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Coping with Blindness

Alvin Roberts


Procissão de cegos - Johannes Wohlfart, 1927
Procissão de cegos | Johannes Wohlfart, 1927


To the few hundred committed teachers and counselors,
blind and sighted, who fan out across the nation every morning,
providing rehabilitation services to the sixty thousand American citizens who become blind every year  


After forty years of enabling blind people to cope with the challenges of living in a world of seeing people and striving to remove societal barriers so that the blind could fully participate, I could not write a book that did not convey a social message or intent. My intent (or, at least, my hope) is that through these stories, some of the 1.7 million Americans who are blind or are in the process of losing their vision will be reassured that blindness need not be the end of active life but rather the beginning of a life in which they will depend on their residual senses. I hope that this reassurance will be conveyed by the effectiveness with which the teachers and counselors portrayed in these narratives assist visually impaired persons to reenter the mainstream of society.

Beyond my desire to assure those experiencing visual loss that competent professional help with the adjustment process is available, I also wish to acquaint readers with the humorous aspect of the daily work of this small, dedicated group of professionals. Those who become blind bring to this unchosen condition the full array of personality characteristics, including a sense of humor. In fact, some of the funniest people I have known were blind. Take Bob Ingersol, a blind man from my hometown, for instance. Many people who knew and loved him were often the recipients of Bob's practical jokes. As a high school student, far from home at the Illinois School for the Blind in Jacksonville, I looked forward to Bob's encouraging and newsfilled letters, which usually ended with such bits of earthy humor as, "Some final advice from your friendly stock broker: Sit on your American Can and hold your Water." Lloyd, a blind piano tuner, would slip a few pieces of the family silver in the coat pockets of friends who were visiting for the first time in order to enjoy their reactions when he "accidentally" discovered these items while helping them on with their wraps.

Then there was Floyd, a lifelong friend, who would respond to the inquiries of waitresses as to how much cream he liked in his coffee with "just enough to see if there is a fly floating in it." Of course, these people were serious, hardworking folks most of the time, but, like their seeing peers, they had their lighter side. I have observed that an active sense of humor is a definite asset to those who are required to adjust to a life without vision, and it certainly makes the work of the adjustment teacher or counselor less stressful and more enjoyable. If these accounts can help to dispel a commonly held notion that blind people are uniformly somber and that those who assist them work under grim conditions, this book may succeed in lowering society's generalized fear of blindness.

The motivation to write something that could provide emotional reassurance to the public, particularly the elderly who are most at risk of becoming visually impaired, has been with me for many years. The problem was "packaging the message," as the advertising and public relations people put it. My office and home library are filled with books on how to live with blindness, including one I wrote, Psychosocial Rehabilitation of the Blind, but, according to various public opinion surveys, society's fear of blindness has not been reduced by this wealth of published material. In order to succeed in replacing fear, which creates myths and apprehension, with facts and common sense, I believed it would be necessary to communicate factual material about blindness by anchoring it to positive emotions and optimism—a formidable task.

We have known since antiquity that facts are remembered longer when presented in stories of people and events. This is why most of us learn history better from historical fiction than from history texts. At some point, it occurred to me that the most effective avenue to the emotional acceptance of facts about blindness adjustment would be to let the public read about real, believable people engaged with their teachers and counselors in the process of learning to live with visual impairment. Personal experience and conversations with colleagues provided me with a wealth of incidents on which to base stories of workers with the blind going about their daily tasks. My task was to develop these incidents into believable stories, adding descriptive material, action, and conversation to enhance plausibility and create interest, amusement, or excitement. Although some characters have been invented to round out the stories, several colleagues who furnished material for a particular narrative—such as Louis Davis, Dorothy Dykema, Harker Miley, Edith Ingersol, and Verle Wessel—are named. And all of the accounts are factual and accurate regarding counseling or instruction and blindness adjustment techniques, strategies, and methods.


