Learning to See

by Leonard I. Tuchyner, Barboursville, Virginia

In a recent issue of DIALOGUE, the teacher of a young child who was quickly losing his remaining sight asked a thoughtful and heart-wrenching question: What sights could be recommended for this child to experience which might enhance his life as a blind person?

I suggest that the issue be reframed. It is not “what”, but “how”. We do not ever, ever, lose vision. We only lose the physical ability to use the organs of outward sight. I submit that it is not what we see, but how we see it, that determines our view of the world.

There are many ways to take in and examine what we encounter, and our different senses can collaborate in amazing ways. For instance, some of us braille readers cannot help but visualize the configurations of those little bumps as we go along what is supposed to be an exclusively tactile page.

Everything we experience is a multi-dimensional affair. We don’t just feel water as wet. We feel its temperature, its flow, its smell, how it sounds, how it tastes, how it resists our movements, its texture, its colors, its movements. That is the real experience of seeing water. In fact, there is even more to the encounter. Look at the water long enough in your mind’s eye, and you will remember the time you were knocked down by a wave at the beach. A new dimension will then be added, for now the water has a sandy grittiness, a salt flavor and an emphasis on power. All the interactions you have ever had with water can potentially flow through your inner experience.

So whatever it is that the little boy might be looking at, the way to enhance his memories of sight is to enhance the experience of sight, no matter what or where it is. Teach him to use all of his senses. At the same time, don’t neglect the physical eyes. In fact, you might ask him to draw what he sees. That will give you an idea what he is not seeing. You can point out qualities he might have missed. Then have him close his eyes and describe the sight in terms of other senses.

When physical seeing is no longer available to him, he will still see the world. He will not only see through memory, but will also add the dimension of vision when he encounters day-to-day phenomena. His world will be richer and more holistic, potentially even more comprehensive than it is at present, when he still has functional eyes. Because of his broadened comprehension of his world, the questions he asks of sighted companions, as he seeks their help, could enhance their own perceptions.

This brings up an interesting point. If you would teach someone going blind how to really see, then don’t you have to learn yourself? What an opportunity this could be for someone willing to take on the challenge. Such a person would not be so much a teacher as a co-learner. Didn’t the King of Siam sing, “If you become a teacher, by your pupils you’ll be taught”?

As we lose our eyesight, those of us who are truly engaged in life engage other senses. In many cases, we are unconscious of doing so. I have only had two days of mobility training, so I don’t know too much about it. But I know, even within that short span of time, the training included the use of other senses.

There are activities that the teacher could encourage in her student. One of the ways I improve my own inner sight is by writing. Good writing requires the description of sensory details. That means I have to plumb the recesses of my experience to ferret out that depth of sensory perception which I find is there.

I have also found that reading improves vision. Someone else, a word artist, can show us things about the sublime and the ordinary that we might otherwise miss. Cultivating the desire to read in this child will open up more sights than Niagara Falls and all the wonders of the world.

Isn’t it ironic that in going blind we have the opportunity to really see?

Déjà Vu All Over Again

by Marty Klein, Woodstock, New York

After 14 years, my wife and I decided to separate. The separation has been respectful and relatively smooth in spite of the normal sadness and pain that surfaces with most separations. She’s back in Florida now, and I’m back in my house in New York. Oh well, here we go again! The feeling is familiar and not one that I am eager to embrace, but embrace it, I must.

Whenever I’ve gone through a separation, it’s always been amplified for me because of blindness. My partners have always had normal vision, so whenever I’ve gone through a parting of the ways, I’ve had to grieve the loss of the friendship. In addition, I’ve had to deal with living alone again as a single blind man. There are benefits, but I must say that the challenges outweigh the good stuff.

One definite advantage to living alone is that I’m better organized that way. I often feel more independent in my home when I’m living alone than when I am living with a partner who has normal vision. When living with a partner, I’m commonly asking them for something that they used but didn’t put back in exactly the place I expected to find it. It seems hard for sighted people to realize that even when you put something back in the vicinity of its normal place, it’s just not good enough because we blind folks can’t see that it’s just a few inches or feet away.

I love my home, and I’m a pretty neat and organized guy. So I really enjoy the benefits of knowing exactly where everything is. It’s totally my refrigerator now, and I know where all foods rest and on which shelves. I know where everything is in the kitchen cabinets, on the shelves in the bathrooms, the kitchen table, the porch, in the back yard and in the shed. This knowing has always given me a stronger sense of confidence in myself and in my life. And if, by chance, I cannot initially find something, I take a breath and almost always remember where I last used it.

On the other hand, I have to plan ahead for so many things and the spontaneity of my life has to take a bit of a back seat. It’s so easy to take for granted the ease of getting in the car and going out to a restaurant or to shop for something on the spur of the moment. That’s how it’s been for me when living with a sighted partner. But now? Now it’s very different. I must organize getting somebody over to come once a week to go over the mail and assist me if I need to mail anything out. I must constantly set up rides to and from activities outside the house. There are benefits here because I get to do lots of outdoor activities with a bunch of different people, and since I like people, it often turns out to be fun. But the constant organizing gets to feel like a bit of a drag at times.

There’s also the real feeling of loneliness that comes up on occasion since there is no one in the house except me and my sweet little cat. And then there’s always the problem of walking on my porch and not seeing the dead mouse that my cat has brought in. I inevitably do find the dead critter, but I’ll leave the details about how I discover the mouse up to your imagination.

Access technology works great with my computer, but every now and then there’s a glitch, and I really miss having a sighted friend around to take a look at the screen. Often it’s just a little click of the mouse, and I’m fine again. But without that person with vision living with me, it often becomes a whole frustrating ordeal.

I’ve often said that privacy plus accessibility equals dignity for people with a disability. Well, I have my privacy, which I really do appreciate. And now I’m in the process of setting up a more consistent plan for getting my needs met regarding accessibility. With this in mind, I guess I’m almost back to the place of reclaiming my dignity.

