Health

The Taylors: Focusing on abilities, not disabilities

BY HORTENSE ROSE

Sunday, May 13, 2018

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ARTHUR Anthony Taylor and his wife Marlene are two of the estimated 100,000 Jamaicans now classified as blind or visually impaired.

A breakdown of the statistics show that of this number, about 28,000 are blind.

The husband and wife duo tied the knot 21 years ago and have been on a mission not to allow blindness or visual impairment to thwart their plans of leading productive, fulfilling, happy lives; in terms of establishing a family, embracing educational opportunities and pursing meaningful careers.

Both Tony, as Arthur is affectionately called, and Marlene had been diagnosed at an early age with significant vision defects resulting from an underdeveloped optic nerve at birth.

For Tony, this condition meant he had minimal sight at first, but this subsequently led to a total loss of vision by 2002, while he was pursuing studies at The University of the West Indies.

In a somewhat reflective and sombre mood, Tony recalls what it was like moving from an arena of minimal yet precious visual perception to one of total blindness.

“I must admit I was in a sort of denial at first, but eventually I learnt to adapt to my new world of blindness,” he said.

Having already been exposed to life skills critical to a blind person while at the School for the Blind, such as Braille reading and mobility skills, the practical adjustment for Tony was not as difficult as it could have been.

Although Marlene still retains some vision, she is considered legally blind.

“I am able to read large prints for example,” says Marlene, who admits that unlike her Tony, she can get around without using the white cane — a symbol of blindness — except when she is crossing roads on the public thoroughfare.

In addition to her optic nerve defect, Marlene is also affected by nystagmus — an eye condition that results in frequent, involuntary movements of the eye, which contributes to reduced or loss of vision. Nystagmus is more popularly known as “dancing eyes”.

The husband and wife duo look back with a mixture of pleasure and pain on their early years as individuals with severe sight limitations. They both speak of the supportive family environment they grew up inwhich served to create in them a remarkable degree of social and psychological well-being.

The Taylors, however, also sadly reflect on their lack of adequate integration into the communities in which they lived as children and adolescents.

Although Marlene was born in Maggoty, St Elizabeth, and raised in Arcadia, St James, while Tony was Kingston-born, living in Tivoli Gardens. Theirs is a similar experience of oftentimes being teased and called unpleasant names by some community members, including adults. The focus of the teasing was, of course, their sight disability. The couple opines that even today in the wider Jamaican society there continues to be a level of misunderstanding about blindness by many individuals, some of whom continue to treat the blind with disrespect.

But by learning to “turn their lemons into lemonade”, the Taylor husband and wife team later sought to instil positive values in their children, including a sense of pride in parenting.

“Our children are proud of us and boast about us,” says Tony .

The two were students at the Salvation Army School for the Blind in Kingston at the same time and had casual interactions, but it was some time later that they met up at a music session in Fletcher's Land, which Marlene had attended with another male friend who had invited her out.

Fast-forward to tying the knot on August 9, 1997, the Taylors continue to revel in the joys of togetherness.

The suitor, now turned husband, says emphatically: “We just enjoy being alone together and chatting.”

However, this does not detract from the focus on family togetherness, as both Tony and Marlene are head of a “clan” of four children, all of whom are now adults.

Two of the children were born to Marlene prior to her establishing a relationship with Tony.

“When I saw the responsible and independent way in which Marlene was growing her children, I was impressed. I had been involved in relationships before (with sighted girls), and I realised that, although being a woman who had a disability, Marlene was an excellent mother to her children,” recalls Tony. “As a single mom she cared for her children and sought to do the best for them. I just could not help but being impressed, and yes, being even more attracted to her.

“So we started living together along with her two children, Cadian and Rayon. Later, our first child as a couple, Andrew, came along. A past student of Lannaman's Prep and later St George's College, Andrew now works as a professional barber at a leading haircare establishment in Kingston.

“Some five years after Andrew's birth, Jodian, our daughter, was born. But it was while Marlene was pregnant with Jodian that I decided it was time to write another chapter in our book. So, I proposed to Marlene, she accepted, and the rest is history,” says Tony with a mischievous smile.

