by Kevin Allenspach
From the Editor: In October Federationists work especially hard to bring our message of what it means to be blind to the public during Meet the Blind Month. The effort doesn’t have to be difficult or complicated; it needs to be genuine, friendly, and appealing to people looking for a little good news amongst all the controversy and discontent that fill our daily news. The following article appeared in the St. Cloud Times on October 31, 2010:
Mary Beth Moline and Gail Gruber-Bengston have been friends for nearly fifty years, so they know one another about as well as can be, considering neither can really say what the other looks like. Moline and Gruber-Bengston are blind, virtually since birth. Moline said she was told her eyes stopped developing even before she was born. Gruber-Bengston was also born with defective optic nerves, though she later has been able to see basic shapes and outlines with the help of very strong glasses.
They grew up in St. Cloud and met in grade school at the former Washington Elementary, where Gruber-Bengston was in the sixth grade and Moline was in the first. They learned Braille from Freda Showalter, who taught them a lot more too.
"She had these squeaky shoes–think she wore them on purpose–so we always knew where she was or when she was coming," Gruber-Bengston said. "She taught us to listen. There is so much you can be aware of if you concentrate and listen. We used to have this ball we'd play with. It beeped, and we'd pass it around the circle. I used to call it the 'green satellite.' There were nine of us in class, and we were playing, and it got lost. We asked her to find it, and she said, 'No, you find it.' It was one of the first instances where she was trying to teach us independence."
Gruber-Bengston and Moline have been pursuing it ever since, and the rapid expansion of technology in the past fifteen years has helped them achieve it like never before. It's something they celebrated during October, which is Meet the Blind Month–sponsored by the National Federation of the Blind. Gruber-Bengston and Moline are active members.
Moline worked two stints at Fingerhut, most recently from 1985-2002, answering phones, transferring calls, and taking messages. She started out on an electric typewriter. “I typed messages and lay them out on my desk, and people would walk by, and the air current would sometimes blow messages onto the floor and all over the place," Moline said. "Then in 1994, I got my first computer."
Compared with the software today it was archaic, but it was a breakthrough. Before long, text-to-speech technology became available, and now Gruber-Bengston and Moline can communicate with each other as well as anybody else on the planet via email. A program, Job Access with Speech, nicknamed JAWS, is integral to a blind person’s working in the sighted world. And the opening of the Internet to the blind has led both to a vast array of information that otherwise would've been unavailable to them unless they got it in Braille or had someone read it.
"Oh, how I wish we'd had this technology when we were growing up," said Gruber-Bengston, fifty-nine, a 1971 Technical High School graduate. "Now I can read “Dear Abby,” I listen to the St. Cloud Times through the Minnesota Radio Talking Book Program, and there are a variety of old-time radio stations out there–including one I listen to, run by blind disc jockeys. In the 1970s and well into the 80s there was no assistive technology like this."
Gruber-Bengston moved through several jobs after she graduated from the Minneapolis Society for the Blind. She worked in the Twin Cities at a law firm, then for the Minnesota Migrant Council. Later she came back to St. Cloud and worked for an answering service. There she met her husband, Jim Bengston, who was sighted. He died two years ago. She keeps busy now as a secretary for the Central Minnesota Chapter of the NFB, by volunteering, and by playing bingo on Wednesday nights with a group of sighted friends. (She uses Braille bingo cards.)
Moline is also an active volunteer. She has collated ninety-five thousand volunteer cards for the United Way, ties yarn on quilt projects at Catholic Charities, and teaches preschool and elementary crafts at her church--Northland Bible Baptist.
"If people meet us, I hope they treat us the same as they would their sighted friends," said Moline, fifty-four. "You should know there are a lot of things we can do for ourselves. We just do them in different ways. But don't be afraid to hire a blind person when they're qualified for a job, and don't be too shy to come up and talk with us. I actually think it's fun when people describe things to me that I might be seeing."
Just don't grab a blind person because you think they need help, Gruber-Bengston says. Ask first. "That can disorient you, and you may fall or lose your bearings," she said, then joked, "Oh, and don't point when you're giving directions."