Living Without Sight in a Visual World

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The following questions were asked by youth in our church several years ago. My husband Ed's answers helped them understand what it’s like to be blind, and how they might help others with visual loss. It was a natural learning experience for our children as they grew up.

Q: Were you always blind?

A: I was a premature twin, 3 and 1/2 lbs, placed in an incubator with pure oxygen for a month that damaged my eyes. I had limited sight in my left eye and no vision in my right eye. I could farm and drive tractors, but could not see well enough to drive a car. At age 36, I had a third detached retina. Bleeding inside my eye destroyed more vision, and all vision was lost 10 years later.

Q: How do you eat your meals? How do you know what’s on your plate? And how do you tell if it’s too hot?

A. Eating was one of the hardest things to adjust to when I first lost my eyesight. Try eating with your eyes closed – no peeking! At times I need meat cut, but learn what’s on my plate with each mouthful, or someone tells me using the clock system: meat at 12 o’clock (top of plate), potatoes at 3, beans at 6, and carrots at 9. I test if food is too hot by touching gently with my tongue, and blow on it to cool it.

Q: How do you know what time it is?

A. Buttons on my talking watch tell time, date, and day of the week; my watch also has an alarm and timer. I have a talking calculator, indoor/outdoor thermometer, and computer. The computer is a standard desktop with software that reads and speaks what is on the screen.

I put “bump dots” with sticky backs on the F & J keys of my keyboard. I know where all keys are in relation to them. I also put dots on the 1, 4, 7, & 0 keys on top row of keys, and on the 5 key on the number pad.

We put bump dots on thermostats and some appliances so I know how to set dials. My wife puts hot glue dots on some things, and rubber bands on certain soup cans, medication bottles, and pepper shaker. Everything is always kept in the same spot.

Q: How do you know what to wear?

A.  When my wife buys clothes, she describes them and the colors. I may have three polo shirts in blue, brown, and green. I feel the fabric and tags; the brown shirt has two tags in the collar and the other shirts have one tag. I find the brown shirt by feeling for two tags. Since the other shirts are identical with one tag each, I cut a slit in the tag of the green shirt to tell that from the blue shirt. I memorize this plus what’s in the closet. My shirts are in groups of 4 or 5 with unused hangers in between. I tell the groups apart by feel. The same method is used for pants and jeans.

Q: Do you have a seeing eye dog?

A.  I don’t feel well enough or have time to care for a dog, nor do I have enough work for a guide dog. I use a lightweight white cane with a grip like a golf club. Held together by a heavy-duty elastic band, it folds up. I tap the ground with the tip to find where I’m going. I can sense what I’m tapping through the handle, telling the difference between carpet, linoleum, wood, tile or concrete floors. The cane helps me know if there is a step, or an open or closed door. This works well in familiar surroundings, but I prefer sighted guide in strange places. 

My wife is my sighted guide when we go out. I hold onto her right upper arm or elbow as she guides me. She tells me when there’s an obstacle like a curb, step, low tree branch, or guides me around a puddle, etc. She watches other people so she can stop me when they walk in front of us, or eyes where they’re headed and slows or stops me so they can go first. Years ago, she was walking me around stuff at our son’s baseball game, watching where I was stepping, and she forgot to look above me and I walked into a low branch (I’m 6 feet 7 inches tall), but I wasn’t hurt.

Q: How do you find your way around the house?

A. By feel. When I go out and come home, I fold up my cane and put it away. I’ve lived in this house for over 37 years and know where everything is. I touch the furniture, walls, doors or countertops as I walk around. I feel the type of floor under my feet to orient myself. Outdoors I can feel the difference between concrete, grass, gravel and macadam.

We don’t move furniture because that confuses me. We tried it once – bad idea! Everything has its place, and I memorize it all. Sometimes objects get moved, making it hard as I can’t find what I need.

Q: Do you go shopping?

