The Braille Monitor                                                                                       July 2003

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Nebraska Rehab Center Recognized

From the Editor: The Nebraska Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired conducts an adult training center that embraces the principles and teaches the philosophy and healthy attitudes that characterize all the training programs influenced by the National Federation of the Blind. This is hardly surprising since Federationists have been active in this program for years. On May 20, 2002, Cory Golden devoted his monthly column in the Lincoln Journal Star to the center. This is what he said:

Dave Samson stood on the corner of 48th and O Streets in Lincoln. He held his breath. He thought, "I am going to die."

"Let's just stand here for a while and listen to the cycle of the lights," instructor Jeff Altman said.

Six lanes of traffic, rumbling and breezing by. When the cars next to you stop, you stop too, because then the cars in front of you will be moving. Simple, right?

"I have a pit in my stomach the size of a basketball," Samson said.

"That's good," said Altman. Then Samson stepped from the curb, cane arcing back and forth. He made it.

"It's the neatest thing in the world to have your freedom," Samson said last week after three months at the orientation center for the Nebraska Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired. "I don't get led around like a dog anymore."

Recently Samson walked alone from the center at 4600 Valley Road to 11th and P Streets, where the center's students live in apartments. That's more than three miles.

"He's going to do what? How?" asked twenty-four‑year‑old Amy Purdie, a newcomer to the center, when Samson left that day. Samson, thirty-one, is from Nebraska City; Purdie is from Grand Island; nineteen‑year‑old Christina Georges is from Schubert. Each has vision of 20/400 or worse, but they are a typically mixed group of center clients.

Georges lost her sight as a premature newborn. Her parents, she said, gave her freedom others might not have-‑letting her become a barrel racer, for one, despite days she has to trust her horse as much or more than her sight.

Samson has a degenerative condition that began a steady march to darkness when he was a child. He gave up studying medicine only to realize, as a husband and father, that he "still needed to be Dad."

Purdie had 20/20 eyesight as recently as five months ago, only to have pressure on her optic nerve steal her vision. A painter and sculptor, she was studying psychology and commercial art.

The government estimates 7.9 million Americans are blind, 48,190 of them Nebraskans.

Center director Fatos Floyd, a Turkey native, lost her own sight when surgeons removed a brain tumor when she was eighteen. She said most blind people lose vision as adults (diabetes is the most common cause) and that about 90 percent have some vision left.

What unites Samson, Purdie, and Georges is a hunger for independence. At the center, day by day, they have learned the five tenets of the program:

        Attitude. Blindness is a characteristic, like being a woman or being Latino. It should not define them, said Floyd: "I don't wake up and say, `Oh no, I'm blind again today,' I think, `Where's my coffee?'"

        Skills. Here they learn everything: how to use the white cane, read Braille, use computers, cook and clean, even build things.

        Dealing with the sighted world. This amounts to educating sighted people that a blind person can do just fine on his own. The blind are neither superhuman--able to hear a pin drop five miles away--nor are they usually deaf (Floyd calls being shouted at by a McDonald's employee, for example, "Helen Keller Syndrome").

        Work. "Airline pilot is probably out of the question," goes a running joke at the center, but few other jobs should be. Floyd said 76 percent of blind people nationally are unemployed, though it takes relatively little to make, say, an office accessible for a blind employee. Just 10.2 percent of center graduates are unemployed.

        Giving back. "It's important for the blind and the community they live in to have them participate," Floyd said.

During their months of study-‑the average stay is seven months-‑center clients wear sleep shades during the day so they can practice their skills without the aid of vision. Along with regular classes like cane travel, seminars cover everything from dating to job interviews.

On group outings counselors aim to explode myths about what the blind can't do, for the benefit of clients and the public. They go fishing. They ride horses. They try archery. Yes, archery. Bells locate the target for clients, Floyd said, who hit more than their share of bullseyes.

The center's unofficial motto, Purdie said, is "Do it your own damn self." It has not been easy. She said learning cane travel at first was "petrifying." But just days ago she had her own breakthrough. She made it to the bus stop on the first try and, in the same week, managed to circle the block on her own-‑a challenge that once nearly drove her to quit.

Samson said his most trying moment came taking a college algebra class using Braille. When he struggled, he went to Floyd. She said gently that he'd make it through, and he has-‑after realizing learning math after years away was the root of his problem, not his blindness.

Along the way they've had to teach their families and friends. Purdie said her well‑meaning mom once put her shoes in front of her and pointed out which was which. Samson caught his wife squeezing his hand when they approached street corners. But friends can learn too.

Samson said on a trip home to Nebraska City he worked up the nerve to see a friend. He walked over. His friend answered the door and said, looking at Samson's cane, "When we go hunting, you're going to have to camouflage that thing. It'll scare the deer."

Another street corner: Samson stands alone, waiting. A man stops his car across the street. He shouts, "Don't go, man, the light's red."

Samson yells back: "No kidding!" Moments like that are funny but frustrating. It's someone taking Purdie's elbow or trying to lead Georges by her cane.

"We know where we're going," Samson said. Samson is returning to college and considering becoming a counselor for other blind people. Georges has plans to become a massage therapist for horses. Purdie is considering a career as a recreational therapist.

"Losing my sight is the best thing that could have happened to me," Samson said. "Instead of being caught up in a world of wishes and maybes, it forced me to be who I am. So I can't drive. Big deal. The important part is not how you get downtown. It's what you do when you get there."

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