Interview with Denna Lambert
We are so excited to talk to Denna Lambert today! Denna is a young professional who works at NASA in Washington, DC. She has an amazing black lab Seeing Eye dog, a cool kitty, and a five-month-old son named Kaleb. Denna was willing to talk to us about growing up with a visual disability and adopting a new child as a single mom.
How do you know Zoe and Kristin?
I heard about Kristin on the Internet! When she moved to the DC area, we got connected through our guide dogs. Both of our dogs were trained through the Seeing Eye. Zoe is around the same age as my guide dog, Angie. I met Kristin, and I was like, “Wow, you’re pretty cool!" We have a lot of similarities— we are both young, active, blind professional women, and there’s definitely a lot of camaraderie that comes with facing similar challenges. We can talk about issues that we have faced, and ask each other, “Hey, how have you done this? What solutions have you found?” Talking about shared challenges, and trying to work out solutions— that’s one aspect of blindness and disability that brings people together. Otherwise, our paths probably wouldn’t have crossed.
We also know each other through being blind athletes. I used to think that athletics and sports were this really competitive thing, but honestly, it’s just all about being active to live a healthy life! In the blind community, it’s easy to become sedentary because of the barriers to being active. After meeting Kristin and learning her story and hearing about the challenges she’s faced, such as needing an organ transplant, I was like, “Oh wow, if she can be an athlete, then yeah, I can figure out how to be active and healthy too!"
What sports do you participate in?
I am a cyclist and like doing the long tours. I enjoy the tour cycling, which can be up to 70, 80 or 100 miles! A couple of years ago, I did a one-week bike tour across Iowa.
How did you get involved with cycling?
I began facing some health challenges such as high blood pressure and obesity. Growing up in Arkansas, the school system did not have adaptive PE or sports that blind people could participate in. Because of that, I was not active and I fell into this trap of “Oh, I can just do computer stuff and that’s it.” But when I moved to DC, there were so many active people around! The doctor told me that I should try to lose weight, and I was like, "Oh, you mean I can run, or I can bike?” My whole life, I had always been told, “Oh no, you can’t do that, it’s too dangerous!” or “What if you fall?” I grew up in a culture that didn’t encourage being physically active. But now, when I see other blind people being active, I think, “Hey, if they can do it, I can do it too!”
And I think with cycling especially, it’s a sport I’m drawn to because it allows me to move in a way that I imagine is similar to how it feels to drive a car. You’re able to go faster than you could move alone!
Tell us about yourself!
I’m originally from Little Rock, Arkansas. If I have a glass of wine you might hear the accent come out a little bit more! I moved to the DC area in 2004, after getting my Bachelor's at the University of Arkansas. I’ve been in the DC area for 15 years now and work for NASA at the Goddard Spaceflight Center. I’m 38 and single. I definitely would love to find a person to settle down with, but the dating scene is hard.
I have a female black lab from the Seeing Eye. She’s 7 years old and her name is Angie. I also have a cat named Mystery, who I adopted during a time of loneliness. I waited almost 2 years to adopt my son, and for so long I was convinced that it would never happen. During that time, I started volunteering at an animal shelter— just to take care of something. Nobody told me that if you start volunteering at the shelter, you tend to take home one of the animals! So that’s what happened with my cat.
My son is now almost 5 months old. I was really thankful to be able to be there from the very beginning. His family chose me— they saw in me what they were looking for in someone to care for him. They were really great, and I spent half of the year getting to know them, and I was able to be there at his birth. We finalized the adoption 10 days after he was born.
What is the biggest challenge you face (related to disability or not)?
They are interconnected. Definitely, I would say that my biggest challenge is trying to navigate the misconceptions that people may have about me as a blind person.
I face a lot of misconceptions relating to low expectations. People have these preconceived notions about the lives that disabled people lead or what they are capable of doing. Also, as a black woman, especially in the south, there can be bias that comes up in conversation or assumptions of certain stereotypes. But at the end of the day, I’m just a normal person trying to live my life! Sometimes people view very basic things as being inspirational, but really it should just be a normal thing.
The other thing is, sometimes there is a level of fatigue that occurs when constantly being faced with these barriers and misconceptions. For example, in college, I wanted to be an engineer. I was initially an electrical engineering major. However, since my professors had serious doubts about whether a blind person could be an electrical engineer, those doubts became my own fears as well. I ended up switching my major.
