Nearsighted White Kids?

(An excerpt from the Preface to Nearsighted White Kids)

When I informed a former professor of the pending title of my book, he didn’t even blink before offering, “Why call it that? Those are the kids who do just fine…” Exactly.

He also added that the title might be offensive to some, and wagged his finger suggesting such provocation was ill-advised. He did that with a smile, knowing that I would likely just proceed regardless. He knows that I know, like many others, that professional politesse and politics can sometime run roughshod over science and clinical need, that extraordinary circumstances are not always polite (such as the abuse and neglect of children), and that extraordinary steps must at times be taken to open eyes, hearts, and minds.

So, yes, let’s look at that title. Nearsighted kids do better in school, period, especially when other aspects of visual function are in alignment: The relaxed near visual posture offers them a clear ‘bubble’ of relaxed vision for work at a desk and computer. There is never a clear-cut rule and many nearisighted children struggle for many reasons, but with respect to vision, the nearsighted are best equipped compared to their peers with significant farsightedness or astigmatism. More on this and why others struggle in Part 2. ‘White Kids’ is perhaps the prickliest term in the title and it is indeed intended to reflect matters of privilege; I work and write in a predominantly White Euro-centric community of largely Christian heritage. Ethnicity and religion inform not only politics but education, among other factors. In Alberta, the curriculum is rooted in a certain tradition, as is the approach to instruction: Sit down, sit still, be quiet, pay attention. For those children raised with this expectation, and within the predominant culture, they will encounter fewer bumps on the roads to learning and social interaction.

In my region, we have a handful of White communities and First Nations communities (aka ‘reserves’). My work, and other research, has shown that the children in these latter communities do not fare well in a Euro-centric neo-traditional classroom, for a variety of reasons, not least of which is it is entirely tedious for kids who love to roam. Likewise, I and others have measured very high incidence of significant refractive errors in this population: Upwards of 50% in the early grades, decreasing steadily through high school. The steady trend towards reduced rates of astigmatism, for example, illustrates graphically why we all need to pay attention: These children are not cured, they simply drop out. And no, astigmatism is not the only concern, but we will all agree to agree to headache and blur are good reasons to find reading a chore.

Aside: While attending one school for eye exams for Kindergarten, one 10-year-old from the nearby First Nations community, seeing my white coat, asked if she could also have an eye exam. I asked why. “Because I don’t see too good. I keep telling them,” came a slightly frustrated reply. I told her, “Sure, let’s get you set up.” At that very second, her teacher corralled her into the classroom explaining, “Oh, she doesn’t need an eye exam. She says that all the time. Besides, she’s from Eden Valley.” I was floored: She was being disallowed an exam, even though she was from a very high risk population, even though kids generally don’t complain about vision unless it’s a very serious problem, … and because she was First Nations. That school division and I are still at odds for their treatment of this girl and so many others, and they have taken me to task 4 times for speaking out and expressing these concerns. While the legal challenges have cost me time, years, grey hair, and money, they are 0 for 4, and I have no immediate plans to stop. The point is not that we should decry the nearsighted, or set First Nations against Whites. The point is clear and simple: By all clinical and legal standards, we owe it to our young learners to ensure their vision is clear, fluid and easy, and that cultural bias is absent from the classroom and schools.

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