Still, I am grieving the loss of two very important people. The first and by far the most important of the two is the loss of my best friend and partner. The second, clearly of lesser importance but still significant, is the loss of my sighted ally. It’s good for me to remember how easy it is to become lazy or dependent, relying on a friend to also be that person who assists me whenever I want or need to go out. And I know that in some ways it does put an extra strain on the relationship. With that in mind, I now will cautiously and consciously begin a search for a new partner … and that is clearly déjà vu all over again!

Blind Assumptions

by Marilyn Brandt Smith, Louisville, Kentucky

Many blind or visually impaired people are hassled or stymied by people who don’t seem to understand or care about others. It can be at a government office, a doctors’ clinic, or a commercial establishment.

Guess what? The same thing happens to people with perfect vision. We tend to keep our antennae poised, believing “She wouldn’t have been so patronizing (read ‘rude’) to someone who could see.” Don’t count on it.

We have to choose our battles, and we also have to choose when to make accusations. Bringing blindness into a situation is only appropriate when it’s an established factor in the disagreement.

Recently my friend Amy in Michigan went to the dentist to have rather expensive periodontal and bonding treatments to improve her appearance. The first two times the dentist told her how expensive the treatments would be and asked her if she could afford them, Amy said, “Yes, my husband is employed. That won’t be a problem.” When it happened the third time, Amy told her, “Ma’am”, (something of a putdown itself) “I’m blind, not broke.” Do I blame her? No.

When I was recovering from hip replacement surgery two years ago, the nurse kept denying me permission to get in the hot tub although I was perfectly healed. Finally, in frustration, I asked, “Are you by any chance afraid that I will fall because I can’t see to get in and out of the tub?” I was polite, and the nurse was speechless for a moment. Eventually, she admitted that was probably the reason.

“I’ll take my husband out there with me the first time,” I promised, “but I’ve been doing the same water exercises in the same style hot tub for the past 16 years. It’s you guys who are new to the concept of a totally blind person getting in and out of a hot tub independently. I’m very careful. Please tell the doctor I’m going to go ahead and do it unless he,” I giggled a little, “voids my surgical warranty.” The nurse laughed too, and I never heard any more about it.

Sometimes blindness is just a convenient excuse to get one’s way. That’s a double-edged sword, because blind folks sometimes use it as a reason to cut in line, get extra service that isn’t needed, or have exceptions made which go beyond normal accommodation. If you’re bound by paratransit schedules or in need of accessibility provisions, you deserve reasonable consideration. But playing the “blind card” (just because you can) raises the hackles of proprietors and other customers. Those occasions need to be chosen carefully. We don’t want folks to resent us because we received better treatment than they did for the wrong reasons.

Sometimes we have to subdue others around us who, well-meaning though they may be, try to invoke sympathy or pity to earn us special treatment. If someone steps aside for me, I’m quick to smile and say “Thank you.” If I’m offered a chair by a gentleman who might offer it to any female or senior citizen who came in, I’m grateful. But I’m also not afraid to decline special favors. I can wait my turn in line, and I sometimes feel more like an equal member of society when I do. I want those around me to see me as their peer, not someone they have to serve.

Of course there are times when the argument doesn’t involve blindness at all. I prefer not to bring up the blindness issue first. Make them do it.

Sometimes we’re secretly thinking, “I know you don’t really like working with disabled people. Maybe you’re a little afraid of me, but we have to get through this.” Instead of aggravating them by accusing them of being insensitive to my needs, I’d rather try, in a quiet way, to straighten out their thinking. If they see me as an angry adversary, I haven’t done anything to better the cause of reducing discrimination.

When I was in the hospital, I had to deal with a hospitalist who questioned whether I was diabetic and would have had me on insulin because he refused to prescribe my diabetes medication. I argued with him and threatened to call my family practitioner, but the blindness issue never came up. I won that one. Assertiveness, handled with tact and good timing, is a useful tool. One-upmanship based on blindness usually isn’t.

Sometimes a later call to a high-ranking supervisor is the best we can do. At a neighborhood sub shop the other day, the cashier told my driver, “Call this in next time. It would be better for them,” and pointed to me. I was furious. He was complaining about our order for several sandwiches. How did he know who was in the car? “This is holding up our line,” he complained. I responded to him as if he had spoken to me directly. That usually works in a restaurant when the “What does she want?” question comes up.

No, we can’t always bring someone with us to complete forms. We can apologize for the time we’re taking; we can offer to take the forms home and mail or bring them back; or better yet, we can call ahead and have the forms sent to us for completion at home. Do we force expensive accommodation when there is resistance–and there may be retribution later? That’s an individual call, but it’s not a decision to be taken lightly.

This disability dance often feels like a chess game in which the right move and the right timing are not always obvious. Our assumptions about the assumptions of others deserve our consideration, and sometimes, correction. Maybe a misunderstanding truly is about our blindness, but maybe they–or we–are just having a “bad hair” day.

Protected by My Faithful Baseball Hat

by Mimi Winer, Wayland, Massachussetts

When I was a little girl, I had an aunt who designed hats. She called her millinery shop “Chapeaux by Bertha.” Every time she came to visit me (and it was often), Aunt Bertha plunked another fancy new hat on my head. She and my mother would coo, “Isn’t she adorable?”

I hated wearing those hats, and whenever she brought another one, it was all I could do to keep from scowling. However, I loved Aunt Bertha. I put up with these creations as a child but promised myself that when I grew up, I would never wear a hat again, unless a blizzard overcame me. And I kept that promise until life “hit me over the head” with a better idea.

I like to move around fast–especially when I am doing housework. As long as I had partial vision, I could scurry around the house with no problems. As my sight moved lower and lower, I found that the rest of me was moving slower and slower.

Now, if I forget that I can’t see anything anymore, I go smash against the wall! Although my nose sticks out further, usually my forehead hits the wall first. What to do?

