Top 5 Burning Questions about Blindness

Top 5 Burning Questions about Blindness

Most people have never met, let alone interacted, with someone who is blind. Naturally, they have many questions, both about blindness and visual impairment and how we go about our daily lives. Those of us who are blind often get questions from curious individuals who have always wondered about what it is like to be blind. Below are five of the most frequent questions we get.

  1. Do people who are blind or visually impaired have stronger senses?

Most people find it amazing to see someone who is blind or severely visually impaired crossing streets, being able to tell different noises apart and so on. This can only mean that after we lost our sight, our other senses improved. Actually, there is no research or proof that our senses of hearing, taste, smell or touch are physiologically stronger. Without being able to see, we have to rely on them to do just about everything. Simply put, we have to pay more attention and use our remaining four senses a little more than everyone else.

  1. Can people who are blind see in their dreams?

This really depends on each person, and when they became blind. People who were born without sight or – like me – lost it early on – do not have any type of visual images in our dreams. Still, we are able to feel, taste, smell and even hear things in our dreams. People who lost their sight later on in life still have visual images in their dreams, even years after the vision loss. Interestingly enough, a recent study showed that people who are totally blind are four times more likely to have nightmares than people with sight.

  1. What do guide dogs do?

A guide dog is specially trained to safely guide someone who is blind or visually impaired. The handler tells the dog where to go by giving him directions (such as forward, left and right), and the dog leads the person. Guide dogs are allowed in all public places in the United States. This list of frequently asked questions about guide dogs gives more information on what these animals do.

  1. Do all people who are blind read Braille?

Only 10 percent of people who are blind have absolutely no vision, and the remaining 90 percent are able to see at  least some print. Even among people with no vision, only 10 percent read and write Braille. Most people use audio or large print to read print materials. Adaptive technology like screen readers, magnifying software and many other devices have made it much easier for people with vision loss to access print materials.

  1. How long does it take to learn Braille? Learn to travel with a cane or dog guide? Use computers?

Again, this really depends on each person. Everyone learns at a different pace and style, and training can take from a few months to years. Learning things like Braille or assistive technology might be easier for someone who has been blind all or most of their life, while people who lose their vision later on may have more difficulties. Having information and resources as well as maintaining a positive attitude and being persistent are keys to overcoming challenges!

What other questions do you have about living with blindness or visual impairment? Please share and we will answer them in future posts!

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Commentary: The Endless Possibilities of ‘Touchable’ Ink

Ink that can be touched seems like something out of a science fiction movie, but may soon be in the market. Developers at J. Walter Thompson Bangkok and Thammasat University in Thailand created what they call a “touchable ink” which dilates under certain thermal conditions, resulting in an embossed effect people can touch. The ink can print Braille and regular letters as well as other shapes and patterns. According to its developers, the ink works with normal paper on a standard printer. It is currently being tested by the Thailand Association for the Blind.

Without a doubt, Braille embossers and other special equipment to create tactile drawings can be incredibly expensive. A basic embosser that only prints Braille text costs around $2,000, while more sophisticated machines to produce raised drawings will cost upwards of $5,000. The special paper needed for these embossers is not readily available in local stores, and often costs more than standard paper. A single page of paper to create tactile drawings costs about a dollar. With such high costs, it’s no wonder many of us don’t have this technology in our homes.

Many blind children and adults around the world do not know how to read and write Braille because they simply cannot afford such pricy equipment. I often see news stories from underdeveloped countries that are seeking donations of Braille machines and other material. The schools for the blind in those countries have no or outdated equipment. I think that if the new ink became widely available, it would be sold at a low price and schools or other institutions could potentially afford it. Since it is supposed to work on a standard printer, they wouldn’t have to purchase expensive embossers. Of course, it’s too soon to know if or when that will happen.

