Braille Monitor                                                                                August-September 1986

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Alaska Program for the Blind Receives Recognition

(On Sunday, June 1, 1986, We Alaskans, The Anchorage Daily News Magazine featured the Louise Rude Center for the Blind and its Director, Jim Omvig. The Center is an example of Federationism in Action. Here are excerpts from the article, which was written by Kathleen McCoy.)

The Center: Hard Work, No Handouts

The Louise Rude Center for Blind Adults is more than a live-in training center for the blind. Director Jim Omvig calls it an "attitude factory."

If he could inject blind students with a massive dose of anything, it would be confidence. The confidence to do the same things sighted people do, but with different techniques. Not inferior techniques, Omvig would insist. Different techniques.

There are classes in cane travel, Braille, typing, and home economics; classes in computer use -- computers with voice boxes and computers that coordinate with Braille writing machines.

And, most important, there's a daily afternoon philosophy class in which students and teachers discuss the truth of blindness.

A few afternoons in the philosophy class quickly reveal what the truth of blindness is. People staring at you and making comments about your white cane. Mothers pulling their babies away. An occasional waiter or bus driver who assumes that because you cannot see, you also cannot talk, you cannot think, you cannot do anything. . . .

The center's education is considered prevocational. It is designed for the newly blinded or a blind person who has received no training in how to handle blindness. The Alaska Division of Vocational Rehabilitation is actually responsible for rehabilitation services for blind adults, but it contracts with the non-profit Louise Rude Center for Blind Adults for these courses. The center is tuition-free for Alaska residents; the DVR provides living expenses for food and other essentials while students attend the center's nine-month course.

The center's approach to handling blindness is three-fold. First, blind students learn different ways to do the same things as sighted people. That includes anything from cooking a souffle to accessing computer files to traveling on public transportation.

Second, students learn to accept their blindness. This is hardest for those who have some residual sight. They often would rather fake sight than admit they cannot see. For these students, the school insists on sleep shades. This decreases fear because they learn what total blindness is like and how to handle it; this also gives them a repertoire of skills. If their limited sight works in one situation, they can use it. But if it doesn't, they have other techniques to fall back on.

The third part of the program is learning to deal with the public's perceptions of blindness. Louise Eads, blind since birth and an instructor at the center, says this is probably the toughest part of the program. Either it's "Poor blind people, they can't do anything," or "Isn't that amazing what blind people can do." The afternoon philosophy class, attended by all students and the school's five full-time faculty members, is where these public attitudes are most often discussed. The Louise Rude Center for Blind Adults, the first residential training center for the blind in Alaska, is named after a woman who advanced the cause of blind education in this state. In 1975, when she went blind and needed new skills, there was no training available for her in Alaska. Rude was sent to Seattle for cane travel and other blind skills. When she came back to Alaska, she lobbied for a quality, in-state training center. According to Sandy Sanderson, president of the National Federation of the Blind of Alaska, Rude "created" the center. It opened in 1977, and has graduated an estimated 500 students.

When Omvig became head of the center in October 1984, it was a small operation at the Alaska Treatment Center, serving day students only. The 1984 Legislature, through the efforts of Louise Rude, had allocated $600,000 to build a four-student residential cottage. But Omvig used the money to purchase and convert a five-unit apartment building into an eleven-student-live-in training center. Because he'd used all the money to get a building, there was no money left for furniture. Donations up to $40,000 by state Lions' clubs, of which Omvig is a member, furnished the entire center. Eighteen months after he arrived, Omvig, staff, and students moved in.

Located in a quiet Spenard neighborhood, the center is near restaurants, bus connections, and grocery stores--all things students need to perfect their blind skills.

On a recent tour of the center, Omvig paused in front of the exercise room; it reminded him of a fitness regime he once instituted at the Iowa Commission for the Blind. Every day at 6:00 a.m., he and the other residents were up and exercising before breakfast. That took discipline, and discipline is a part of Omvig's personal philosophy.

"You have to learn to do what you don't want to do when you don't want to do it," he said. "Then you can do what you want--when you want--much easier."

In a sentence, that's Jim Omvig. It is the underlying fabric of his life, and of life at the Louise Rude Center for Blind Adults. Omvig cuts no slack for himself, and none for his students. "The goal here is to get equal treatment and equal opportunity," he said. "Not handouts. "

The Director: Proving the Blind Can Prosper

If ever there was a role model suited to his task, Jim Omvig is the man. Degeneration of his retinas caused him to go blind at seventeen. He has walked in the footsteps of every student at Alaska's Louise Rude Center for Blind Adults, where he works as director. First you deny it. Omvig used to joke that he was "just a little hard of seeing." He refused to use the word "blind."

