My big brother, Adam, is blind. He has a major disability, but he is not handicapped.
As a child, his vision was poor, and he had to wear coke-bottle lenses in his glasses, making him the brunt of many jokes and taunts. But he adapted, graduated with the rest of his high school class and went on to be a successful adult. As he got older, his eyesight deteriorated even further. Because his work involved driving, his employer willingly modified his work assignments to eliminate driving and kept him employed with other activities at the company’s home base.
Later, in his mid-50s, additional problems with his eyes (uncorrectable retina detachments) reduced his vision to just light, color, and shadow and forced him to take early retirement. The range of this partial vision was only a few feet, but lately this range has further decreased. Nine years ago, he started to use a cane to help with mobility. Until recently, he walked around the neighborhood and even downtown, keeping his diabetes under control with his exercise. A recent fall and a fractured elbow have restricted his neighborhood walking at this point.
Despite the disruption to his life-style that visual impairment has caused, Adam remains a very positive person, frequently joking about wanting to take his turn driving when we are out and about. He teases me about the weeds that he “sees” growing in my yard or about the snow that needs shoveling. He calls my house or my sister’s house to “bust on” our husbands. Of course, he gets no mercy from my husband, Ken, or from my brother-in-law, Rich. Adam gets what he gives!
At 70 years-old, Adam went cross-country skiing at Alyeska in Alaska with Ski for Light (http://www.sfl.org/) an organization that provides one-to-one assistance to cross-country skiers. In his words, it was a blast! This organization, and others similar to it, do much to enhance the lives of both visually impaired and physically impaired by providing opportunities that develop skill and self-confidence.
At 71, Adam went mountain climbing in Colorado with another branch of Ski for Light. For a week, he and ten or so other visually impaired persons, along with one-to-one guides as partners, climbed to 10,000 feet. They camped out, carrying their own supplies and preparing their own food as they went along. Being blind did not stop them from hiking, cooking, or just smelling the pine-scented air and the campfire. He loved being out in the middle of nowhere. And he loved the fact that he made all of his own arrangments and then flew to Colorado by himself to meet the rest of the hikers. The airlines support staff were especially helpful.
Now at 78 years-old, Adam still lives independently in his own condominium. My sister, Bev, and I take turns taking him grocery shopping, though he is quite capable of getting his own groceries at the Acme close to his home. He just follows the perimeter of the store and gets what he needs: yogurt, soy milk, deli turkey, bread, vegetables, fruit. When he holds the soy milk container close to his eyes to check the flavor, someone invariably offers to help. People are good that way.
Bev and I often take him prepared meals, but he can cook for himself as well. His favorite dish to make is vegetable stew. Recipe: cut up whatever vegetables you have in the house and throw them in the crockpot, add a can of tomatoes and a can of beans, add some good hot salsa, cook for three or four hours. Simple.
Adam has a keen sense of orientation. Often when we drive him home from a family outing, we will ask him, “Where are we?” And he will announce, “We just passed the light at Oak and Main.” And he is right. At times, we ask him for directions on how to get to such and such a place, and he tells us. His memory of the area from when he was sighted is incredible.
Tonight, Adam attended a meeting of the Cumberland County (NJ) Disabilities Awareness Group. At this meeting, the participants talk about all kinds of issues related to blindness, physical disabilities, as well as other disabilities. He meets with this group once each month and assists with special awareness events they organize. Someone attending the meeting usually drops him off at his home afterwards, but he is quite capable of getting home by bus.
Tomorrow, Adam will go to the Margaret Winchester Enrichment Center for the Blind in Bridgeton, N.J. A special bus will pick him up at his door and return him there in the afternoon. At the Center, he will participate in various activities with other visually impaired friends (exercise, woodworking, adaptive computers, arts and crafts, dominoes, puzzles). On occasion, the whole group will go bowling. Of course, going out to eat is one of the favorite activities at the Center.
Bits about Being Blind
Occasionally, though, Adam expresses frustration with how people relate to him, and he wishes people in general knew a bit more about relating to visually impaired persons.
Here are some bits my family has learned on how to help him without embarrassing, belittling, or discouraging him.
1. Speak directly to the visually impaired person (VIP) when you approach, giving your name. Do not assume the VIP will recognize your voice. When you do not do this, he feels he is not included in the conversation. Do not ask another person near him about him. He is not deaf. Ask him directly. When you leave, say goodbye.
“Why don’t they just say, ‘Hello, Adam. It’s Sam here.’ Then I know who is there. Otherwise I have to rack my brain to recall whose voice it is.”
2. Provide only as much assistance as needed. VIPs have developed strategies for handling many of their basic needs. Ask if the VIP needs help, then wait for acknowledgement before you provide any help. Do not do anything for them that they can do themselves. They can
- manage their money by folding it in certain ways and by putting it in certain sections of their wallets
- distinguish coins by their shape, size, and feel
- use adaptive equipment to help them: talking watches, talking meters (diabetes)
- listen to recordings for the blind provided by the state Commission for the Blind (one in every state)
- use adaptive computers that magnify writing
- write checks and pay bills using the adaptive computer
- uses buses and other local transportation to get to appointments
- make telephone calls
2. When you go out to eat, have the person sitting next to VIP read the menu to him. This avoids confusion and prevents the VIP from being overwhelmed with everyone talking at once. Learn his favorites and his dislikes. This will narrow down what you have to read, and what he has to remember.
3. In dark restaurants or other places, ask the VIP if he wants to take your elbow. Walk at a reasonable pace, watching for obstacles (carts in aisles, chairs out of place). Tell him when something might block his path.
4. Pretend the dinner plate is a clock and politely tell the VIP that the potatoes are at high noon, the peas are at 3 o’clock, and the steak is at 6 o’clock. (Of course, there is that joke where the VIP tells the sighted person that he is used to digital time!)
5. Announce when the VIP is nearing a curb. If there are steps, announce how many steps are in each set.
One thing we notice a lot is that people are respectful about Adam’s disability. When we walk on the Ocean City, NJ boardwalk, for example, people see the cane and move aside, allowing Adam to walk without bumping into someone. That’s commendable. We appreciate that kindness.
VIPs can live active, independent, and productive lives with minimal assistance. Adam would say, “Being handicapped is a state of mind. You can’t just sit still and mope. You just gotta get out there and keep moving.”
With a big brother like Adam, you just gotta keep going. No time for a self-pity party. Get out there and pull weeds or cut the grass or go for a walk or climb a mountain. Life is meant to be lived! Just do it!
And wouldn’t you know it, tonight Adam started talking about going on another mountain climbing expedition! I think you have to agree: this guy is not handicapped!
Do you know anyone who is visually or physically impaired? What lessons have you learned from them?