I have a couple of friends who have been totally blind since birth. Among other things, they are incredibly skilled at not banging into doors and walls. They can cruise around their dwellings with nary a bruise. When I question my friends, they shrug me off. They tell me that if dolphins can figure out how to keep from smashing into things, so can I.

I know that certain sea mammals have an ability called “echolocation” or “sonar vision.” Dolphins, for example, create sounds such as clicks and whistles, which bounce back at them–warning of oncoming obstacles. If a few lucky people and some smart sea creatures possess a “sixth sense,” why can’t I develop one too?

I get my chance to learn this technique when I take “rehab” training. My instructor calls the course “Videation.” My blind friends refer to this skill as “echo” or “facial” vision. Whatever the name for this magic, the techniques are all similar.

On day one, six students line up for training. Since we have varying degrees of vision loss, we are required to wear sleep shades. (In the past, these devices were known as “occluders.”) With total darkness now enveloping us, we are forced to concentrate on that elusive “sixth sense” which we are trying to acquire.

Our instructor begins our lesson. “Without touching your face, I want you to move each palm, one at a time, slowly toward your cheek and then away from it.”

We follow his instructions. “Now, can one of you describe what you are feeling?” I raise my hand. “When I move my palm toward my cheek, I feel a pressure-like sensation coming toward me. When I move my hand away, the pressure disappears.”

“Very good.” The instructor moves behind me. “I am going to bring my palm toward your cheek. I want you to tell me if it is coming from the right side or the left.”

As the instructor’s palm approaches, I can feel that odd sensation. I am correct when I say, “The right side!”

The other five students are progressing also. We move along to training that is more difficult. We walk down lengthy corridors without our canes, listening for a variety of sounds–echoing back at us from closed and open doors. We advance to the great outdoors. We learn to listen for the muffled sounds of trees versus the wide-open sounds of empty spaces.

During our final training period, a blind man comes to demonstrate exotic techniques he has developed for himself. He has been using these skills successfully for years to travel around the world on his own. Like the dolphins with their clicks and whistles, he snaps his fingers to bounce sounds off the walls and furniture. He also interprets the sounds bouncing back from the tip of his cane. To top it all off, he shows us the metal tips he has added to the toes and heels of his shoes. “No, I am not planning to be a tap dancer,” he assures us, “but it is a great way to get further information from your environment.”

I graduate from “rehab” and look forward to putting my newly acquired skills to use. Unfortunately, while those tricks work pretty well while I am in training and may work for others, they fail me at home. I find it impossible to concentrate on “echo vision,” while I am trying to concentrate on my housework. One skill or the other requires my undivided attention.

All is not lost. I get an idea that would make Aunt Bertha proud of me. Despite my vow never to wear another hat, I borrow a baseball hat from my friend and try wearing it while the housework brings those usually-painful encounters with doors and walls. To my great relief, the problem is solved! As long as I wear my baseball hat (“duckbill” visor facing forward), I am protected. Instead of me getting the smacks, whacks, and those brain-bruising blues, the hat, with a glorious thump, hits the wall first.

Sixth sense vision may be great for some, but as for me, I have learned that I do better when I remember to cover my head with my faithful baseball hat!

The Process of Getting Out

by Nicole Bissett, La Mesa, California

“You wanna leave?” His slurred tone was menacing and full of venom. “You wanna move out and be on your own like your friend Dianne and bring home a boy toy once in a while…? Fine! You won’t get a dime from me. Not one dime.”

This had become typical of my husband’s tirades when he was drunk, but on this night, he wouldn’t leave me alone. He followed me into the living room, where I’d been attempting in vain to sleep. I said nothing in response to him, so he went back to our bedroom, where his movie was blasting on the TV. I moved into the small room we used as an office and slept on the floor with the cordless phone close by in case I needed to call 911. That was how I spent the last night of our married life together.

I won’t lie. Leaving my marriage in 2007 was the most frightening risk I’ve ever taken, and there were losses. I no longer had daily contact with my stepson, Taylor, whom I had a hand in raising for six years. I had grown to love him and missed him terribly. I lost my home, what remained of my financial stability, and, yes, the parts of my husband I still loved. There were two distinct sides to him, and the good side was wonderful. He took me out to plays and walks on the beach; he was a great cook; he’d helped me with homework in very difficult classes throughout my college years; we could once talk for hours. Those were all painful losses.

I went through the entire divorce while finishing the remaining few semesters of my bachelor’s degree in journalism at San Diego State University. The process included filing a restraining order and being told by a judge that I had 45 days to vacate my residence. So I moved with my son Eddie (then twelve) into a studio apartment until I figured out where I wanted to live and what was realistically affordable for me. I had to go after my ex for spousal support because I knew we couldn’t make it on SSI. Eddie and I lived in that studio apartment for a year and a half before I found work that enabled me to afford a two-bedroom apartment. I took on phone soliciting jobs, which were far from what I went to school for, but it felt good to be free. Eventually, I was able to get off of all government assistance. That was self-esteem-building. It was also ultimately why, in the end, reconciliation was impossible. I believe our relationship had been based on my dependence on him. When that aspect no longer existed, he couldn’t deal with it.

Like many relationships with abuse, this one had an element of addiction. That was why, even after all was said and done, I started dating him (long after the divorce was final) hopes that we could reconcile in a healthy way. I don’t regret having done this, but one day, I knew there was no turning back. I was through communicating with him forever. I was finally ready to take the advice everyone had been giving me for years–move on.

I know that I am very fortunate. Statistically, it takes a woman five attempts to get out of an abusive relationship. For me, the hardest part was fighting myself and the mindset I had developed from living with him.

The process of getting out took me at least four years. I personally recommend that a woman considering getting out of an abusive marriage first educate herself and get a support team. For me, the support came from people in a recovery group for families of alcoholics and a few friends. When I started reading about the progression of domestic violence, I could no longer deny the severity of my situation. I also took a class on domestic violence and continued attending recovery groups after I left the marriage. I learned to set better boundaries for myself.

