Blind Saskatoon dad says disability has nothing to do with parenting
Parenting without sight has never made Gerry Nelson any less of a dad. From the time he learned he would be a father, Gerry was determined to be hands-on, interactive, and involved one hundred percent.
Parenting with a disability would come with challenges the same as any parent would experience, with only a few minor differences.
Shortly after Gerry’s twenty-fifth birthday, diabetes robbed him of sight. He thought it would take a long time to adjust, but within eighteen months he was coping well. Gerry made a conscious decision to start really living.
While working at the CNIB (Canadian National Institute for the Blind) in Saskatchewan, he fell in love, married and almost immediately experienced a taste of parenting while looking after a sick friend’s child.
“In that period of about six months, not that we were consciously planning to have a child, but for me it left no doubt in my mind that if we ever did, there’s no doubt that I could be a dad without any eyesight,” Nelson said.
Within a short time, Nelson learned he would become a father, preparing for it like he had everything else since losing his sight.
“Everything I do, having had sight once upon a time, I do it with a visual image in my mind,” Nelson said.
Although he couldn’t see his son being born, Nelson felt like he could. He was able to arrange for his sister, a labour and delivery nurse, to be in the room narrating Wyatt’s birth.
“She explained everything to me as it was happening and when Wyatt’s head started to crown, she actually took my hand and placed it on the back of his head,” Nelson said.
“Then when I got to hold him, it was just amazing. But again I was imagining just as any sighted father would, that I was looking down at my brand new baby boy,” he recalled.
WATCH BELOW: Gerry Nelson explains the experience of being blind in a delivery room as his son was born
Family life came with the challenges any parent faces, at times with an extra layer of messy.
“The diaper changing went OK,” Nelson said.
“To any other blind fathers out there I recommend that you go in expecting to get dirty, but you know what? It all washes off,” he added.
That was diapers. There was of course feeding, bathing and so much more.
WATCH BELOW: Gerry tells us about giving Wyatt his first bath
Wyatt’s mom, Shannon Zook, remembers a lot of communication.
“We talked lots about how we were going to do things. I would go for a run every Sunday morning and that was sort of tradition that the guys would hang out while I was off for a run. I do remember as Wyatt started to be more mobile, moving and walking and things like that, I was a little nervous about how that was going to work,” said Shannon.
As in any household, there was the odd terrifying moment as parents.
“I do recall a particular time when Wyatt took a dive off of the change table and I got a call from Gerry saying I think you need to come home, don’t panic,” Zook said.
“In just a second I reached for a diaper and I came back and I thought I knew exactly where he was, and he was gone,” Nelson recalled.
“He flew off the change table, good thing the floor was carpeted, he hit the floor, I caught him and it seemed like he bounced because I caught him, and I had him in my arms. He was fine and that was one time I remember, really the only time that I kind of scared myself.”
Wyatt wasn’t injured in the fall with more than a small bruise. As far as keeping “eyes” on a toddler, Gerry relied on verbal interaction as his cue.
“He didn’t realize you know, not only was I talking to him and interacting with him but it was also my way of pinpointing exactly where he was and what he was doing,” Nelson said.
Feeding a baby solid foods is sloppy at the best of times. Nelson remembers getting a routine down that worked.
“If I could get the spoon close enough to Wyatt’s mouth, Wyatt would take care of the rest,” he said.
Nelson was not only hands-on, he was independent and it rubbed off on Wyatt.
“Even from a young age, Wyatt and Gerry have been able to go out independently. Wyatt’s been the eyes and Gerry’s been the dad figure and off they go,” Zook said.
“This has always been the norm, so it’s not anything odd or unusual.”
WATCH BELOW: Shannon Zook tells us about her son’s relationship with his dad
To outsiders though, their family didn’t always appear normal and it allowed both parents to teach Wyatt important lessons about the opinions of strangers, and the opportunity to educate them.
“There were certainly people that we didn’t really appreciate their comments and usually we dealt with it with humour,” Zook said.
“For example, we’d be in a restaurant and the waitress would come up and say ‘does he want something,’ talking like he’s not even there. And then Gerry would say ‘yes he does, yes he does want a Coke or a Pepsi,” Shannon said laughing.
At nearly thirteen years old, Wyatt has answered so many questions in a mature manner.
“’Has your dad ever seen your face? Does your dad know what you look like? And I’d say no,’” Wyatt recalled, “and I’d say ‘but he knows what I look like in a different sense.’”
To watch Wyatt communicate with his dad, the only noticeable difference might be extra attention to verbal details and sometimes physical touch to help him find something out of place.
WATCH BELOW: Wyatt give some examples of being Gerry’s eyes when needed
Wyatt commonly runs into the stereotype that being blind must mean his dad is incapable of doing small tasks, never mind playing sports. One of his peers noticed a logo for the Canadian Blind Golf Open on his shirt, and gave Wyatt a confused look.
“And I told him, ‘well my dad’s a golfer,’” Wyatt said. “I’m working on being his coach and see this person was very open and wanting to understand more, and that opened his eyes and opened his mind to more things that a blind man can do.”
In fact, Wyatt not only coaches his dad in golf, he does play-by-play in the stands next to Nelson when they attend Saskatoon Blades hockey games. It’s led to a lot of national media attention and opportunities for the family through both the WHL and NHL.
WATCH BELOW: Son helps father ‘see’ Saskatoon Blades games
The two also work out together and do all the usual father-son bonding activities.
When Wyatt was a younger kid he admits there was the odd time he harmlessly took advantage, not that he’s proud of it.
“If I was blind I wouldn’t want somebody doing that to me,” he said. “But you know, every now and then, ‘hey buddy, can you grab me two cookies. You (can) have two’ and I’d take six or whatever you know, and just hid them under the couch cushion,” Wyatt laughed.
Wyatt’s parents call him well adjusted and mature beyond his years. Gerry and Shannon’s marriage ended when Wyatt was three, but they have maintained a partnership in parenting and positive attitudes, especially around the topic of parenting with a disability.
Still they expect to continuously deal with other people’s perceptions and shock over their circumstances.
“People are just amazed that a blind person could even have a child,” Nelson said. “One guy turned to me and said ‘well how did you do that?’ There really is no answer for that other than shaking your head and just making light of it.”
If Gerry had one take away lesson to share it would be this.
“I wish that people would understand that the disability, when you get right down to it, has absolutely very little to nothing to do with it,” Gerry said.
“You parent your child because you are a father or a mother,” he added, “People with disabilities parent each and every day.”
For society, it’s just a matter of removing the blinders and seeing more clearly.
WATCH BELOW: Parenting with a disability
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