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Blind Inc a New Dimension of Blindness

Editor's Note: When Ken Westlake went blind nearly twelve years ago it didn't take him long to learn what a devastating impact blindness could have. He was diagnosed on Wednesday and was let go by his employer on Friday. There followed a whole series of efforts to get training and meaningful work. Because he still had useable vision and was very good at adapting to each additional visual loss it appeared that his needs were not urgent. Yet he was still a blind person. Having ten percent or less of normal sight inevitably means that it is impossible to operate efficiently without using the alternative techniques of blindness. Without the proper attitude and the confidence to explain blindness positively to potential employers, blindness can be a devastating handicap and a barrier to finding work. It became clear to Ken that he needed intensive training. With the support and encouragement of the NFB:AE, B.C. Vocational Rehabilitation Services funded him to attend a 9-month training course at Blindness Learning in New Dimensions. Here is Ken's description of the program.

I spent nine months at BLIND INC. from September 1996 to June 1997. The first thing that impressed me about the Centre was probably the least important in the long run. It is located in a beautiful building.

This is a 29,000 square foot building that was originally built as the home of the Pilsbury family at 22nd Street South and First Avenue East in Minneapolis, Minnesota. This is about two and a half miles south south-east of the city centre. There is an elevator that accesses all four floors. The basement contains the industrial arts area, an area that is mostly used by the older blind classes, and a room that houses the NewsLine computer.

The main floor includes the entrance foyer, the Graduation Ceremony Room, some general office areas, a main dining room, laundry room, and a gas and electric kitchen with a small dining room.

Up the grand staircase is the second floor. Here, one finds the life class area, the library, the computer class area, the Braille classroom, and the travel classroom. On the third floor is a living suite with bedrooms, an exercise room, and some storage areas. Outside, there is a parking area, some areas of grass, and plant bedding areas where herbs and vegetables are grown.

Most of the students stay in an apartment block that is about a mile and a half from the school. There are plenty of buses, shopping, restaurants and other amenities, just as you would expect in any large city. Most students are at the school full-time. A few are part-time students which means that they are there to learn one or two separate skills.

Those who are there full time are enrolled in a program which includes: Braille and computer instruction, travel, home management, industrial arts, life and business seminar instruction.

Most of these courses are self explanatory, but some may need more description. In home management and life, you learn cooking, cleaning, shopping, planning, bank book management, how to identify money and keep track of it effectively, how to choose tactile watches and other specialized aids for the blind, and hiring and managing readers and drivers.

In industrial arts, you work with power tools and learn to use them safely. Travel is more than orientation and mobility-it's getting out and going places in all sorts of weather, visiting places such as art museums, sculpture parks and restaurants. Business is where the issues and attitudes that relate to blindness are discussed.

All of the training is done using sleep shades to emulate total blindness. You start each class at your level of competence and strive to improve. For instance, in the travel class, the first day you may learn to get safely around the building, the second day, around the complex, the third day, around the block, and so on.

There are tests of achievement that happen during the course. In the home management program, you cook a small meal for six with three courses and then a large meal for about thirty that will be served in a buffet style. In the travel program, you will receive two drop-offs where you are taken out in a van to an unknown area and can use either a bus or walk back to the school. Then there is one drop-off where you must walk back. Finally, there is the graduation walk, in which you are given a route of about five miles through Minneapolis. Currently, this takes you twice across the Mississippi River, once near St. Andrews Falls, which sounds great from the Central Avenue bridge. When these, or other accomplishments of note are made, it is customary to ring the Freedom Bell, so that all of those who are at the school can celebrate the fact that something of merit has been achieved.

When I started at BLIND INC., I thought I was mainly going to learn about computers. I didn't think I could learn Braille because when I'd tried before my fingers had gone numb after a few minutes. I thought I could already travel pretty well with the cane so I didn't think I would have much to learn there. They worked with me on Braille and I learned the code using a slate and stylus. It took a long time before I could build up any speed and I was really discouraged, but I have got to the point where I can read for over an hour without my fingers going numb. I've read my first short book. All of this made me think that I might have been limiting myself a little too much. Cane travel was harder than I expected under sleep shades. I kept veering off course and wondered if I would ever be able to cross the street safely. But I did my three drop-offs and the graduation walk. They rang the Freedom Bell for me.

We are now getting closer to what BLIND INC. is really about. The big building, and the city amenities are useful, but there are other organizations in Canada and around the world that have big buildings, and much administration, but don't accomplish much. It isn't the building that makes BLIND INC. different. It is the attitude and the staff that make the difference. There are no handrails on the walls at BLIND INC. so that you can drag yourself around. You do not leave your white cane at the door, but take it with you everywhere you go, both in the building and outside. The attitude is, "With training and opportunity, blindness CAN be reduced to being only a nuisance." When there is a problem, they don't look to see how the rest of the world can be made to accommodate you, but how you can solve the problem yourself. Skills are taught, but without the proper atmosphere, they wouldn't be learned. You work toward the point of going wherever you want to go whenever you want to go there and doing whatever you intend to do. You go without audio signal crossings, or sighted guides. You go whether you know the neighbourhood or not. You just go.

The past is filled with horror stories of treatment of blind individuals and their families. Stories in which lack of training and opportunity and negative public attitudes lead to poverty and injustice for blind people. The purpose of BLIND INC. and of the Federation philosophy is to give blind people what they need to change those attitudes individually and collectively. It is important to get the skills and confidence to become employed before dependency on the Welfare system grinds you and your family down.

There is a sixty percent unemployment rate among the general population of working age blind in the United States. In Canada it is much higher. While I was at BLIND INC., there was a graduation ceremony for one of the students. This woman's Vocational Rehabilitation Counsellor was at the graduation and I recall that she said that something like twenty-eight of the last twenty-nine people that she had sent to BLIND INC. were working at meaningful jobs, and the other person was in school on the way to employment. Quite a difference to the current situation, in my estimation, and a good indication of where our society's resources should be going. I think we need a school like BLIND INC. in Canada. There are still people who are being defeated and discouraged because they have become blind and this has to stop. I believe that schools like BLIND INC. will teach the skills, and the attitude of the Federation will give blind individuals the power to use those skills. Blind people will find jobs and take their lives back from the agencies that now consider that they own them.

As I said at the beginning, I can only tell you a little about BLIND INC. I hope that I have told you enough. However, I think you should find out more yourself about what interests you. Perhaps you may even decide that there is something there that you should be learning.