It was important for me to see my part in the problems and stop viewing myself as a victim. I began to learn how my behaviors were teaching him how to treat me. It is my reality as a blind woman that sighted men who like to control are bound to be attracted to me. I wanted to do all that I could not to draw such men to myself. As I started to heal and stopped allowing abusive behaviors to be acceptable to me, the marriage could no longer thrive.

As painful as this journey has been, I’m grateful I chose to take it. I was forced to grow up and reach new emotional and spiritual heights. When I think of taking a risk today, I ask myself if the worst that could happen could be nearly as painful as what I just lived through. So far, the answer is always no.

I knew in my heart, even in my struggle to find a way out, that someday I’d see the proverbial light of day again. I just didn’t know how I would ever get there. I’m proud to say that, with the help of God and a team of people who believed in me, I made it. Furthermore, I was able to love again. That was the greatest miracle of all.

A School of Their Own

by B. T. Kimbrough, Salem, Oregon

In many ways, the state of Washington is just about the last place where you might expect to find a new school for blind K-12 students. After all, Vancouver, Washington, is home to a well-established, highly-respected school for the blind, which serves blind K-12 students from all over the state. And yet, a few intensely dedicated educators, parents, volunteers and blind students are quite literally breathing life into a school of their own. Their five-year-old Louis Braille School (LBS) is situated in a small red brick building in Edmonds, Washington, a suburb of Seattle.

As someone who recently witnessed the closing of a long-established school in Oregon, I was more than a little curious to pay the LBS a visit, talk with director Carolyn Meyer, and somehow find a tactful way to ask the obvious questions–how and, above all, why add a second school for the blind in a state which already has one?

The “how” part is easy–or at least simple to explain. As Director Meyer showed me through the little red schoolhouse, she could literally stop at just about every step and identify something in that square foot of building which was fixed, donated, brought up to code, or built by members of local service clubs or other volunteers. And since its opening in 2006, just about every one of those square feet has been in constant demand for the operation of the tiny but bustling school. There’s a single classroom, a small library (which doesn’t have room for all of the braille books in Director Meyer’s dreams), a small lunch area, closets full of donated musical instruments, braillers and such, and a quiet area for students who need to take a brief rest during the school day. There’s even a small office for the director, though she dreams some day of a slightly larger one with a door.

Approved by the State Board of Education for academic and special educational services ranging from kindergarten through 12th grade, the Louis Braille School now has four full-time students, including one who is a high school junior looking forward to graduating next year. All of the current students have disability issues in addition to blindness. Said Meyer, “That’s what we’re good at.”

Each of those four students represents a substantial commitment on the part of parents, since the tuition rate is a hefty $1,750 per month. That brings us back to the “why” question. What motivates parents of the Louis Braille School’s blind, low vision, and multiply challenged students to pay the freight, or struggle to require local school districts to put up some of the money, to keep these kids in this building from 8 AM until 2:45 PM every school day?

Carolyn Meyer explained that part of the answer is location. The Washington State School for the Blind is located at the southwestern end of the state, a three-to-four-hour drive from the Seattle area. Seattle residents would be residential students in the larger school, only coming home for weekends or perhaps not quite that often. The LBS offers students who live in the Seattle area an opportunity to attend their “local” school for the blind in the daytime and spend each evening at home with their families.

But location doesn’t necessarily explain everything. According to Director Meyer, three families have moved long distances in order to enroll their children in the Louis Braille School. Such moves are not unheard of, as parents in many states often find their home school districts less than fully cooperative in the free and appropriate education of their blind youngsters.

So what does LBS have to offer that brought these families down the long and winding road to this particular private school, with its hefty tuition and its lack of residential facilities? Without benefit of direct conversation with the parents (and privacy considerations render that impractical), here are some educated guesses as to the significant attractions offered by the Louis Braille School:

DEMO IN ADVANCE. Before enrolling, each prospective student spends at least one full day at the school to help him or her decide if it’s a good fit.

PERSONAL ATTENTION. The four students share a single classroom, and each student gets lots of personal attention from the teacher, who has a certification for working with blind and low vision students. In addition to the teacher, there is a classroom aide and a regular part-time volunteer.

FLEXIBLE TEACHING STYLE. The school’s website offers this statement of teaching philosophy: “If the child doesn’t learn the way we teach, we will learn to teach the way the child learns.”

LEARNING EXPERIENCES BEYOND THE CLASSROOM. There are weekly visits to a nearby store. Students are given a fixed supply of money for their independent purchases and given a chance later to practice their accounting skills, when the items are checked against the amount of money spent.

PRACTICAL ORIENTATION AND MOBILITY EXPERIENCE. The school is literally located between a McDonald’s and a pizza shop, so it’s a relatively easy matter to arrange for students to pick up their white canes and walk out into the “real world” with sighted assistance when needed.

PLENTY OF CONTACT WITH BRAILLE WHEN APPROPRIATE. This is what Carolyn Meyer told me about the importance of braille: “When a sighted person makes a comment to me like ‘braille’s obsolete because of technology,’ I say to them ‘imagine if you had no access to print–no way to write it, no way to read it–you were dependent on listening to what someone else chose to tell you, or what the computer told you. Would you accept that?’ And that generally answers the question.”

HANDS-ON CONTACT WITH ASSISTIVE TECHNOLOGY. The school has five computers with screen readers. Director Meyer said that notetakers are not present yet, but that so far, equipment seems to be donated at just about the time when it is needed.

DIRECT PARTICIPATION IN PHYSICAL EDUCATION ACTIVITIES. Noting the limited space in the 2,000 square-foot building, I asked Director Meyer how this works. “We do a lot of things. Right now, one of our boys is in the process of getting signed up for a soccer team especially for challenged children. There are other programs that compliment what we do. We also have a PE period every day. They work with weights and do step aerobics and calisthenics. They run–we stretch a rope out in back, and they run along it and know it’s safe …”

As I listened to her describe what LBS offers, I didn’t get the slightest sense that Carolyn Meyer feels competitive either with the larger school for the blind down the road or the public schools. She emphasized that LBS is there to help students transition back into their public schools. As for the larger school for the blind in Vancouver, she said they compliment one another in terms of the services they offer and the locations they serve.