Even now, I face doubts with being a mom. I KNOW that blind people can be great parents. I can easily count 50 blind moms and dads out there who are killing it. But, I still feel that pressure to be perfect because I want to defy those misconceptions. It’s extra pressure, self-imposed, that I put on myself. So that’s where it’s kind of a double edged sword: you’re trying to beat low expectations, but you also don’t want to place so much pressure on yourself to beat those expectations and be perfect, that you become fatigued.
How do you deal with people who have misconceptions about blind people, or low expectations of you?
I believe that the human spirit has the ability to progress and keep moving. I might not have a solution on how to do for everything right now— but just give me a minute and I’ll figure it out!
One of your earlier questions was about my favorite place to travel. And actually, for so long, I didn’t travel at all. I was like, “Oh my goodness...how do I do this?!" But finally, I created a bucket list tour of all the things that I wanted to do before adopting my baby. I told myself that I was going to face my fears and figure out this international travel thing. And I did! I traveled to Greece, Italy, Croatia, the Netherlands.
I might not have the rule book on how to do X or Y or Z, but I know that if I give myself time, I can discover the solutions. It might not be the conventional way of doing things, but through problem solving, I can figure things out. Like right now, I’m just feeding my son. I’m sure he’s a hot mess with squash on his face since I can’t see where his mouth is. But he’s figured out a solution where if he leans forward, he can get his mouth to the spoon and get fed! He’s gonna figure out. We might be a mess along the way, we’ll have to use a washcloth… but that’s okay!
The way it works with domestic adoptions in the US is that the family chooses you. It’s not just me choosing to adopt— it’s also someone else choosing me. That was really hard for me to wrap my head around. I didn’t want my disability to be a secret, because I wanted my relationship with the family to be built on trust. Will somebody who doesn’t know me at all, but who knows I have a disability, be able to see past my blindness? Will they be able to see that this is a characteristic of who I am? That we’ll have to do some problem solving, but that my desire to care and love for a child is just the same as someone without a disability?
When I finally got the call from the agency saying that somebody picked me, I was like, “WHAT! Are you sure? Did they read all of my files that say I’m blind??!” And when they said yes, and I was like, “Are they REALLY sure??” So I even had my own doubts, and got in my own way.I talked to the family, and we talked about everything. What they wanted was a home filled with love, and someone who could offer him exposure to things that they weren't able to provide. And that’s what I could do. And so far, it’s been a great 5 months with my son!
Can you tell us about that experience and the process of adoption?
It was one of those things where I had to come to a decision of whether or not I was really going to do this. How it also came about is that I was starting to have some health problems with endometriosis. I started looking into options of how I would make it happen. I really had to push past doubt.
I realized I needed to find an agency that had a positive attitude towards disability. I called up a couple of different agencies in the area. Eventually, I found one that was very open— they regularly work with LGBT families, single parent families, etc. If that agency could have a positive attitude and push past typical preconceived notions, I had hope that they could work with someone with a disability. It took a lot of interviewing and asking questions. The whole process is very emotional because everyone feels like they’re under a microscope. There were visits from social workers, and multiple home inspections for fire and safety.
The process was definitely harder emotionally, but I felt like I learned so much about myself. I had to face a lot of my fears head on. I think that over the past 5 months, it’s been no different than someone else without a disability. I have had to relearn everything, like how to move around in my own house with a baby, and how to structure my day. But those are the things that a lot of new moms face. There are a lot of struggles that new parents face that aren’t talked about, but are part of the reality of becoming a parent.
The biggest challenge is managing a budget as a single parent, raising a baby who has pretty significant expenses. I’m definitely gonna have to learn how to do some nifty budgeting! Just learning how to adapt has been the underlying theme of the last 5 months.
How did you and the family pick each other?
For domestic adoption, you set the criteria of what you’re comfortable with— for example, whether you want a boy or girl, if you’re open to a transracial adoption, if you're ok accepting a child with a disability, or exposure to illegal substances. Once you set the criteria, you wait while they do the matching. You can’t mail order your child. So, I set the matching criteria, and then his family fell into that criteria. They liked me, I liked them, and it felt good. It went from there.