A. With my current health issues I only go out to doctors, but I used to shop with my wife. I never shopped alone; someone would guide me and help find what I wanted to buy, like cards, which they’d read to me for what I preferred.

When training with my cane, the aide took me to a local mall. Finding my way around, a gentleman came up to me, grabbed my arm, started pulling me by walking faster, and asked where I wanted to go. I stopped him, thanked him, and told him I was in training and knew what I was doing. Please don’t ever do that to a blind person. Instead, walk alongside them and ask if they might like your help.

Folks often talk louder to me. I’m blind, but my hearing is fine. In church, it was hard to follow congregational readings, but I could sing most hymns and contemporary songs from memory. I find it helpful when folks introduce themselves to me when speaking, touch my hand or arm, and let me know when they leave if we were conversing. At times, I’d start talking again with no idea they’d walked away.

Q: How do you know if you have toothpaste on your toothbrush? How do you know if you spit it out in the sink?

A. Putting toothpaste on a toothbrush was difficult to master at first. I hold the toothbrush in my left hand between my thumb and pointer finger with bristles pointing up. I hold the toothpaste tube in my right hand and place the opening on the bristles, squeeze slightly, and swipe it quickly across the bristles leaving a stripe of toothpaste behind. I’ve gotten pretty good at spitting in the sink and haven’t missed yet!

Q: What if you open the wrong door?

A. This might only happen if I’m away from home, using my white cane. For the correct restroom, my wife or guide takes me to the door; often, others inside help me find my way around. To find the exit, I tap on the floor and lower wall, and feel for the door.

Q: Do you watch TV?

A. I listen to news, sports, and preachers, but also reruns like Andy Griffith, The Walton’s, and Little House on the Prairie. These shows are easy to follow as I saw them before I lost my vision so I know the characters and scenery. New shows and movies are difficult because there is so much visual stuff happening that I’m confused.

I do not use it, but there is a service called DVS (Descriptive Video Service) which puts out movies with a voice in the background to describe the action on the screen which a blind person cannot see.

Q: Can you read a book or a newspaper? How do you read anything?

A. There are digitally recorded books on MP3 files and CDs, but I get books from the state Library for the Blind and Visually Handicapped. They come on a digital cartridge which fits into a digital machine the state provides; it plays a recording of someone reading the book. Magazines are also available, but I don’t get them.

After I lost more eyesight in 1988, I spent six months at The Carroll Center for the Blind in Newton, Massachusetts from November ’89 to April ’90. I received Personal Adjustment Training (PAT) which helps those with vision loss learn to do tasks a new way. I’m unable to read Braille as my fingers cannot feel the small dots well.

Sensory Training uses senses like hearing, feeling, touch, smell, wind, warmth from sunlight, and your cane to know where you are. Technology Training teaches how to use talking watches, calculators and computers. I stayed for an extra two-week introduction course to computers. In Mobility Class, we learned to navigate around a town or city. Though I live in a small rural town, I learned to cross a 4-lane city street alone by listening to traffic. It was very scary! Later, my trainer reassured me he wasn’t far behind.

They taught us kitchen skills like measuring dry goods and liquids, but I’d already taught myself at home to cook, do laundry, and type my wife’s grocery list. I formerly worked at a local company, but now work part time for them from home with my talking computer.

We were also blessed with two local associations which assist the blind and visually handicapped. One provided mobility training at home and assisted Ed in obtaining employment. The other association coordinated Ed’s 6-month stay at The Carroll Center for the Blind, also acting as liaison between his employer and the state to provide the right adaptive equipment and computer for his job. These are excellent resources to seek in your area should you, or someone you know, have vision loss.

I hope these questions and answers help you know a little more about what it’s like to have vision loss in a world that depends on sight.

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I absolutely love this post. Thanks, Ed, for taking the time to share so thoughtfully and honestly. You have given all of us a gift. 

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Staci, Ed says "Thank you very much, and may this bless someone else going through vision loss."