All this is not to say that the Louis Braille School is everything its director wants it to be. She dreams of the day when there will be a bigger building with more library space, a kitchen for teaching basic cooking skills, laundry facilities, and a bed or two for teaching housekeeping skills.

Of course, she knows these things won’t come easily. It has been her job since the school opened in 2006 to organize her seven board members and other volunteers to raise about $100,000 a year and somehow find the extra donations of time, talent, and materials that keep it all going.

I asked her if she had any advice to offer to anyone who might be thinking of putting together such a school in some other area. Without missing a beat, she said, “Be prepared to give up a few nights of sleep.” After reflecting for a moment, she added this. “Perseverance is very important–believing strongly in your cause, in the children and in your helpers. There are going to be hills and valleys as you learn what the right road is for these children. Be open-minded and flexible. Never doubt the abilities of a child–no matter how challenged she may appear to be when she comes–because inside is a whole beautiful, wonderful person just waiting to be set free.”

For more information, visit the school’s website, www.louisbrailleschool.org.

Of Struggle and Acceptance

by Candance Rizzardini, Salem, Oregon

As a child, I didn’t use the term “blind” to describe myself, though I was born legally blind. I subconsciously emphasized what vision I had by referring to myself as “partially sighted.” Like everyone who has full sight or some sight, I relied on my vision more than my other senses. I grew up accepting that I needed to use some low vision aids. But as I got older and experienced more vision loss, I struggled against using what I would call more serious low vision aids, such as the cane, braille, and a screen reader with the computer. I realize now that my resistance to these things was directly related to my struggle with accepting my loss of vision.

I’m not the type of person to stick a smiley face on something I regard as inherently bad. I’ve met people who seem to have a good attitude about their blindness, but I am not one of those people. Some blind people try to make lemonade out of the lemons life has given them. But my reaction is to get mad and throw and smash the lemons. I’m at the point in my life where I can admit that some of my problems accepting certain vision aids only hurt myself and held me back from achieving the things I could.

My first memories of school were of learning to read the Dick and Jane books in large print. Throughout my elementary school years, my primary low vision aids were books in large print and writing paper with thick, dark lines.

When I attended public junior high schools in California, some of my itinerant teachers tried to make me use the white cane. But I always resisted, claiming that I didn’t need the cane because I could see well enough to get around. I still believe I was right. At the time, I had pretty good vision and didn’t see the need for a cane.

After I had cataract surgery in my 20s, my vision improved, but this didn’t make me more independent as a blind adult. I was living with my boyfriend at the time, and I relied on him to drive me wherever I wanted to go. I was afraid to leave the house by myself. I was also frustrated at the way my life was going, which seemed to be nowhere.

On the advice of a counselor, I attended a life skills training program, sponsored and paid for by vocational rehabilitation of Indiana. I knew I needed to improve my life situation, but I wasn’t looking forward to this training program. I knew the teachers would make me do things I didn’t want to do, such as use a cane, learn braille, and so on. These things were supposed to help me be more independent, but I had mixed feelings about the whole thing. I was tired of being dependent, but afraid of being independent. I had no courage or confidence to deal with the world outside my house.

I had avoided using the white cane all through my school years. But I knew the teachers in the program would make me use it. So I decided to stop fighting and accept the inevitable. I was lucky to have a mobility teacher whom I liked, and this made accepting the cane easier.

The teacher taught me a different and, in my opinion, better way to use the cane than the one I had seen others use. I had always seen blind people, in real life and in cartoons, tap their canes as they walked. Just the sound of it annoyed me. It was like an audible announcement to the world, “I’m blind. Get out of my way before I run into you.” But instead of having me lift the tip of the cane from side to side, the mobility teacher showed me how to sweep the area in front of me, with the tip never leaving the ground. You don’t miss anything when you sweep the tip. You spend less physical energy sweeping than lifting the cane from side to side. There is no annoying tapping when you sweep. It’s quieter and more dignified.

One of the main reasons why I hated the cane as a kid was that I saw it as an obvious symbol of blindness and thus vulnerability. I thought people would try to take advantage of me when they saw my cane. But my experience with the cane over the years has taught me that people are more likely to help me when they see the cane. On the other hand, I’m constantly amazed at how many people don’t know that the cane means I’m visually impaired. I know they see my cane, but when I ask where something is in a store or in a doctor’s office, they still point and say the words that drive me crazy: “It’s over there.”

I had fairly good vision as a kid–what they used to call “high partial,” so I wasn’t taught braille in school. Even the school for the blind I attended from the third to the sixth grade didn’t teach braille to students who had as much vision as I did. The adult training course I took in Indiana provided classes to those who wanted to learn braille. I didn’t think I’d ever really use braille, but since the program was offering the lessons I gave it a try.

I liked the braille teacher, who was totally blind. Like me, she’d had better vision when she was younger and struggled to accept her loss. She told me that when she began to lose her vision, she refused to use a cane and fell down a flight of stairs as a result.

I decided to learn all the braille letters, that is, the combination of raised dots, of the alphabet. I got to the point where I could distinguish one braille letter from another. I could read a few sentences in braille. I even used the slate and stylus, which requires you to write in braille backwards. But after I got to the letter Z, I quit. Braille was just too hard. Reading it was not enjoyable; it was mental torture. The teachers in the program respected my wishes and didn’t force me to continue learning it.

Even though I can’t read braille now, I regard my attempt to learn it as a small personal victory. After my encounter with learning braille as an adult, I think it’s better for partially sighted kids to learn braille when they’re young, because it’s harder to learn it when you’re older. Braille is not like learning another language; it’s like learning to decipher a secret code.

