Blind Parenting

June 5th, 2012 | by Sterling Smalley with Maura Kutnyak-Smalley
Smalley Family Portrait 1984

Smalley Family Portrait 1984

Sight is the most prejudicial of our senses. Our eyes tell us what to think without thinking. Our ears are more tolerant and admit ideas before judgement. Our ears can’t can’t tell us for certain about a person’s color, beauty, age, disability.

Our ears can not tell us, for instance, if we are listening to a blind person.

Transom is proud to premiere this incredibly charming story by Sterling Smalley with Maura Kutnyak-Smalley. They are brother and sister, both blind, with blind parents, and they ponder together the challenge of raising their own kids—some blind, some not.

“Blind Parenting” is Sterling Smalley’s first radio story and it’s really good, impeccably produced with a light touch and lots of depth. As he says, “What we came up with is basically a snapshot of some of our thoughts and fears about raising children as blind people. Part audio diary and part self-reassurance session.” Jay A

About Blind Parenting

In my previous, and now current podcast, I spend a lot of time satirizing this and that aspect of other people’s lives. So I found the task of doing an actual story about my own life daunting. But only once I tried to do it.

When we started, I figured Maura and I would just crap out something in a few days, and then I’d get back to my other less interesting projects. I was so excited at the chance to do something for Transom, and felt lucky to have the topic I was producing a story about be personal, as opposed to factual or journalistic. Talking about ourselves will be a piece of cake! Nope. It turns out to be a lot harder to tell a compelling story than to just make fun of everything. I’m not sure we accomplished that, but we at least got to turn our sarcastic ray gun on ourselves for a change. By the time we finished, the breezy feeling I had about the process was gone. The whole thing was humbling, and a total departure from my normal projects. I do think we came up with something worth listening to though, which certainly makes sense in this medium.

Sterling as a boy Headphones

Young Sterling

“My normal projects”, include talkies for various “helpful white people” centers here in Buffalo. Those folks while very helpful, typically have no idea what they want in their videos. So, my partner and I just interview all the directors of whosits and assistant liaisons to the whatever, and then hunker down with lots of coffee to put together the jigsaw. When we present the final cut, the client is usually so amazed to see themselves on a screen that context and consistency don’t really matter. Even worse is the fact that the praise we receive leaves us feeling all arrogant. “Man, we totally floored those non-profit outreach consultants. We must be awesome!” So this story, as one of the first things I’ve ever done with any professional scrutiny attached, forced me to think very closely about what I was trying to say. That’s great for the end result of course, but also a bit like hanging out with a drunk version of yourself who keeps telling you exactly why you totally suck.

The other thing that I kept having to tell myself was to stop rambling and get to the point! We had so many ideas of how to go about it that we both found it hard to keep the narrative at times. It’s hard to remember that your listeners may not know anything about your topic, so you need to stay clear and concise. This of course constantly led me to editing down our crazy stream of consciousness to something more closely resembling sentences. It really could’ve been an hour-long without much effort. It has made me rethink the way I record. Better outlines are in my future. It also really made me want to try my hand at producing other people’s stories, because I had things pointed out to me that I think would’ve been obvious were I not both writing and recording the story myself. And this was just a silly little story about ourselves. I now have a much deeper respect for those radio producers who interview people as they’re strapped into the electric chair, or file reports live from directly under a mushroom cloud. It makes what I do seem easy.

Maura And Sterling Recording

Maura And Sterling Recording

What we came up with is basically a snapshot of some of our thoughts and fears about raising children as blind people. Part audio diary, and part self reassurance session. I’m proud of the fact that our story is just the type of radio I enjoy most. I could care less about ultra-serious radio like political shouting matches and other miseries, so I’m glad our piece stayed light and conversational.

About the Gear

Technically speaking, I used an Audio Technica 2021 with a Zoom R16 for the recordings at our Mom’s house, and talked to my Dad on the phone while he recorded with some junkyard mic he had. He has since upgraded to a Behringer C1-U to do voice-over work for my show. A lot of the kids’ stuff was captured with a Motorola Droid, and Maura and I said our piece using good old Sure SM57s. Oh, and the battery has since been changed in Mom’s smoke detector. I think it was her Mother’s Day gift. I used Cakewalk’s Dimension Pro to write the music for this piece; a song called “Currently Reminiscing”. I then slapped it all together in my favorite program, Sonar. I use Sonar on a PC as opposed to anything on a Mac because it was accessible to a blind person long before Apple even tried. It’s primarily a music application, but I think it’s perfect for making radio. I couldn’t do everything I want with such ease in any other program. My favorite use of Sonar is to produce sketch comedy bits for my podcast.