As a young man back in Iowa, "People who didn't know me well didn't know I couldn't see. If I went into someone's house and they asked me to have a seat, I'd say, 'No, thanks, I've been sitting all day.' I didn't have the guts to say, 'Yes, Where's the chair?"' Before his eyesight left completely, he earned $1 an hour loading butter onto trucks at a creamery. At the Iowa Braille and Sight Saving School, he took classes in English and basic education, but he also studied rug weaving--''things blind people can do." Braille was offered, but when his family requested the class for him, teachers noted he could still read large print--about 30 or 40 words per minute. "Let him be sighted as long as he can," Omvig remembers them saying.

Students didn't learn how to travel with a cane. Sighted students led blind students aroung the tiny town in which the school was located. Any tours of the school were conducted by sighted students.

"Nobody would have said it, but it was implied in everything at the school. The blinder you are, the more incompetent you are."

Today he refers to his early teachers as "not evil, but uneducated."

Six months after he graduated, Omvig went completely blind. He rejected his future as a rug weaver or chair caner, so he sat in his parents' house for eight years doing nothing.

Then the revolution came. Kenneth Jernigan, a young leader of the blind, came to Iowa and revamped the Iowa Commission for the Blind. Jernigan's philosophy was that, with the right training and the right opportunities, blindness can be reduced to a nuisance. Jernigan had proved it true for himself. Blind at an early age, he'd been the product of the Tennessee School for the Blind. At graduation, he said he wanted to go to college and law school. A rehabilitation counselor told him it wasn't feasible for a blind person to become a lawyer. The counselor offered him college tuition to become a teacher, of the blind. A Tennessee farm boy, Jernigan accepted. But he never lost sight of his philosophy. After college, he taught in schools for the blind, eventually becoming head of the Iowa Commission for the Blind. finally, he had the chance to prove his philosophy: Blindness can be no more troublesome than being born left-handed in a right handed world. To make it work, a blind person must accept blindness and learn alternative ways to do the same things sighted people do.

Omvig was one of his first disciples. He tells of their first encounter:

Jernigan: "Are you blind?"

Omvig: "No, sir. I'm just a little hard of seeing."

Jernigan: How many fingers am I holding up?"

Omvig guessed wrong.

Jernigan: You are blind. How old are you?"

Omvig: "Twenty-five."

Jernigan: "You've got another 50 years on this Earth. What are you gonna do?"

Nobody had put it to Omvig quite like that before. He enrolled. But before he moved in, he tried one last, desperate attempt to get his sight back. He laughs about the foolishness today.

"I had an aunt who went to this chiropractic clinic in South Dakota. She thought they were miracle workers. She convinced me to go down there and see if they could help me.

"I spent every dime I had. And I got my neck rubbed. It felt good."

But he didn't get his eyesight back.

"There is such an assumption that the only way you can truly be happy and successful is with sight. I had my last little fling at trying for it."

Then he became a soldier in the civil rights war for the blind. After taking Braille, cane travel, and philosophy classes at the Iowa Commission for the Blind, he finished a political science degree and enrolled in Loyola University School of Law. After graduation, it took him a year to get a job. There seemed to be no market for attorneys. Blind attorneys, that is. At one of his firt interviews, the hiring attorney told him:

"We hired a blind attorney here once. It didn't work out."

Omvig asked to be judged as an individual. "Hire me, and if I don't work out, fire me."

No progress. On his way out, Omvig stopped and said:

"Did you ever hire a sighted lawyer who didn't work out?"

Omvig eventually got on as a staff attorney for the National Labor Relations Board. He wanted a job as field investigator, but the agency was only comfortable giving him desk work. Omvig fought until he got that field job in New York City.

After spending several years traveling on his free weekends to make speeches for the National Federation of the Blind, Omvig decided he had to go into education for the blind. He saw one too many "sheltered workshops for the blind," places where blind people were paid as little as 25 cents per hour to put things together with their hands. Omvig recalls a man in South Dakota who lamented that there was no work for the blind in his state, "no industry that required simple, repetitive tasks."