The training program was probably the best thing I have done for myself. It taught me to use the cane, which I now use every time I leave the house. The other valuable things I learned were typing and computer operation. Though I didn’t know it then, learning to type and mastering the basics of the computer enabled me to read and write. Now my vision is so bad that I can’t read or write without the computer, a screen reader, and a program that scans books and reads them aloud.

I finally learned that accepting some vision aids really was in my best interest. Some people have tried to make me use other aids, such as a guide dog, for instance. But I feel that it’s up to the blind person to decide what aids do (or don’t) work for them. What’s important is that the blind person remains open to whatever can make his or her life easier.

The Storm That Stole My Food

by Connie Weadon, Greensboro, North Carolina

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published in the Fall 2000 issue of DIALOGUE. It was the last of Connie’s popular series of columns, written only a short time before she passed away. Although much about our world has changed in the decade since it was written, its message remains as up-to-date as today’s weather forecast.

* * *

Thursday, May 26, began like any other late spring day in North Carolina. It was hot and humid with no breeze stirring. Thunderstorms were in the forecast, but no one really thought much about that.

My husband and I were at home together that morning. He was packing, preparing to go to the National Blind Bowling Tournament in Little Rock, Arkansas. I was at my desk writing. My desk faces a window, and around 12 noon I looked up to see that the sky was the blackest black I had ever seen. Quickly, I moved away from the window, just as rain, hail, and thunder came all at once. Then everything was quiet. It took me a few minutes to realize that the silence meant the air conditioner had stopped running.

Steve left for Arkansas around midnight. I went back to sleep thinking that when I awoke, the power would be restored and all would be well. Around eight in the morning of the 27th when I awoke, there was no reassuring hum of the air conditioner. I took out a diet Pepsi and realized that although it wasn’t running, the inside of the refrigerator was still cold. Then it hit me–the refrigerator and freezer were filled with food, very perishable food.

I bathed quickly, knowing our supply of hot water would not last long. The access ride I had arranged two days before picked me up around 10 AM to take me to a nearby shopping center where I had to pick up some prescriptions. It was on this short ride that I began to get a picture of the damage the storm had caused. Huge old trees had fallen across roads and onto houses, pulling down power lines as they fell. A storm that had lasted less than ten minutes had left thousands of homes without electricity. The shopping center, usually bustling with business, was like a ghost town. My pharmacy was the only place that was fully operational. Other stores were trying to conduct business in the dark, using pens and paper instead of computerized cash registers. On the way home the van driver took carefully planned detours, avoiding roads still blocked by fallen trees. I came home to a very hot house, grateful that I had been able to get out and get the few things I needed.

In the evening I took a short walk with my dog. One of my neighbors stopped and invited me to a neighborhood cookout that would give people a chance to use some of their food before it spoiled. I declined, still thinking that surely the power would be restored at any moment. Evening faded into night as I tried to cope with the increasing heat and darkness. Around 10 PM my son brought me a roast beef sandwich which I devoured. I fell asleep wishing I had remembered to buy a flashlight while I was out.

On Saturday, the 28th, my friend Delores took me to the grocery store. Until then I had not realized that chicken and tuna are available in a three pack of three-ounce cans with pull-off lids. I bought canned chicken, bread, mayonnaise, baking soda, a cooler, and ice. That night my sister-in-law and her husband, who live about 40 miles away, came to take me to dinner. After a tasty meal at the Cracker Barrel, we went to a Super K, where I bought tomatoes, bananas, batteries, and a big flashlight.

On Sunday morning I took a very quick, very cold shower and went to church with Delores, who gently led me to the realization that it was time to face the task of emptying my freezer.

After lunch we came back to my house ready to tackle the job. I tried to prepare myself for the worst as we opened the freezer. My favorite Mississippi Mud ice cream sandwiches were now a brown puddle. Until then I had clung to the hope that an unopened freezer will maintain its cool temperature. So much for that idea!

Together Delores and I filled big plastic garbage bags with pounds of meat and seafood. Then we cleaned the inside of the freezer with lemon-scented Fantastic and placed an open box of baking soda inside to absorb the odors.

Then we moved on to the refrigerator. Wilted salad greens went into the garbage, and I cringed as we poured a half gallon of milk down the drain. We threw away all the old mayonnaise and lunch meat. My butter, cheese, and eggs were still cold, and in the days to come we did not suffer any ill effects from eating them. The jar of mayonnaise I had bought the day before had not been opened, so it was still safe to use.

Delores and I were washing our hands when the unmistakable hum of the refrigerator signaled the return of electricity to the neighborhood.

What did I learn from all this? Well, I learned never to underestimate the power of a storm. I also learned that a natural disaster draws people together in a way that nothing else can.

My next-door neighbor is 85 and lives alone. Throughout that long weekend we kept each other company, sharing our bananas and tomatoes. I also learned that it is a good idea always to have a few non-perishables on hand. These might include canned meat, peanut butter, crackers, and dried fruit.

Our water supply is not dependent on electricity, but in some areas bottled water would be appropriate. Since this storm came in late May, I could have used a battery-operated fan.

Domestic animals like cats and dogs usually can maintain their internal temperature, but you can make a cat or dog more comfortable in extreme heat by rubbing a cool cloth over their fur.

On May 30 the Schwan man came, and we began to replace the food supply we had lost. In the days to come, as I learned that many people had lost cars, homes, and some even their lives, I realized that losing food was just an inconvenience.

About ten days after the storm I was involved in a car accident in which my right wrist was broken. So, dear Reader, you must forgive me for the reduced number of recipes and cooking tips in this article. Thanks to my friends, however, I do have two recipes to share with you. The first was emailed to me by Sue Burdyshaw in Washington state.

HAM ROLLUPS

1/4 pound cream cheese, softened

1/2 cup finely chopped celery

1 T finely chopped green onion

3 T finely chopped green pepper

1/2 T horseradish

9 slices ham

Combine cream cheese, celery, green onion, green pepper, and horseradish. Spread mixture evenly onto ham slices. Roll up tightly, secure with toothpicks, and chill well. Slice into 1-inch pieces and serve. Makes 36 appetizers.