If you suddenly became blind, from whom would you immediately seek services? A physiotherapist? An occupational therapist? A vocational counselor? A psychologist? You might need the services of any or all of these professionals at some time during your adjustment to visual impairment, but your most immediate need would be the ability to carry out the necessary tasks of daytoday living. You would need some techniques that do not require sight for performing such routine tasks as colormatching your clothes, identifying your medication, pouring your morning coffee, and setting the thermostat on your heating or cooling system. In other words, you would need a rehabilitation teacher.

Don't be discouraged by such a clinicalsounding name. Although rehabilitation teachers are highly trained professionals who enable visually impaired persons to carry out virtually all of their daily activities, they do not practice their profession within the limited confines of some distant hospital or rehabilitation center. In fact, many states have a commission, bureau, or department for the visually impaired that employs rehabilitation teachers to instruct blind persons in their own homes using their own appliances. To emphasize this fact, these teachers were originally known as ''home teachers of the adult blind.'' Rehabilitation teaching had its beginning with the London Home Teaching Society in 1855. Teachers were dispatched throughout England to teach embossed reading systems to the blind. "Home teaching" came to America with the establishment of the Pennsylvania Home Teaching Society in 1882. Today, rehabilitation teaching programs exist in every state. In addition to the delivery of instruction directly into the homes of visually impaired persons, many public and private rehabilitation hospitals and centers now employ rehabilitation teachers as members of multidisciplinary teams, which can also include mobility instructors, vocational counselors, social workers, and psychologists.

Besides instructing visually impaired people in such daily living tasks as reading in Braille, writing with tactile hand guides, and homemaking, rehabilitation teachers are also prepared to understand the emotional impact of visual loss on the impaired person and his or her family. Teachers use this understanding to enhance the success of the teaching program. For example, one of the first assurances a visually impaired person might receive from a rehabilitation teacher is the information that he or she is not the only person facing the loss of sight on that particular day. The knowledge that 179 other people in the nation have also experienced visual loss during the previous twentyfour hours may lessen the feeling of isolation. Applying the formula of .00253 legally blind persons per 1,000 people in the United States, the Illinois Department of Rehabilitation Services estimates that there are 29,182 legally blind people in the state, for example. (Legal blindness is defined as visual acuity of 20/200 in the better eye or a visual field of 20 degrees or less [180 degrees is considered normal].) Application of the .00253 formula to an estimated United States population of 260 million results in a projection of 657,800 legally blind people in the nation. Of this number, we estimate that 65,780 became blind within the past year—approximately 180 within the past twentyfour hours, as mentioned above.

Another service provided by the rehabilitation teacher is the organization of support groups composed of just such newly blinded persons. In these groups, people receive encouragement from each other and knowledge from invited speakers about eye conditions and treatment, special devices for people with visual impairments, career information, and the like.

Whether the services of a rehabilitation teacher will be readily available to the 65,780 people who lose their sight each year is not certain. This dilemma is related to the average age of the typical newly blinded person and the amount of time needed to be an effective itinerant rehabilitation teacher. The fastest growing segment of the population with visual impairments is over sixtyfive years of age, and most of these people will continue to receive instruction in their own homes on their own equipment rather than attend a comprehensive rehabilitation center, which is usually considered more suitable for young, vocationally bound clients. Therefore, the time it takes for the teacher to travel to the homes of students, along with the time necessary for recordkeeping, will continue to influence the amount of time the teacher can spend with students. Records indicate that, if teachers visit each student every other week for one and a half hours and rely on family members and other volunteers to monitor progress in such areas as handwriting and sewing, the average newly impaired person will require one year to complete his or her program.

Research and experience have shown that a rehabilitation teacher can complete teaching services with approximately 30 clients in a twelvemonth period. To determine the number of teachers needed to serve the 65,780 people who will become blind in the United States each year, we divide by 30 and find that the number is 2,193. This translates into 97 teachers needed in the state of Illinois alone.