I think that if successful, this ink has an enormous potential of assisting people with vision loss of all ages. Young students will have immediate access to worksheets and other class handouts in Braille. They would no longer have to wait for their teacher of the visually impaired to transcribe the material, since the classroom teacher could do it herself on a regular printer. It would also become much easier and cheaper to produce tactile drawings of shapes, animals, people, maps and virtually anything we can think of. In other words, this innovative product has the potential of changing how people who are blind visualize the world.

Although this so called “touchable ink” is still under development, the possibilities for its use are endless. Assuming this new ink reaches the market, it will significantly revolutionize how Braille and tactile drawings are produced. Special equipment or paper will no longer be needed, and that means that virtually anyone will be able to print Braille and other raised drawings. I sure cannot wait to literally get my hands on this new ink!

Happy National Occupational Therapy Awareness Month!

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April is National Occupational Therapy month. Celebrated since 1980 by The American Occupational Therapy Association, it aims to create awareness about this broad and growing profession and about how occupational therapists help individuals live life to the fullest. People with vision loss of all ages can benefit greatly from working with OT professionals. This week I spoke with Laura Hayes, an occupational therapist at The Chicago Lighthouse for five years, and she shared with me some of the many ways in which OT can help those with low vision.

Occupational therapists work with people of all ages who have all types of disabilities and health conditions. Treating patients with vision loss is a specialized and emerging area, and currently few therapists work specifically with this population. As with any other patients, the therapy is tailored to their needs and lifestyle.

“We’re really looking at how can we teach individuals how to compensate, how can they adapt with their vision, how might they be able to modify their environments or some of the tools they use so that they’re still able to complete those daily activities that are meaningful to them,” said Laura. It all comes down to talking with patients about their goals and figuring out a plan so they can resume their activities without having to give them up because of their visual impairment.

Occupational therapists focus on working with patients on what is known as sensory substitution, or teaching them how to use audio and tactile devices. If a person has a severe vision impairment, then he or she might benefit from using devices like talking watches or labeling their microwave or washing machine with tactile markings.

Lighthouse occupational therapists also teach patients how to use magnifiers or other optical devices recommended by optometrists at our low vision clinic. They teach them, for example, how to read the label on a can of soup with a magnifier. Contrast is another area where patients often need help. Simple things like chopping a white onion on a black cutting board or putting contrast tape on the edge of stairs can make life easier and safer at home for patients with low vision.

Therapists often spend time in patients’ homes to get a better sense of their needs and environment. Laura says that the biggest advantage to this is that they can actually see firsthand the areas of difficulty and how they can help each individual. The majority of her patients are seniors with eye conditions like age related macular degeneration, glaucoma and diabetic retinopathy. She occasionally also sees younger patients. While she does not work with children with visual impairments, other occupational therapists do specialize on this population.

For Laura, occupational therapy has been a very rewarding profession.

“It’s a very fulfilling career, because you get to help people and there are so many ways you can go with it, so many people you can work with.”

She says that many patients are also extremely appreciative for the help they receive by working with occupational therapists.

“I’ve really had people say ‘I felt like there was not a lot of hope for me, I didn’t know what I could do… and now after coming to the Lighthouse… I realize there’s a lot of stuff I still can do.’”

For more information on how occupational therapy helps patients with visual impairment, visit this page from the American Occupational Therapy Association. To find out more about The Chicago Lighthouse’s low vision clinic, visit this link, or call 312-997-3668.

Seeing Pope Francis in Person: A True Blessing!

 

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Recently, I had the once in a lifetime opportunity of seeing Pope Francis in person during my vacation in Mexico. When my colleagues suggested I blog about my experience, I accepted for two reasons. Most people have probably seen news items about the Pope’s affection toward children, the elderly and people with disabilities. By this point, I am not surprised each time I see something in the news about those times when Pope Francis stops in the middle of his tracks to bless someone with a disability. I wanted to experience this for myself, even if he only saw and blessed me from a distance. Since this blog is about blindness and visual impairment, I also hope to describe what it is like to experience such a unique event as someone who is totally blind.