While I was in Kentucky at the ACB convention, one of the volunteers shared her recipe for Derby Pie. My friend, Donna Permar, was kind enough to read this recipe to me after the convention.

DERBY PIE

1 cup sugar

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

2 eggs, beaten

1 stick butter (no substitutions) melted and cooled

3/4 cup semisweet chocolate chips

1 cup coarsely chopped English walnuts

1 tsp vanilla or bourbon

1 unbaked 9-inch pie shell, not pricked

Mix sugar and flour. Add beaten eggs, butter, nuts, chocolate chips, and vanilla or bourbon. Pour into unbaked pie shell. Bake 30 minutes at 350 degrees. Use a toothpick to test for doneness. Filling should be set. Serve warm with whipped cream.

I wish to express my sincere thanks to Louise Kimbrough for her assistance in getting this article into print for me.

A Sense of the Stage

by Empish J. Thomas, Lithonia, Georgia

Imagine seeing the stage of a college-level production of one of your favorite Shakespearean plays. Where do you set up the props? Where should the actors stand or sit? How should the lighting be placed? These and many more are the questions, David Richman, Professor of Theater and Humanities at the University of New Hampshire, must answer when working with his students.

“You must have a sense of the stage,” said Richman, who has been a theater professor for 24 years. “Reading a script is different than what is happening on the actual stage.” Richman, who lost all his vision after turning 12, uses his imagination, visual memories and some sighted assistance to help him set up the scene. He teaches and directs the classical Greek and Shakespearean plays that have few stage directions in the actual written script. “You have to imagine how the scene will look,” said Richman. He also pulls from his childhood of attending numerous plays. “I grew up in Philadelphia and was always in the theater and loved the language,” he said. “When I got older, I became even more interested in literature and poetry and wanted a career where I could combine them.”

This passion for the stage was the driving force behind the career that Richman has today. He decided that teaching theater on a college versus professional level would be easier for him to do with his visual impairment. “I wanted to create a job that would allow me to do most of what I wanted to do,” said Richman. “I wanted to teach the older plays like Greek and Shakespeare. I knew the academic route would be my best bet.” So Richman applied for positions and thought that it would be fairly easy to get a teaching job, but he was wrong. “University teaching positions were scarce then and even (more) now,” he said. “Some positions have 200 or 300 applications for one job. Also, once professors get tenure, they tend to stay until retirement.”

Richman credits his ability to break into teaching by “having self-knowledge” and being straightforward when interacting with others. “I examined all my opportunities, looking at what I could and could not do,” he said. “I was realistic and upfront with everyone I was dealing with. I mention my blindness myself because it sets the stage for what happens going forward.”

He uses that same straightforward principle in his classes as well. He is open about his disability to his students. He tells them that he will not know if they are sleeping in his class, but he will sporadically call on them. He encourages them to be prepared for the lecture and ready to answer questions in the class discussion. “I tell them on Day One how the lectures will be,” he said. “I don’t use PowerPoint or slides but more discussion.” He also notes that he is unaware of any students dropping his class due to his disability. He reasons that this is due to his years of being at the university and his good reputation as an instructor. Richman teaches a full load each semester, between 3 to 5 courses, and directs one play during the year. Every seven years he takes a sabbatical to work on a project; this time he was in Connecticut directing ROMEO AND JULIET. He teaches a basic introduction to theater and humanities courses, along with advanced courses for the theater majors. He is venturing into teaching online courses, too. “I can record the lectures, and the students can sign on and listen,” he said. “Currently, I am only offering intro courses during the summer semester online.”

Part of the reason that Richman chose a career teaching classical plays was the easier access to the literature. “I do use audio cassettes and screen reading software on my computer,” said Richman, “but a lot of the plays are also available in braille.” He uses a braille embosser to print out his scripts to read when he is directing on stage. He also uses a white cane to navigate safely around campus. “I have memorized my route around campus,” he said. “I work primarily in the art building but ask for help for places I don’t frequent.”

Richman is approaching his last phases of teaching at 60 years old. “I want to keep teaching for another ten years,” he said. “I have made an agreement with the dean to teach more than the usual load versus publishing work in journals, and we are both happy with the arrangement.”

When Hearing is Believing: A Profile of CHOICE MAGAZINE LISTENING

by B. T. Kimbrough

The Biggest Prize of All

By the company’s own calculations, Publishers Clearing House has given away more than $225 million through sweepstakes bearing the famous slogan, “You might already be a winner!” But the founder of the firm, LuEsther T. Mertz, left nothing to chance in deciding who the big winners would be when her company was sold in the early 1960s. She used much of the money to launch a project which would share significant magazine content with a group of readers who had been completely cut off from it until then. Mrs. Mertz’s gift made it possible to hire a group of editors whose only job would be to make a super-magazine, containing the best of what was in those other magazines promoted by Publishers Clearing House. Today, we know the project created by Mrs. Mertz’s gift, as CHOICE MAGAZINE LISTENING (CML).

Behind the Scenes

Every three months, the three current CML editors look through more than a hundred print monthly and quarterly magazines, dividing the territory equally among them. When they feel they have found the very best articles, poems and stories, the process of putting together CML have just begun.

Articles recommended by individual editors are recorded by volunteers so that all three editors can picture how they might sound in a recorded magazine. Only if an article passes the listening test, is it considered for inclusion in CML, which is described on its website as “a free audio anthology for a special audience of blind, visually impaired, physically disabled, or dyslexic subscribers.” As a longtime CML reader, I would describe it as a valued source of often-memorable articles–many of which I might otherwise have missed.

This website, choicemagazinelistening.org, provides a few other essential facts–the publication was founded in 1962, and Mrs. Mertz’s generous gift created the non-profit Lucerna Fund to offer “the best of contemporary magazine writing, completely without charge” to its chosen audience of adults who cannot read standard print.