Within the same console view I’m able to edit dialog, add effects, compose music, trigger samples, and master the whole thing.


[Editor's Note: Last August, siblings Sterling and Maura Smalley submitted a piece from their podcast, "Radio Ellipsis," over the Transom. The piece was a spoof on special needs assistance programs, and it was funny and compelling enough to inspire Transom's Samantha Broun to dig around the "Radio Ellipsis" blog, where she found out that Sterling and Maura were both blind and raised by blind parents. She also learned they were now parents themselves. She wrote to Sterling to ask if he would be interested in producing a piece about blind parenting and, happily, he was.]

About Sterling And Maura

Sterling Smalley is a freelance (which is to say unemployed) audio engineer and musician. He has had a couple pretty cool media projects come his way, including writing music for and producing a national TV ad for Peak, his second favorite antifreeze. He’s done a bunch of short film music, recorded numerous (worse than awful) garage bands, and has just started a new show called Worthless And Free. He has two (what he thinks are) great ideas for movies which would be a dream come true for him to create. Yep, the blind guy wants to make a movie. It’s like posthumous success you can live through.

At age 29, Maura Kutnyak-Smalley has enjoyed a remarkably rich and wordy career of talking. She began to hone her craft at about 18 months old and things really snowballed from there. Through the years, she discovered that there are innumerable ways to enjoy the sound of your own voice. Here are three: home-made radio shows, summer camp talent showcases, and as an adult, the public address system at her job in a hospital. Along the way she discovered that dance was taking a front seat to yammering, and for the past two years has dabbled in burlesque and belly dance. Maura is really coming into her own as a narcissist and hopes to one day break even in its pursuit.

11 Comments on “Blind Parenting”

  • chet smalley says:

    This is one proud blind father. My offspring get their creativity from their mother!

  • Jeff Emtman says:

    Great show, Both of you. It made me smile to no end and your production style is really engaging. I hope to hear more from you!


  • Jyl Johnson says:

    Great piece! Although I am a “sighted” parent, I can totally identify with the fears associated with parenting fails, or realizations that my child doesn’t have all of the benefits of having “normal parents”, or any number of things that could add to the already difficult job of parenting. I think as first time parents, in a way, we are all coming at it blindly. But from what I can gather from just this tiny glimpse into your world, your children have a certain advantage over all other kids, the advantage of being YOURS. Please update your story as they grow, I look forward to following this unique and gifted group.

    • Sterling says:

      Jill. Thanks so much for the great comments. They reminded me of this common thing amongst my friends where they basically remember I am in fact blind. One guy and I in particular says he always forgets, which seems funny to me. But your notion that “as first time parents, in a way, we are all coming at it blindly”, is totally true. At least men are. Everyone’s afraid to hold them and take care of them, like they’ll just snap in half if you get too rough. But it’s too universally difficult to change much if you can’t see. Or not. Your asking the wrong guy. I mean, seeing is probably sweet.
      Thanks again for being so thoughtful.

    • Sterling says:

      Oh man. I spelled your name like a blind guy. Sorry Jyl.

  • Shauna says:

    Thank you so much for this story. I was raised by a blind mom, and listening to Quinn’s voice brought back so many memories for me. It’s so good to hear a sincere and thoughtful examination of how blindness plays out in a family, but how blind parents do parent in a very real and capable way. It isn’t always easy to be the child of a blind parent; and I feel sad thinking about how difficult it is for her to navigate the world without a sense that is so taken for granted. Thank you.

    • Sterling says:

      Shauna. It was interesting to me to think of you as an adult who can relate to what Quinn is, and will continue to realize. That must have been something else growing up. But there’s so much more to parenting that overrides what we can’t do. Like all the screaming, and fighting over cup colors, and ear infections. Oh, and I think there are a couple positives in there somewhere too. But, those things have little to do with blindness. And luckily, for now anyway, Quinn has my back. She has not yet reached the point of being too cool to have anything to do with me.
      Thanks for your great comments.

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