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Into The Light-a Personal Journey

After 53 years of perfect or near perfect vision, a routine eye examination revealed that I was suffering from a fairly advanced case of diabetic retinopathy. At that time, my "E chart" test was quite up to expectation for a man of my age. The ophthalmologist seemed somewhat surprised at this fact, in view of the extent of the retinopathy he had observed. The doctor recommended a course of laser treatment which continued for the next four years. During that time my vision gradually deteriorated until, at age 57, I completely lost the sight in one eye and had a victrectomy operation on the other. The operation failed. I lost what little vision I had.

Having had between three and four years advance warning of this probable outcome, I was not totally unprepared for the need to make some major adjustments in my life. At the suggestion of my ophthalmologist, I agreed to go to the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) to register as a legally blind client. Frankly, at that time, I knew virtually nothing about the CNIB. I was surprised when the social worker asked me how the CNIB could be of help. I told him I would need to know what sort of help was available before I could sensibly answer his question. He said "Well, it depends on what you want." Eventually, this verbal tennis match fizzled out. I was invited to attend an introductory seminar describing the CNIB services and aids. To this day, I have never understood why the social worker took this approach. Perhaps he was simply following the then current CNIB policy. I do know, however, that several of my blind friends experienced somewhat similar frustrations.

The seminar was more informative. I eventually registered for a series of rehabilitation sessions as well as instruction in touch typing, Braille and mobility. To be honest, I was quite satisfied at that time with the quality of the instruction given because I carried with me the low expectations and stereotypical assumptions about blindness that I had held when I could see. Unfortunately, many of these incorrect assumptions remain entrenched in the minds of the public. Sadly, even the blind themselves, and some of the professional instructors who should know better, buy into these false notions.

Since I was introduced to the philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), my own attitudes have changed. This was particularly true after I attended state and national NFB conventions and saw blind people putting that philosophy into practise. I gradually came to understand that given the training and opportunity, a well motivated blind person could compete on the basis of equality with his/her sighted compatriots in almost any field of endeavor. This is not just wishful thinking, because today, more than at any other time in history, blind people are succeeding in virtually every profession and trade, in business and in politics. Yes, there are blind Ph.D.'s, educators, lawyers, carpenters, mechanics, computer operators and politicians.

So what's the problem? There are many problems. In the first place, basic blind skills and advanced job-related training facilities are completely inadequate. Secondly, even when a blind person has received adequate training and has become competent in a given field, opportunities to demonstrate his or her abilities are severely limited. Finally, misinformation, incorrect assumptions and a simple lack of belief in the ability of the blind to perform productive work combine to slow down the inevitable advance of the blind to full equality.

What shall we do, then, to overcome these obstacles? The NFB in the United States, with 55 years of experience and over 50,000 members, has shown us the way and continues to do so. Its achievements in the fields of state and federal legislation, comprehensive blindness skill training facilities, the use of technology to enhance access to information for the blind, its organizational achievements and especially its successes in the fields of advocacy and education show us in the NFB:AE where we should be going and how to get there. Lip service to the quest for equality will just not do it! Only a deep seated and genuine belief, together with matching actions, will lead us into the light. From the Editor: The Canadian Monitor has published several articles about the philosophical basis for rehabilitation advocated by the NFB. This story first appeared in the July 2, 1989, edition of the Rocky Mountain News Sunday magazine. It was later reprinted in the January, 1990, edition of the Braille Monitor. Most of us would not consider taking up rock climbing. At first glance the sport seems to have little to do with Braille, can travel, and daily living skills ordinarily considered part of a good rehabilitation program. But rehabilitation is far more than learning skills. It's a process of expanding belief in one's ability to take on the ordinary and extraordinary challenges of life. Good rehabilitation challenges bad stereotypes. It also emphasizes the necessity to work with other blind people to educate the well intentioned but misinformed public. Not surprisingly blind rehabilitation students are part of the public and have adopted many of the misconceptions they must learn to challenge. Blind Canadians need rehabilitation programs which teach skills, change attitudes and encourage students to work together with other blind people to advocate broader societal change. The following story describes one concrete example of the power this philosophy can have to change lives.

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