Blind, according to one edition of Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, means “sightless”. The dictionary is wrong.
To the sighted, blindness is generally a matter of black and white – one either is, or is not. To the visually impaired, on the other hand, the condition is one – literally – of shades of gray, and every other color on the spectrum as well.
Of the 64 million persons in the United States with some kind of visual impairment, only 1.7 million – or 27% – function as if they were “legally blind” (a person who sees no more at a distance of 20 feet than someone with normal sight sees at 200 feet; commonly referred to as 20/ 200 vision). Only 6% of the 6.4 million, or some 400,000 persons, have no usable vision at all.
Nearly 2/3 of the severely visually impaired are age 65 or over.
The severity of the handicap is generally agreed to be as variable as the degree of impairment itself. Expressions of dismay at the condition, on the part of the sighted, are projections. Those living with it, to whatever degree it has advanced, generally judge it a “handicap” only to the extent that it interferes with living the life they wish to lead.
Over the years, a variety of organizations have been formed to minimize that interference: to assist those with the impairment to neutralize it through technology, to deal with its inconveniences, and to ensure development of the strongest possible self-image in the face of personal limitations.
In the Twin Cities, a cross-section of those organizations include the Minneapolis Society for the Blind, the Minneapolis Society for the Prevention of Blindness and the Preservation of Hearing: The National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota; Blind, Inc; the Minnesota State Services for the Blind and Visually Handicapped (SSB); and the SSB’s Communication Center.
MINNEAPOLIS SOCIETY FOR THE BLIND
Formed in 1914, the Minneapolis Society is the oldest of the private rehab, support
and advocacy groups for the visually impaired in the metro area. Located at Franklin and Lyndale since the 1940’s, the Society’s stated mission is to assist persons who are blind or visually impaired by making available to them opportunities for personal growth, independence and self support. A statewide organization offering a complete menu of rehabilitation and low vision services primarilv to the younger adult. MSB graduates some 125 students per year from its rehabilitation program, and serves approximately 1500 visually impaired persons each year through all of its activities. Innovations include Trained Listening Colleagues (TLC), a peer counseling program that matches each client with a counselor who has experienced vision loss, and can offer support and resources for the newly-blinded individual.
Program staff includes professionals in the fields of rehabilitation, optometry and ophthalmology, health care and social work.
MSB’s programs focus on achieving optimal use from remaining sight, and education in the techniques of adaptation, rather than dealing with philosophical/psychological orientation. In addition to their on-site and in-home/work place pro-grams, they conduct an active public education effort, including speakers‘ bureau, free vision screening, tours, information and referral service, and in-service training for professional caregivers.
PREVENT BLINDNESS/ PRESERVE HEARING
Known for most of its half-century of existence as the Minneapolis Society for the Prevention of Blindness and the Preservation of Hearing (the latter responsibility added in 1981), Prevent Blindness/ Preserve Hearing’s founder acknowledged in 1939 that the Society’s preventative work would “lack the glamour of working to aid the blind”. The founder, Dr. Frank Burch, knew, however, that 50% of all blindness is preventable, that prevention is a function of education, and that education begins with research.
Among other facts, that research has shown that the leading causes of blindness are diabetes, macular degeneration, cataracts and glaucoma; that 46% of eye injuries – a leading cause of blindness in one eye – occur in the home; that 95% of eye injuries are preventable through the use of protective eyeware; and that the keys to preventing blindness from its leading causes are early diagnosis and prompt treatment.
A good portion of the Society’s efforts during the past half century have thus been directed at both educating and screening young people. Their Pre-school Medical Survey of Vision and Hearing was administered to more than 10,000 3, 4, and 5-year-olds in 1989, seeking to identify the one in twenty pre-schoolers who typically have an unsuspected vision problem, and the one in seven with hearing disorders.
Adult vision screening is conducted by the organization at community health fairs and screening clinics. Their Minnesota Adult Home Eye Screening program was introduced in 1981. It provides a simple, effective means of self-testing for the presence of macular degeneration, cataract, retinal damage and other eye problems, and has been adopted for international use.
The Society’s public information programs include public lectures, media presentations, and school programs on cataract, glaucoma, diabetes and the eye, eye safety and hearing loss. Their resource library offers an extensive collection of text materials, films and slide presentations on the causes of, and treatments for, blinding eye diseases and hearing disorders, about preventing accidental blindness at work, home and play.
The Society’s professional education component includes seminars for nurses and other health professionals, a news-letter on ophthalmology and otolaryngology, and reference texts containing comprehensive medical information on vision and hearing disorders.
An activist as well as screening, research and educational organization, the Society has successfully lobbied for vision testing for drivers’ license applications, the safe Fireworks Law, the BB Gun Law and the School Eye Safety Law.
BLIND, INCORPORATED Blind, Inc., is the most con-temporary of the adaptive educational programs for the visually impaired. It is also the most intense, and one of the most productive. It is the “boot camp” of such programs, where students live in, learn in an environment where the maximum class size is four, and apply what they’ve learned evenings and weekends under the tutelage of both sighted and blind instructors.
Photos of white cane-toting students striding confidently across a 4-foot wide wooden bridge without side rails, hefting a sharpened splitting maul at the tip of a 10″ diameter fireplace log, or igniting a grill full of fluid-soaked char-coal briquets gives one a sense of the attitude here.
Attitude, in fact, is one of the subjects taught at Blind, Inc.
The course, which lasts anywhere from 90 days to over a year, depending on rate of progress, is not intended as a vocational school. In its relatively short period of existence (January, 1988), however, it has demonstrated measurable success as a vocation-enabling school.
