that this was not just a crazy thing that’s happening to me and my family. This is happening to other blind people and their families, too.”

She wasn’t alone. None of them were alone. And that made all the difference.

Showing Grit

Faced with hardship, many people just give up. They adopt a victim mentality or decide they’re incapable of overcoming the obstacles before them. Not Boyd. She’s no quitter. She’s a community builder, an instigator, and, perhaps most importantly, a stubborn, relentless optimist.

“I have never even entertained the idea of ‘I just have to give up’ or ‘I can’t do that,’” says Boyd. “When a challenge is in front of me, I want to get past it, over it, and beyond it. I have appreciated the people who have made a difference in my life by being there for me, by supporting me, by walking through the mud with me. That’s been huge. And so I want to do that for other people.”

Today, in addition to running Mommies with Guides, Boyd is studying clinical mental health counseling as a graduate student at George Fox University. She hopes to become a therapist and help veterans better connect to their communities and to the people in their lives.

“That’s so important for their life and for the lives of the people they love,” she explains.

Boyd believes that her life experience uniquely equips her to speak into struggling veterans’ lives. “Whatever they’re struggling with – maybe it’s some sort of life-changing disability, maybe they came back and the person they are married to is not interested in continuing a relationship – sitting down with a therapist who has been through a lot of challenges themselves makes a difference. I can say, ‘I know that things will get better.’ And they’re going to know that’s authentic.”

For now, Boyd hopes to continue inspiring other blind parents to live their lives to the fullest.

“Blind or not, you can be a fully participating parent,” Boyd says. “I have met so many people who told me that because their mom or dad was blind, they didn’t get to play sports or go swimming when they were growing up … stories of how people in their blindness limited not just themselves but their children. If I could say anything to a blind parent it would be, ‘Raise the bar for yourself so that you raise the bar for your kids.’”

The way Boyd sees it, there has never been a better time in history to be blind than right now. Voice technology and mobile apps make the world so much more accessible for the blind than even a decade ago. The playing field is leveling. For those with a supportive community at their backs and the courage to face challenges head on, the opportunities are there for the taking.

“Don’t let fear stop you,” Boyd says.

She sure hasn’t.

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