My parents and family are from Michoacan, a state in the western region of Mexico. Each year before the Ash Wednesday and Lent celebrations, Michoacan and many other states throughout Mexico have the Carnaval festivities. Simply put, Carnaval is the equivalent of Mardi Gras in New Orleans, and the celebrations consist of parades, a lot of food, music and having a good time for five days! I have always enjoyed the Carnaval, and try to go whenever possible. When my parents and I found out that Pope Francis would be visiting Mexicoimmediately following these festivities, we knew right then and there that this would be the perfect opportunity to at the very least get a glimpse of him.

Morelia is the capitol city of Michoacan, and Pope Francis would be there on Tuesday, February 16. Admittedly I am not a very religious person, but I have always respected and admired this and former popes for all they do for the church and world peace in general. Ever since I was a child, I have always wanted to see and get a blessing from the pope. To me, a blessing is more than a sign of good luck. My parents and grandparents always taught me that blessings are meant to bring protection from God in all aspects of life.

I suppose my parents and I were blessed even before our papal encounter, as we somehow managed to book hotel rooms at the very last minute! Pope Francis would be visiting the Morelia Cathedral, and the hotel was across the street from the church. So even though we would not be able to attend any of the masses or events, we would still get a chance to see him in the Popemobile. The pope was scheduled to be in that area at around 3 in the afternoon, but my parents and I decided to save our spot at 5 in the morning – we were determined to be as close to Pope Francis as possible!

We were not the only ones waiting outside at the crack of dawn, however. The sidewalks were already filled with pilgrims and other people who camped outside all night long. Street venders could also be seen and heard selling a variety of foods and souvenirs. As the day progressed, more and more people began lining up on the streets. Between chatting with some of our fellow hotel guests, buying souvenirs and posting a ton of pictures on Facebook, those 10 hours flew by before we knew it!

The excitement among the crowd grew as 3 p.m. got closer. All throughout the streets thousands of people erupted in cheers and with phrases like “viva el papa”, or “long live the pope!” We all stood up from our seats as soon as we heard the roaring of helicopter engines – we knew that meant that the Pope was near! While everyone else got their cameras ready to take pictures, I unfolded my cane. I figured that I could possibly get Pope Francis’s attention by waving it in the air when he was nearby. Maybe that way I could actually get him to bless us!

The cheers and chants became even louder when the Popemobile was in sight. “He’s about to come near us right now,” my mom and dad both exclaimed. Before I knew it, I raised my cane in the air and waved at Pope Francis. “Wow,” my mom said. “He gave you a blessing and saw us,” she continued with excitement in her voice. “Really?” I could not believe my ears! The emotions I experienced were beyond words. To say that I was excited and thrilled is an understatement.

My mom and I were hugging each other and we both burst into tears. This was something we wanted to experience for a long time, and it seemed surreal that it had finally happened. Although I couldn’t physically see Pope Francis, knowing that he had actually been near me and given us a blessing was more than enough. I certainly did not need my eyes to experience the happiness and peace I felt during those few seconds. My mom was able to capture a picture of that unforgettable moment, and thanks to that I have a souvenir to show others as proof of that wonderful day.

I consider myself extremely privileged on being part of history for many reasons. Pope Francis is the first Latin American Pope, and this was his first visit to Mexico. Over 90 percent of Mexicans are Catholic, so it was fitting that he paid a visit to this country. A pope had never visited Michoacan, so the fact that I had the opportunity of seeing him during my vacation was very special. Best of all, I experienced this surrounded by my family and loved ones. This made the experience even more meaningful, and is without a doubt a memory I will cherish for the rest of my life.

Guest Blogger: Sammi Grant on Life as a Blind Performer

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My name is Sammi Grant and I am a colleague of Sandy’s at The Chicago Lighthouse. Sandy is taking a well-deserved vacation and has asked me to be her guest blogger for the day… Happy to oblige!

