Opening the doors for the region's blind residents

What would you do if you suddenly lost your sight?

A new project aimed at helping newly-blinded Great Lakes Bay Region residents prepare for the change that experiencing loss of sight lives brings is in the works.

I am the organizer of this project, because years ago, my heart was broken when I returned to Midland after an eight-year absence. Blind all my life, I realized that, although I was born totally blind and learned many valuable skills as a young child, most people who have visual impairments have become so because of eye diseases that began when they were older.

A new project aimed at helping newly-blinded people in the Great Lakes Bay Region prepare for the change that experiencing loss of sight lives brings is in the works.Able to see all their lives; now, they can’t go anywhere without someone leading them, they can’t read the paper, use a computer or watch TV. Perhaps they struggle to cut their food, they spill their drinks or trip over things around the house.

Sometimes the newly blind don’t know whom to talk to, what they need to learn or if they can do any of the everyday things they used to do. And most communities don’t have enough of the specialized services and equipment they need.

My new project, called Life After Blindness, is an attempt to help people determine what their future lives will be like. When the ophthalmologist says “Sorry; there’s no more we can do,” I can visit their houses or talk to them on the phone.

I can fully attest to the fact that life need not be over; these people have the power to choose what life with vision loss will be like.

It all can be done, those with sight loss just need to learn some adaptations that may have to be made from their previous way of doing activities.Sometimes, when I first talk to someone with sight loss, he or she says, “I don’t know what to do. I don’t know who to talk to.” One woman said she had made the rounds of local pharmacies and had not found a single white cane for sale.

Typically, most adaptive devices for people with visual impairments are available only through the mail. White canes must be ordered to fit a person’s height, and canes are made in increments of two inches in length.

Another resource that is available is working with a service dog. But before getting the aid of a service animal, a person should have white-cane training to know the basics of getting around before getting a dog. Besides, a young dog is strong and speedy and probably will try to take control away from the master until they learn to work together.

Most adaptive devices for people with visual impairments are available only through the mail.Here are some of the questions I often ask people about their life plans after blindness: Do you want to learn to use a computer? Do you want to know how to turn on speech in a cell phone and understand how to give it commands? Do you want to learn Braille, and if you do, why? (Braille is English, just like print is, but many characters have multiple uses and there are many contractions – think of them as being like the & sign.) Do you want to cook and clean your house independently? That means your stove, microwave, washer and dryer need tactile markings to choose settings. Do you want to continue hobbies such as sewing, woodworking or carpentry? You might need needle threaders and Braille sewing patterns, and a bit of safety training to continue using tools.

It all can be done, those with sight loss just need to learn some adaptations that may have to be made from their previous way of doing activities.

Cheryl Wade started Life After Blindness as a personal passion after seeing the need.One man told me he has definite goals: He wants to hunt, hike and fish the way he used to, and he wants to go to one of his favorite places in Oscoda. So, right now, I am looking for a volunteer to drive him and to describe the lay of the land. Another woman needs someone to teach her how to use an Android phone with the speech turned on, and I can’t find anyone locally who knows how to do that.

There are many adaptations that can assist the newly blind. Audible books available from a free lending library, computers that read words on the screen audibly and aid in screen navigation, movies that describe what’s happening on the screen.

There is free training through the State of Michigan to help people learn to travel with a white cane, use computers and read Braille. There is bold lined paper and tactile lined paper for writing print. There are options to make Android and iPhones speak – out of the box – and dozens of gadgets for all kinds of tasks. But users might need specialized training that’s not available locally.

A great resource that is available is working with a service dog once a person has learned adaptations on their own.Services in the region include ride services, meals, transportation and help determining home modifications, exercise facilities, and art classes. The Disability Network of Mid-Michigan has a kit filled with adaptive devices that people experiencing sight loss might need, and the organization can provide advocacy and help people adjust to new disabilities.

But there is almost no one who knows how to adapt these events for persons with little or no vision and who have not had training to help them get what they need. Having a teacher point a finger and say “the easels are over there” doesn’t do it for a blind person. Designing art projects that largely are based on the sense of touch is challenging. And how does a person with almost no vision navigate a large exercise facility with multiple strength training machines?

Cheryl Wade and her dog out for a walk in Midland.That’s why I hope to find volunteers who can orient folks to their surroundings using cardinal directions, audible or tactile landmarks to get around a building, or gauging distances and the time it takes to get from one place or thing to another. Perhaps sight-impaired people need to grab a sighted person’s elbow to get around a store or an exhibit. We have teachers and counselors from the state who can help train people to adjust to blindness, but they work in multiple counties and can’t drop everything when someone has a question such as, “I don’t know how to make a Braille z.” I could answer that question.

As a trained rehabilitation (disability and employment) counselor with a master’s degree from Michigan State University, I also am prepared to talk about the psychological changes that a new, expensive, pain-in-the-neck disability might cause. Withdrawal, denial and acceptance are part of the grieving process, and the negative emotions might return from time to time.

Life After Blindness, is an attempt to help people determine what their future lives will be like.I am working with a group of area residents who have sight loss and who meet on the last Saturday of almost every month for a delicious, free lunch and a presentation by a speaker. The group meets at Aldersgate United Methodist Church, 2206 Airfield Lane, and the meeting lasts from 11:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. Rides are available. To sign up, call Dick Skochdopole, (989) 835-6433.

At this early stage, I am working to meet people who are blind and find local service clubs to provide us with drivers, guides and donations. With a few hundred dollars a year, I hope to buy equipment such as Braillers and accessible aids and games. I also the ability and connections to acquire used equipment.

"I can fully attest to the fact that life need not be over."I hope to have a food-cutting workshop in which people can feel things like cake or meat with their hands, then figure out how to hold a knife so it will cut rather than having the end stick up in the air. By taking the time for this activity, people could practice cutting in a straight line, then cutting perpendicular to that line. As a member of Michigan Ski for Light – a group for blind and mobility-impaired skiers – I hope to acquire donated ski equipment and get some of my new friends on skis next year.

If you or someone you know has been impacted by vision loss, please know that life isn’t over and there are resources and people to help.

For more information or to inquire about being a volunteer for someone with vision loss, contact me at (517) 574-6898 or wadecheryl42@gmail.com.   

 

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