Serving just 25-35 students annually with a staff of eight, blind, Inc. provides classes in braille reading and writing, independent cane travel, home/ self management, typing, computer literacy and career exploration, as well as the more basic skills, such as the independent management of diabetes.
Throughout, students are taught that it is respectable to be blind. Feelings of inadequacy are neutralized not only by traditional, classroom related successes, but by activities described in under-stated fashion as “adventure learning”. Ranging from dining out to martial arts, dancing to chopping wood, rock climbing or horseback riding, adventure learning is intended to reinforce positive attitudes, while teaching that there are invariably alternative techniques by which blind people can accomplish the same tasks other do with sight.
Since personal independence is a state of mind as well as state of being, the confidence developed with each new accomplishment contributes directly to that state of mind, and hastens the achievement of true independence. That theory has been supported by the program‘s graduates. While a major goal of Blind, Inc.’s efforts is the eradication of the 79% unemployment rate among the blind, the program stresses clarification and achievement of individual goals. While the goals of graduates to date have varied from enhanced living skills to educational access to employment and a broad range of other personal objectives, virtually all have achieved a substantial measure of success toward them by the time of graduation.
Unique for its class size and student/teacher ratio, Blind, Inc. also offers the only residential program, the only overtly attitudinal program, the only program not connected with a sheltered work-shop, and the only program in which 50% of staff members belong to the blind community.
MN STATE SERVICES FOR THE BLIND & VISUALLY HANDICAPPED
An arm of the Minnesota Department of Jobs and Training, State Services for the Blind and Visually Handicapped (SSB) is a multi-faceted, tax‑supported agency serving anyone of any age in Minnesota who has a vision loss that creates a handicap to their vocational or personal independence.
SSB operates in three primary areas – Rehabilitation Services, Communication Center, and a well-stocked store.
Through its own facilities and those of non-profit agencies it helps to fund, SSB offers the complete range of services to the blind and visually impaired, including adjustment to blindness; rehabilitation counseling; braille instruction; travel training; career exploration; job placement and retention; rehab engineering; low vision services; independent living skills training; vocational training; a blind vendor program and more.
Vocational rehabilitation programs include instruction in alternative techniques including braille and travel training; vocational training and job placement services; the newly established SSB Re-source Center for Assistive Technology; the Employer Committee, a partnership with the private sector which assists consumers in gaining needed work and internship experiences; counseling and adjustment-to-blindness services which facilitate consumer growth and development.
Three programs assist independent living; the Center for Independent Living, a federal grant project working with young adults 17-25 who also have a communication disorder; the Elderoptions Project that helps elderly blind and visually impaired people maintain independence in their own homes and the Self-Care Program for those 55 and older who would benefit from help in the areas of self-care and communication. Nearly 4000 blind/visually impaired per-sons receive help from these programs each year. In addition, the state-funded Child Rehabilitation Program works with blind children and their parents to help the youth develop self-confidence and employment-related skills on the road to independence.
The SSB’s Business Enter-prises Program provides training and professional management assistance to blind vendors who operate independent businesses under franchise agreements. These businesses, include cafeterias, lunch-rooms, gift shops and other public-related facilities, and generate an average income exceeding $24,000 for their proprietors.
In all, some 6000 persons are served each year by SSB counselors in all programs.
STATE SERVICES FOR THE BLIND COMMUNICATION CENTER
The SSB Communication Center was founded in 1954 as a statewide special library and transcription service through funding by St. Paul’s Hamm Foundation, which largely sustains the Center to this day.
In 1969, the then-director of State Services for the Blind, C. Stanley Potter, established within the Center the first
Radio Reading Service in the nation. He did so in partner-ship with William Kling, Director of Broadcasting for KSJR-FM and KSJN-FM – which later came to be Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) As MPR expanded, so did the Radio Talking Book Network, a unique idea which now serves as a model for similar pro-grams in over 100 communities throughout the nation.
With the help of some 400 volunteers, the network to-day presents a total of 168 hours of programming – 87 based on current magazines and newspaper articles; 33 hours of direct newspaper reading, and 48 hours of books broadcast in their entirety. The broadcasts are made through closed circuit receivers 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to those who are print-handicapped. Receivers are avail-able on loan to those who are eligible. There is no charge. (For information, call (612) 642-0502, or 1-800-652-9000)
In addition to its daily reading, the Communication Center offers:
- Custom recording of text-books and job-related materials on tape (84,000 last year)
- A lending library of books on tape, without charge
- Custom transcribing of text-books and job-related materials into braille (704,000 braille pages produced in 1990)
- A lending library of braille books
- Lending and servicing of the Radio Talking Book Receiver, special phonographs and cassette playback equipment which offer access to the Library of Congress Talking Book program
- Multi-media instructional materials and resources on blindness, the education of blind children, and the re-habilitation of newly-blinded adults
The Radio Talking Book program of SSB’s Communication Center currently reaches some 7,500 disabled listeners; the potential audience is 35,000.
In addition to the popular Dial-In News feature, which al-lows touch-tone callers to access to particular sections of the day’s newspaper, the Radio Talking Book’s Pro-gram Guide offers a cornucopia of education, information and entertainment ranging from Backpacker to Bon Apetit, the New Republic to Vital Speeches, the Mayo Clinic Health Letter to City Pages, and around 200 other publications in between. Books by such as Ken Follett, Thomas Tryon, Shakti Gawain and William Novak, in their entirety, round out the audio fare.