Magazine article The Exceptional Parent

Tom Sullivan: His Parents Never Took "No" for an Answer

Magazine article The Exceptional Parent

Tom Sullivan: His Parents Never Took "No" for an Answer

Article excerpt

Tom Sullivan, 48, is the author of seven books. His autobiography, If You Could See What I Hear was made into a film in 1982. Sullivan has also appeared on television in "Highway to Heaven," "Fame," "Mork & Mindy" and "WKRP in Cincinnati." He was a special correspondent for ABC's "Good Morning, America" from 1979 to 1982, and has written and produced several films for television. Sullivan's most recent book is Special Parent, Special Child (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1995; available through Exceptional Parent Library, 800/535-1910), a collection of interviews with six parents of children with disabilities. Sullivan and his wife, Patty, live with their two children in Denver, Colorado.

I was born five months premature in 1947 in a hospital just outside Boston. Too much oxygen in my incubator I caused a filament to form over the corneas of my eyes, a condition known as retrolental fibroplasia. As a result, I'm blind. However, blindness may have been the best thing that's ever happened to me. I've enjoyed a world of senses that many people never take the time to appreciate. This appreciation didn't come naturally; it was molded by the love and dedication of my parents.

I cannot imagine what it was like for my parents to sit in the office of the most famous ophthalmologist of the time and listen while he told them they had a blind son. My mother still quotes him today: "Mister and Missus Sullivan, take him home and love him. Or institutionalize him. Those are your only alternatives." My parents chose the first option; they took me home and loved me.

Recently, my mother has begun to talk about my childhood. It saddens me to hear how painful it was for her to raise a blind child. However, she believed her child should not be limited by his disability.

When I was five years old, I was sent to the Perkins School, a boarding school for blind students less than an hour away from my home in Boston. Every Friday night, my parents brought me home for the weekend.

My mother still talks about the first time they brought me to Perkins: "I watched this little child being taken away by a very kind house person. You got the message that you were not going to be with us and I had to stand there while you kicked and screamed and fought them." Even at five, I understood that if I weren't blind, I wouldn't have had to be at that school. I knew that I wanted to be included with sighted children.

Extracurricular activities were my ticket out of loneliness, and I was blessed with parents who allowed me to become all the things I hoped to be. Whenever my parents were told I couldn't do something, they found a way to allow me to do it. For instance, once they knew I was musical, they did everything possible to bring music into the house. My father would bring barroom musicians home at night and we'd play Irish songs until four in the morning. Then, he found out that I liked gospel music. Picture a white Irish Catholic father taking his son to a Black church so he could sing gospel music. He didn't care what it took. He just wanted me to be happy.

Painful times

My parents did everything possible to make sure I spent my time with children who could see when I was home from school. But no matter how hard they tried, there were moments that were incredibly painful. I would stand in my backyard, listening to the sound of other kids playing baseball down the street. Every time a boy hit his baseball with his bat, I picked up a rock and hit it with a stick. …

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