About me… I have been visually impaired since the age of two and legally blind since 10. My main eye issue is glaucoma, but I have a few other minor eye conditions as well as other health issues. At The Chicago Lighthouse, I work part-time as financial development assistant and volunteer coordinator. My great passion in life, as well as my main career, is theater. I work as a professional dialect/vocal coach and voiceover artist.

I was one of those overactive children who was always forcing my family to watch me put on performances and puppet shows. Naturally, my parents put me in drama camp. Being on stage felt right and I knew from the age of 10 that I wanted to be an actor. There was no question. I went to five years of drama camp and auditioned for every single play I could in junior high and high school. I auditioned for and applied to 10 acting colleges and ended up going to my second choice BFA program with a hefty talent scholarship. Nothing could stop me… except the real and perceived limitations of my blindness.

Being visually impaired has always been a part of my identity. For most of my childhood, I didn’t feel I was different than my friends and peers. Glaucoma is degenerative, so my vision has become worse over time. The feeling of being different has also grown over time. In high school, I was just as angsty as the next teen and did not want to be known as the blind girl. This went as far as me avoiding using assistive technology in public and not using a cane at all. In theater, my teachers and directors expressed worries about my ability to get around stage on my own and move during scene changes. Admittedly, I did fall off a stage during a scene change at the age of twelve, so their concerns were not unjustified, if a little over protective.

By the time I got to college, I really could not get away with not using a cane. It would now be obvious to anyone I met that I was blind. My difference was unavoidable, so it was time to start excepting it. However, this journey to accepting myself would be challenged by my acting classes. For the first time, I was being told that my vision was a problem in the way of my acting beyond my safety on stage. I had one professor in particular who made it his mission to get rid of my blindisms. It took me a long time to realize that I was not the problem, he was the problem. I simply did not fit into a cookie cutter actor box, so he did not know how to teach me. I was not normal, so he judged and assumed that I could not learn like the other “normal” students. Most of my other professors got over this issue really quickly. It was through their pushing and prodding that I learned I was really my own biggest judge and source of prejudice.

During my last two years of school, I sank my teeth into dialect and voice work, which I discovered was a natural talent for me. I was the teaching assistant for the voice and speech class, I coached dialects for a few shows and I had a voiceover internship in which I recorded commercials for three local radio stations. My blindness did not inhibit my voice work or teaching at all, and it felt so great.

A couple of years after graduating college, I made the very difficult decision to no longer pursue acting. I was not happy with my acting career and was facing the same prejudice of talent and ability I had felt from that one professor in college. Even when I was in a show I was not totally comfortable. I felt I always had to prove I deserved to be there because I was blind. My vision was once again getting worse and it was presenting me with more challenges on stage. My passion for acting was dissipating. I was once again feeling that self-loathing and acting felt like a chore. However, I had just made a huge break in my coaching career. I no longer had to seek out work; it came to me. My voiceover work was developing steadily. I was scared that this decision meant I was giving up on my dream; it took some time to realize that dreams change. I was and am chasing a new dream and my self-acceptance as a person with a visual impairment is stronger than ever.

What Do People Who Are Blind See?

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I remember many instances when family, friends and even teachers were shocked to find out I could actually tell when lights were turned on or off. This was when I was a small child, so I really did not know how to explain what I could see or how that was possible. All I knew was that although I could not tell how people or things looked, I could still distinguish between light and dark.

 

The majority of people associate complete – or total – blindness with absolute darkness. After all, if you close your eyes you will only see black, so that must be what totally blind people “see.” This is actually a very common misconception reinforced by the media and our own assumptions. While only 18 percent of people with significant visual impairments are actually totally blind, most can at least perceive light. In other words, although we cannot see colors, shapes or people, we can still tell the difference between light and dark.