Determining the number of rehabilitation teachers needed is easier than determining the number actually available throughout the United States. According to estimates by experts in the field, there are between 500 and 700 teachers in the nation. Even if we arbitrarily double this to 1,400, this is still 793 fewer teachers than are necessary to serve the thousands of American citizens who lose their vision each year. The best advice to any person who becomes visually impaired is to get on an application list of an agency for the visually impaired as soon as possible. Fortunately, blindness usually progresses slowly, allowing the person to continue performing most activities at reduced efficiency until teaching services can be arranged. Finally, if it is necessary for a person's name to be put on a waiting list, most agencies will refer that person to another program such as the Regional Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, which provides recorded books at no cost to the patron.


The oldest historical documents relating to blind people describe efforts to place them in jobs that could be performed without eyesight. An ancient Chinese ruler decreed that the occupations of soothsayer and masseur would be reserved exclusively for blind persons, and special schools were established to prepare them for these trades. In ancient Rome, blind boys were employed as oarsmen. Around 1800, the French government established a program to incorporate blind people into their society by separating them according to five levels of economic functioning: those who engaged in business and professions such as law, music, or teaching; those who performed skilled crafts, such as piano tuning; those who engaged in home industry; those who worked and lived in sheltered workshops attached to communal living facilities; and those blind persons who, because of additional disabilities or age, were unable to do any significant work and were housed in what we might term group homes today. When we remember that Emperor Napoleon was involved in the greatest military expansion in European history, it seems remarkable that the French government would have had the compassion or resources to engage in such an elaborate employment program for a relatively small group of its disabled citizens. However, this relationship between militarism and the expansion of employment opportunities for the blind has continued down to the present century.

Due to the sedentary and repetitive nature of assemblyline work, leaders in work for the blind recognized the opportunities for their clients in manufacturing in the early part of the twentieth century. During World War I, for example, the Crocker Wheeler Company, a manufacturing firm in Newark, New Jersey, employed one hundred blind workers in a special unit that inspected and packed finished products. Following World War II, the Radio Corporation of America established the practice of employing one blind worker for every thousand sighted workers.

Because the public had little understanding or tolerance of disabled people in the early twentieth century, it is difficult to understand how workers for the blind were able to persuade employers to permit blind persons to tour their factories, let alone actually allow them to operate machinery. This seemingly impossible task of securing industrial employment for blind persons was accomplished largely through the direct demonstration of capable placement agents who were blind themselves, such as Joe Klunk. Klunk was so successful in talking his way into factories, where he would demonstrate the performance of selected jobs without sight, that he became the first director of the U.S. Office of Vocational Rehabilitation for the Blind. With the establishment of college training programs in rehabilitation counseling, it was possible to combine the academic knowledge of collegetrained counselors with the job placement skills devised by such pioneers as Joe Klunk to provide agencies for the blind with placement counselors who could address the psychological problems of adjusting to blindness and confront the practical problems of securing employment for blind persons.


[T]he greatest need of those who cannot see is, and always will be, communication on all levels of existence with those who can see. —Alan Eaton, Beauty for the Sighted and the Blind

Dr. Eaton's words are as relevant today as when they were written more than a quarter century ago. In this information age, almost every human activity, from ordering a Big Mac to performing one's job, depends on the ability to process written communication, much of which is in the form of icons and other graphic symbols not readily accessible to blind persons. If, however, the most severe problem of those who are blind continues to be the speedy and accurate processing of written communication, the second most serious problem remains the difficulty of traveling from one point to another in order to engage in social and economic activity.

In fact, the problem of mobility outdates the problem of written communication by hundreds of years. Reports of blind people using canes to explore their paths date back at least as far as the Middle Ages, when bands of roving blind folk traveled about Europe seeking food and shelter, using their long canes to find their way and sometimes to attack unwilling benefactors. Independent travel, requiring extreme concentration of one's perceptual and physical abilities, has remained a serious challenge for persons who cannot see down to the present day, indicated by the overwhelming number of blind persons who employ the cane method for independent mobility.



Coping with Blindness:  Personal Tales of Blindness Rehabilitation

     excerpt of
'Coping with Blindness - Personal Tales of Blindness Rehabilitation'
Alvin Roberts | Copyright © 1998
Southern Illinois University Press
Carbondale and Edwardsville
fonte: https://www.questia.com/



Maria José Alegre