No challenge too great for the blind

A student at the Nebraska Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired uses a drill press while wearing sleep shades to reduce dependency on their remaining vision.

Photos, video and story by Danielle Beebe

Imagine using a table saw to make a bookshelf—blindfolded. The clients at the Nebraska Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired don’t have to imagine, they just do it.

The commission is a state rehabilitation agency in Lincoln, Neb. that since 1974 has been dedicated to teaching blind people how to live a fulfilling life without sight. It takes several courses and 9 to 12 months of hard work and dedication.

The program is funded by donations and state and federal programs and is completely free to eligible clients. To be eligible, a person must either be legally blind or experience a loss of vision that drastically affects their ability to live daily.

Most clients at the commission, although legally blind, have some remaining vision. Actually, only 10 percent of the legally blind have no vision whatsoever. The dependency on this remaining vision can be dangerous and unreliable, so clients wear blindfolds, or sleep shades.

“Our expectations really give results of people coming out and being confident and competent that they really can do anything in life,” said Fatos Floyd, commission director.

Using sleep shades is a philosophy the commission is proud of. They teach their students to take vision out of the equation, to see how great it can be to be blind.

“Vision is great, but blindness can be great too if you have the right skills,” said Stephanie Wagle, a 22-year-old client who’s been at the commission for seven months.

Students learn to prove to themselves that no matter what happens to their remaining vision, life without sight can be just as great—if not better—than with it.

The staff and counselors do this by teaching alternative skills. These “non-visual alternative skills” are options of understanding the world around you without seeing it. These alternative skills are often viewed by the sighted and newly blind as inferior to vision, but in reality can be just as effective, if not more.

Watch this slideshow to see students participate in these activities:

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Some alternative skills clients learn include the proper way to feel things or using tools like a click ruler, a tool that uses notches and a clicking sound to determine measurements. These alternative skills coincide with the philosophy that blindness is a characteristic, not a disability.

“In my mind being blind is a characteristic,” said braille instructor Sahar Husseini. “There are some things about it I don’t like, just as there are some things I don’t like about being short. “Blindness becomes a disability when you don’t have the right tools,” Husseini said.

Students at the commission acquire those skills by attending classes daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. The classes are designed to teach a person how to live independently. The classes are home management, travel, woodshop, braille and computers.

Home management is structured to teach clients to learn the skills necessary to maintain their living space using skills alternative to seeing. Activities range from learning to clean their personal bathroom to making homemade Christmas ornaments.

The cane travel and mobility course, one of the more intimidating courses to new students, pushes clients to get outside and navigate their environments. Clients learn to use their canes to feel their surrounding environment. The clicking noise of the metal tip of the cane provides sound cues that can indicate where and what things are. For example, a clicking noise of a cane hitting the sidewalk can provide an echo that may indicate how close a nearby building is to a person.

Clients learn to navigate computers using a synthesized speech program that speaks the headings and text that a sighted person sees on a screen. Keystrokes and audible commands help guide the user. These programs are available to the blind and assist clients in various tasks, including writing resumes and searching for employment.

The braille course teaches clients to read and write the system of braille. Special equipment is provided so the students can learn the braille alphabet. Since writing braille requires that small dots be raised on a paper, the marks must be punched into the paper using a stylist from the back of the page, writing from right to left. The symbol itself must also be mirrored. This is so when the paper is right side up, the marks can be read from left to right.

When you can no longer see well enough to read text and begin to learn braille, it can feel like learning a new language, clients say.

“It’s like a sighted person not knowing how to read, and enrolling in college,” Wagle said of the difficulties she experienced in college. Wagle currently said she feels confident in the skills she has learned and is eager to return to college.

Perhaps the most intimidating class, woodshop, teaches the students that the alternative skills they have learned can help them achieve things that may at first seem too dangerous for a blind person to perform. Students choose a wood project to create, and, after becoming familiar with the tools, complete.

After a day of classes has been completed, clients of the commission take a city bus to apartments where they live during their nine- to 12-month period in the program. Each student has their own apartment, a part of the teaching philosophy that helps students learn to live independently.

There are around 10 clients in the commission at any given time. They are all ages and come from all over the state and from all walks of life.

“It really is like an episode of ‘The Office’ around here,” Wagle said of the element of camaraderie in the apartments. “Where else can you find such a mix of ages and people?”

For more information on Stephanie’s story, watch this video:

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