We started talking over the phone in January, and then I met them in March. It certainly doesn’t always work that way, but ours did. I did get a chance to spend a lot of time with his family and his siblings. We have an open adoption, and we stay in touch. They ask about him, and we do visits when I’m in the area
Have you heard the recent Breakfast Club podcast about the blind babysitter?
Yes, I did hear it. From what I understand, it’s a show where people could call in and share challenges or issues on their mind. I think that the talent on the show was not well briefed on the topic to be able to form a thoughtful opinion.
A lot of it has to do with what is thoughtfulness and what is entertainment. And it spiraled into entertainment, which usually plays into an image of preconceived notions and stereotypes of about groups of people. So that’s were you get into comments like, “Oh, I would leave my child with a dog first before a blind person.” It was reckless that they made comments about a whole community like that, without having done any research on that community.
That podcast went round and round the internet. What I would really liked to have seen is a follow up conversation. I think what happens also is that you have a whole community bombarding this radio show. So that’s where I would have liked to see a conversation. But I do think it was careless and reckless to have that topic and make those comments about a group of people. Frankly, when I was growing up, I didn’t have opportunities to babysit children. The assumption was that I couldn’t or shouldn’t take care of child. "Oh Denna, you won’t have to worry about that, you won’t be a parent.” That was really hard because I took that in for so long. And even today, there are so many blind teenagers, young adults, and people going to school for early childhood education, who just need a chance.
Currently, I live in a community that does a babysitting co-op. Families exchange babysitting hours and earn babysitting credits by volunteering their services. And I'm like, oh my goodness, how am I going to earn hours of babysitting if no one trusts me enough to care for their child?! So that’s where I think to myself…what if they heard that radio show? Would it fan the flames of their own fears?
So that also really pushes and reinforces that pressure I feel to be perfect. Because yes: new babysitters, young babysitters, new parents— they make mistakes! But if a BLIND parent or babysitter makes a mistake— people will be like, “NOPE, see that’s why blind people shouldn’t do that.” So, I wish that there was a way to go on the show and have a discussion.
You mentioned that sometimes, other people’s misconceptions are so prevalent that they become internalized as your own doubts. How do you go about overcoming that?
You know, I think that’s kind of what the awesomeness of the internet and social media has been! When I was a teenager, we didn’t have social media or Facebook or anything like that. But now, I can just scroll through and see these high quality videos of people living their lives! Like today, I saw a video of a deafblind doctor from the UK. I saw it and I was was like, WOAH!
So I do think social media has really made a positive impact by featuring individuals who challenge people’s conventional views. Just as much as it provides encouragement for people without disabilities, it also provides encouragement for people with disabilities. That is, of course, as long as it doesn’t fall into that category of what people call inspiration porn. Inspiration porn is basically, “Oh, you’re so great for doing normal basic things that you would expect anyone else to do.” For example: Me going to college? Like okay...that’s cool. But it’s not really anything out of the ordinary. Going to college and pursuing a career is what you might expect any other person to do. But now, for Kristin to go from organ transplant to vision loss to training for the Olympics— oh yeah! That is inspirational! That is definitely another level!
So it’s not that people with disabilities can't be inspirational. They can be inspirational, but the bar for inspirational should be just the same as people without disabilities. And sometimes, I do have to give myself credit too! Adopting as a blind single mom? Yeah, that takes a bit of bad-assery! But, the desire to be a mom? That’s not inspirational.
What are your thoughts on the new blind character in the TV show This is Us?
I’m a big fan of This is Us, and I've been watching it for a while! That actor who plays him is actually a blind actor, and that is so great. I don’t want to say that I’m surprised, since the show is so special and does a great job of covering these topics with such authenticity, but I'm so happy that they made the move to go and get an actual blind actor. In the show, you get to witness the angle not just of the character himself being blind, but also how his family is going to have to deal with it too. It gives you a chance to see multiple perspectives. What is it like for this baby that’s gonna grow up? You are able to portray the things that can happen when you have community that isn’t as inclusive or welcoming.
I’ve also heard a lot of blind people share that this provides an opportunity for them to talk to their parents about what it was like to raise a blind child. It’s that representation that sparks more conversation, and that’s definitely a plus.