 

You are probably wondering what light perception is exactly. Simply put, when someone – like me – has light perception, he or she can tell there is a source of light, but wouldn’t be able to see the color. For example, if I’m near a Christmas tree with lights, I can tell they are flashing but can’t distinguish between the various colors or patterns. Some of the things I and most people who have light perception can “see” are things like sunlight, camera flashes, and the lights from computer monitors or television screens. Many of us can also tell when lights are on or off in a particular room.

 

The number of people with no light perception is unknown, but it is estimated to be less than 10 percent of totally blind individuals. Some people with no light perception still report seeing flashes of light, however. Damon Rose is a disability reporter for the BBC who has been totally blind since childhood. Although he has no light perception, he often gets flashes of light and color. In fact, in this personal account of his blindness, he says that what he misses the most of being able to see is darkness.

 

Some individuals with no light perception face challenges we often don’t think about. Non-24-Hour Sleep-Wake Disorder is a condition that can specifically affect this group. This is a circadian rhythm disorder affecting about 70 percent of people who are totally blind and have no light perception. Since these individuals are unable to tell the difference between light and dark, Non-24 causes their sleep patterns to be significantly interrupted.

 

As ironic as it is, there is no clear-cut answer to this commonly asked question. Like with anything else, blindness is different in each individual. Unlike the popular belief, most of us do not live in complete darkness, and even the amount of light perception varies from one person to the next. For another take on this popular and fascinating question, check out this video by Tommy Edison, the blind film critic. As always, I invite you to submit your questions about blindness or visual impairment by leaving a comment or sending an email to sandysview@chicagolighthouse.org.

Commentary: Using Virtual Reality to Cure Blindness

When I think about cataract surgery, the first thing that comes to mind is a simple procedure available practically anywhere. Unfortunately, that is only true in countries with adequate access to health care services. People living in third-world countries and remote regions have limited, if any, opportunity of even seeing an ophthalmologist or any type of eye care professional. Simply put, a cataract is a clouding of the lens that can impair someone’s vision. Sadly, this causes many people in the developing world to unnecessarily lose their sight. Over 20 million people are affected by cataracts, and according to the Rand Corporation, another 12 million will be affected by 2020.

 

The alarming statistics of those losing their sight due to cataracts in underdeveloped nations were shocking to say the least, and maybe it’s because I’m fortunate to live in a country where most patients with cataracts have immediate access to the latest developments in medicine. Typically, someone with cataracts can go to their eye doctor and take care of this problem in a matter of days or weeks. Unfortunately, many people in third-world countries will never have access to a general care doctor, let alone a cataract surgeon.

 

Several nonprofit organizations hope to reduce these numbers by teaching aspiring doctors in underdeveloped nations simple but effective cataract removal procedures. HelpMeSee and Cure Blindness are two such organizations, and both plan to teach medical students and doctors cataract surgery using different virtual reality methods. They hope that by combining this technology with hands-on experience, more physicians will be trained in these simple but important procedures. Most importantly, they hope to make the difference in the lives of countless individuals by preventing blindness and even restoring their sight.

 

As a long time technology user, I admit I’ve reached a point where I take these tools for granted. Of course, the fact that I’m blind allows me to appreciate the independence it gives me, but I rarely think about how it can help those who don’t have access to even basic medical care and other necessities. Learning about how these two nonprofits are using virtual reality to help cure a basic ailment really puts things into perspective. I am once again amazed at how modern technology can be used to help those in need have a better quality of life.

 

In contrast, not everyone utilizes technology to benefit mankind. All too often, the media reports stories about hackers and how they threaten our safety and security in today’s technologically driven world. I sure am glad to learn that others are using technology for what I think was its initial purpose: to make our lives better and easier. I find it extremely unfortunate and even disturbing that so many people with cataracts are still losing their sight unnecessarily. On the other hand, virtual reality and other technological and medical innovations give us all hope that these individuals will one day see a brighter future.