The husband now admits that, in addition to wanting to settle down then at age 29 , his religion played a large part in his decision. A committed Roman Catholic and active church member, Tony, in looking back at the decision to marry Marlene, says: “It was the right thing to do.”

As a blind/visually impaired couple bringing up four children, both Tony and Marlene admit that while there were challenges, there were also the joys of having a family.

The father, who's also now grandfather to Jodian's son, recalls that both his children attended Lannaman's Preparatory School before going on to high school because he felt it was a more secure environment for them.

As a teacher at the school himself, Tony was able to provide the parental supervision required, and he noted that he got support from his colleagues at Lannaman's Prep which he described as “a school with a family environment”. He said there were teachers who assisted and supervised the children with their homework, knowing the limitations of the parents, given their shared visual impairment.

Tony said, too, the teachers at Lannaman's Prep, and later at Holy Childhood in the case of Jodian, and St George's College, would often compliment the children on their grooming.

“We took pride in our clothes and tried to instil this in our children,” said Tony.

But while lauding the support of his colleagues at work, Tony noted that the society is not always accommodating of people with a disabilities. In fact, he said, much more needs to be done in Jamaica to effectively integrate people with disabilities into the society.

With a tinge of disappointment in his voice, Tony recalls an incident in which he took Marlene to a community clinic when she was pregnant. On that occasion, a nurse on duty queried why it was that Marlene had allowed herself to get pregnant since she was blind.

Quite incensed, the dutiful father reprimanded the nurse for her insensitive outburst. In recalling the event, Tony notes: “I had to point out to her that the child Marlene was expecting had a responsible father; something that could not have been said of some of the other females the nurse was processing at the clinic.”

Looking back on the way his parents were able to prepare him and his siblings for life, Andrew recalled: “We were never concerned about our parents' ability to give of their best to all of us, as they were both confident persons who did not face their disability with negativism. Mom and Dad were not lacking in anything, and we would often boast about them.

“They participated in the activities we took part in as children, and we were proud of them. We continue to take pride in them,” Andrew says.

The Taylors have had to work hard to achieve the delicate balance needed to establish and raise a family, and carry out a multiplicity of other work and non-work related functions. This is particularly so for Tony, who is a teacher, a musician, music instructor, and a functionary in the Roman Catholic Church. He currently serves as a deacon at both the Holy Rosary and Saint Theresa Roman Catholic churches, where he also performs the role of organist. He serves, too, as musical director for the New Life Charismatic Prayer Community and the National Catholic Charismatic Renewal Centre in the Archdiocese of Kingston.

A graduate of UWI, where he obtained a bachelor of arts degree in theology, Tony is also an alumnus of the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts, where he received a diploma in music education.

The father and husband has been a teacher for more than 28 years, having taught music at Calabar High School, Half-Way-Tree Primary, Smurfs Kindergarten, and Lannaman's Preparatory School where he is currently employed as music and religious education teacher and guidance counsellor.

Tony has also been an active member in the local music fraternity, playing or singing with groups such as the Unique Vision and Optic Revolution bands, Boris Gardner and Friends, and the National Culture Group for the Blind singers.

Meanwhile, Marlene, who describes herself as “quiet”, now works as a caner at Superior Craft and More located at the Jamaica Society For the Blind at Old Hope Road. She has previously worked as a telephone operator, a sorter of text books and a taxi dispatcher.

In addition to being trained in telephone operating, Marlene has also benefitted from training in massage therapy, floral decoration, picture frame and wheelchair repair, and home nursing.

Although their children are now all adults, and in some instances have proceeded to establish their own family units, Tony and Marlene still see themselves as head of the Taylor clan.

Firm believers in family life and the rights of people with disabilities to seek to live as normal a life as possible, the Taylors have encouraging words for young or not so young couples desirous of establishing family units.

“I would encourage persons with disabilities, be it visual or otherwise, to pursue their dream of having a family once they and their partner have a level of independence to function together and the desire to grow in their humanness,” says Tony.

Marlene, meanwhile, is urging family aspirants with a disability to “be loving to each other despite the challenges you may face, and work at building your relationship daily”.

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