Braille Monitor                                                                                                       May 2004

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Center Helps Those Who Recently Lost Sight
t
o Relearn Life's Skills

by Sam Tranum

From the Editor: The following article appeared on January 15, 2004, in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. In a state as riddled with agencies accredited by the National Accreditation Council for Agencies Serving People with Blindness or Visual Impairment (NAC) as Florida is, it is not surprising that many blind people are frustrated at the lack of effective skills training, particularly for older people who are losing their sight.

Carolyn Lapp is president of the Palm Beach Chapter of the NFB of Florida. In desperation at the complete lack of effective services, she organized classes for seniors who needed help to learn to live with vision loss. It is also no surprise that the reaction of the NAC-accredited agency in the area would be to bad-mouth the effort and to send the reporter to talk with a blind person who could be counted upon to decry the notion of blind people teaching other blind people. Here is the story:

Two years ago John Trabulsi had 20/20 vision. Today he is blind. Now that diabetes has taken his vision, he must relearn how to make his way through the world. It takes some adjustments, some new skills.

That's why Trabulsi, sixty-two, goes to the Florida Outreach Center for the Blind's classes. On Monday, after some practice reading Braille and a session on dealing with stress, students worked on making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

"I don't know how much peanut butter I have on the knife," Trabulsi fretted. "How am I supposed to figure it out? I like a lot of peanut butter."

Other students and group leader Carolyn Lapp did their best to guide him. It was the often-joked-about situation of the blind leading the blind.

That's just the way Lapp, president of the Palm Beach County chapter of the advocacy group National Federation of the Blind, likes it. That's part of the reason she started the center about nine months ago. She says it's the only place in Palm Beach County where blind instructors teach blind students independent-living skills. The other part is that she simply didn't think there were adequate services for blind people in the county.

Trabulsi goes to four or five classes and groups in an effort to stay busy and avoid sitting home alone. He says learning from blind teachers such as Lapp has advantages.

"There's no doubt about it. When you have instruction from somebody who is blind, they already know what you're going through," Trabulsi said. "The other counselors who just go to school, they don't have that experience."

It seemed to work pretty well Monday. The center still is hunting for a permanent location, so classes are in the Piccadilly Cafeteria in West Palm Beach. About twelve people, with varying amounts of vision, showed up. They sat in front of cafeteria trays loaded with jars of peanut butter and jelly, butter knives, plates, and slices of bread.

Lapp suggested digging a little peanut butter out of the jar and starting to spread it from the middle of the bread outward. Pretty soon everyone was done, and many were munching on their work.

Lapp has big plans for her new center. She envisions a Florida Outreach Center for the Blind that hires blind people to help other blind people. To make it all happen, she is searching for grant money and a 2,500-square-foot location.

Dawn Clemons, a spokeswoman for the Lighthouse for the Blind of the Palm Beaches, took exception to Lapp's claim that Palm Beach County didn't have adequate services for the blind. She said the Lighthouse had been doing a very good job as the primary nonprofit organization serving the nearly 43,000 blind and visually impaired county residents.

Clemons said having blind instructors is less important than having qualified instructors. She said Lighthouse hires instructors certified to teach people with visual disabilities.

Rosanna Lippen, a spokeswoman for the Broward County chapter of the advocacy group Florida Council of the Blind, also thinks sight doesn't prevent someone from being able to teach blind people effectively. "A lot of times a blind teacher will give a better perspective," said Lippen, who is blind. "But there are times when you need a sighted person. If I was newly blind, and somebody who is blind is going to show me how to get around, I would not have that trust."

Despite the disagreements on philosophy, it's good that Lapp took the initiative to fill what she saw as a gap in services, said Sam Atwood, a client advocate for the Florida Division of Blind Services. "I think that the more people take responsibility for their own progress, the better they will do," he said.

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