So it happens that, like DIALOGUE, CML is coming up on its 50th anniversary. I cannot think of a better time to learn a bit more about CML–who works there, and how this unique project is managing in the rapidly evolving world of 21st century sound reproduction and distribution. Our source is CML Editor-in-chief Pamela Loeser, who graciously agreed to my interview request, explaining that she is “always eager to get the word out about CHOICE MAGAZINE LISTENING.”

The three CML editors make up the majority of the five-person staff. The longest-serving editor is Sandra Mochson, who joined CML in 1983 and retired from the editor-in-chief’s responsibilities at the end of last year. Pamela Loeser joined CML in 2000 and became its editor-in-chief in January. Associate Editor Ann Kyrkostas joined CML in 2007.

Loeser told me that the hiring process always involves a search for someone with previous editorial experience. She recalled being recruited in 2000 by then editor-in-chief Doris Fields because Loeser was a published writer and had a thriving business going at the time as a freelance editor. She had some initial hesitation, knowing that the job would substantially cut into her writing time. But the deciding factor, she told me, was the opportunity to do all that reading as part of her job. “Wait a minute,” she reflected, “I’d be getting paid to read magazines!”

Loeser said that a love of reading, and sharing what is worth passing on, makes the job of a CML editor truly worthwhile. She told me that all three editors have their favorite authors/subjects and that those preferences are occasionally reflected in their choices. At the same time, all three editors often find themselves delving with fascination into new subjects at CML, and Loeser added that many CML readers have written appreciatively to report the same experience.

With a group of three confident editors who care deeply about the quality of the product, it is not surprising that there is occasionally spirited disagreement about whether a particular piece deserves a place in CML. Loeser told me that those “interesting discussions” often relate to pieces of fiction, a genre in which she has published no fewer than 13 titles. In any case, be it fiction, nonfiction or poetry, on those rare occasions when there is no definite consensus among the three, the editor-in-chief, is, of course, “the decider.”

When they sit down to an editorial meeting to make those final decisions, the three have much more on their agenda than simply naming the 20 to 35 pieces which will comprise the next CML issue. Loeser said they are particular about the sequence, making sure that the spell cast by an effective serious piece isn’t instantly shattered by what follows. The CML editors also have definite ideas about which the narrator should read which piece. Since they carefully review the recordings sent by Talking Books Publishing in Denver, Colorado, before passing them on for duplication to National Audio in Springfield, Missouri, they have come to appreciate the different styles and skills of their narrators, and they generally assign each piece they select to a specific voice. Needless to say, those meetings can last up to three hours, especially now that the magazine is quarterly and contains 12 hours of material, instead of the eight hours which were provided when CML was distributed on a bi-monthly basis.

A Few More Numbers

The switch to quarterly publication is somewhat related to another major transition–the gradual shift from audio cassettes to digital access. Loeser told me that about 1,000 CML readers have been serving as volunteers to “test-drive” a new digital version, supplied on a cartridge which can be inserted directly into the National Library Service (NLS) digital talking book player. When the test is over, all CML readers will be invited to receive CML via cartridge, which must be returned once an issue is read so that the next issue can be copied in its place. Loeser said that with the advent of the quarterly publication, readers will have about two months to read and enjoy the current issue before they need to return the cartridge for reprocessing.

Over its 50-year history, Choice Magazine Listening has generally followed in the wake of technology transitions at NLS, moving from hard disks in the early 1960s, to flexible disks in the 1970s and later to four-track audio cassettes. Loeser said that the switch to digital constituted a tough choice for CML because the cartridges are relatively expensive–around $10 apiece in small quantities. Because of the expense, there is no way that CML could simply invite users to keep the cartridges as they have done with cassettes. However, readers who want to keep their digital issues of CML can obtain a digital download from the BARD website sponsored by NLS. Loeser told me that CML’s Circulation Manager and Information Technology consultant Michael Tedeschi is hard at work constructing an expanded CML website where users will one day be able to download the current issue and some past digital issues.

Some of what might be the most interesting numbers, budget figures for the magazine’s operations, are unavailable because CML is a private organization without substantial public funding, so its financial statements are not published. Loeser did say that the CML budget has risen steadily over the years, which suggests that the founding gift from LuEsther T. Mertz was successfully and safely invested.

Those nearly 50 years of operation have delivered nearly 300 issues to a readership which has grown steadily from several hundred back in the early 1960s to about 20,000 now. When I asked Loeser about her goals for the future of CML, she said that the number of readers should grow substantially above 20,000 if CML finds a way to reach a greater percentage of Americans with limited vision–a number she places at about ten million.

Beyond The Printed Page

One of her more immediate goals relates to a 50th-anniversary celebration, which is planned for this November. “We’re planning a big kick-off event,” Loeser told me. “It’s going to be a reading by some of our well-known authors–we don’t know who yet. It’s going to be in Manhattan at Lighthouse International, and it will be open to the public.”

Choice Magazine Listening is available free of charge to US residents who are blind or visually impaired, or who are otherwise unable to read standard print. Their website is choicemagazinelistening.org. Their toll-free phone number is 888-724-6423. If you call, you will probably speak to Kathy Ye, who serves as CML’s bookkeeper and office manager.

Knowing that our virtual tour guide for this feature reads a great deal on the job, sometimes nonstop all day, I couldn’t resist asking Pamela Loeser what she reads away from the office. “I love mystery, suspense, literary fiction and history. One thing that I started doing once I started working for CML ten years ago, I thought, ‘Well, I’ve got this 40-minute driving commute each way. I should be listening to audio books!’ That’s what I’ve been doing. I read a lot of books in the car.

“When I’m reading all day at work, my eyes get tired. So when I get home, I like to keep reading, but sometimes it’s just too difficult, and I’ve gotten into the habit of doing a lot of audio reading. Some books are just so much richer in audio, you can just appreciate them so much better–not unlike the pieces that we use in CML.”