The clincher for Omvig was the story of a former schoolteacher in New Hampshire who wanted to go back into the classroom after her own children were grown. She had become blind in the interim. But a rehabilitaton counselor told her it would be impossible. Instead, the counselor had in mind a sheltered workshop where the woman could earn $23 a week putting together small display boxes for wristwatches. When she continued to push for a teaching job, she was told point-blank: "It would hurt little sighted children to be taught by a blind person."

Omvig's future was sealed. On a speech-making trip to Alaska two years ago, he heard that the directorship of the Louise Rude School for Blind Adults was open. He applied and got the job.

I'm Jeff. I'm blind. That's OK.

Jeff Dalman is bound for Whittier. A little before eleven in the morning, he hops on the People Mover to downtown, gets off at the Hill Building, and heads toward the train depot several blocks away.

The trip is a test. Jeff wants to prove to himself that being blind is no more than a minor nuisance in his life. . . .

The students call it "termination" travel. At the end of their coursework at the Louise Rude Center for Blind Adults, they take a trip alone to a town they've never visited. Relying on confidence and skill, Jeff has been assigned by his teachers to go to Whittier by train. He's to buy some fresh halibut for a dinner back at the center, nail a postcard to his fellow students, inquire about a fishing charter from the harbormaster, and have himself a nice, sit-down dinner. At day's end, he'll catch the train back to Anchorage.

Besides carrying the white cane, he wears black sleep shades. Jeff is legally blind. Without the shades he still sees--objects, contrast and color. But he can't see detail -- a street sign on the corner, the color of a person's eyes. To read the words in a book, he must hold it within an inch or two of his eyes. His teachers call that blind. Forced to wear sleep shades, he can't pass as the sighted person he's attempted to be for 29 years. With sleep shades, he must embrace his blindness. . . .

"I took special ed classes in school--Braille, typing. But they kicked me out of Braille class for reading with my eyes. They said there'd be tape recorders and computers in the future. I wouldn't need the Braille.". . .

After high school came college and work. Jeff's experiences were discouraging.

"I went to one year of college--Grace College in Indiana. I tried to go as a visual student, using reading glasses and trying to get by with tape recorders. I ended up with a 1.8 (grade point average). I just didn't have the tools to function at a college level.

"My family had come to Alasksa, ..."

College loomed again when a friend called..., trying to persuade Jeff to enroll at the same school he was attending.

"That's when I came down to the (blind) center, to see if they'd developed any new kind of glasses. They said they didn't have any glasses. Then (one of the teachers) asked me, 'Jeff, have you ever considered Braille?'

"All those years. . . to have to deal with this again.'" Ever since he'd been kicked out of Braille classes in elementary school, Jeff had been programmed to compensate for his poor eyesight and pass as a sighted person. He didn't like the thought of giving that up, of declaring himself a blind person.

"But when they started talking about computers, lights went on. It meant the potential to open new areas; my mind raced at 90 mph."

Last July, Jeff entered the Louise Rude Center for Blind Adults. He lived there full time, taking classes in Braille, cane travel, typing, and philosophy. Because his mother had already taught him how to cook, he tested out of the home economics class.

"Things were going well. I was excited. I thought, 'I'll deal with this all right.'"

Until he had to live blindness.

"When it came down to where the rubber meets the road, I hadn't accepted it. I had a preconceived notion that you're OK if you can see. They were saying, 'You're blind.' Hey, I wasn't either!

"I didn't anticipate carrying a cane and wearing sleep shades. I could handle the Braille. But when it came to the cane, it was, 'Give me a break!'"

Mornings were spent dreading his afternoon cane-travel class: "I wondered what kind of experience I'd have, or if I'd be rejected. Or pitied."

He began to leave his cane home when he wasn't in class, to fabricate excuses for why he wasn't making progress.

"I thought, 'Hey, I only wanted to learn Braille to get to college.' (The instructors) felt like it isn't learning Braille that's going to make the difference. It's learning to deal with your blindness."

And that's what Jeff couldn't do. He worried how people who knew him as a guy with poor eyesight and glasses would accept him as a blind person. Especially, he worried about his peers at church. Would they think of him as "less than a human being?"

"It finally came to a head with my dad. He said, 'Jeff, all your life you've dealt with visual limitations. Being called Blind Baby, getting turned down for dates, jobs. If you're accepted, it's because you're Jeff, not because you can see.'

"I had long meetings with Jim (Omvig), Louise (Eads) and Don (Stiffler). Hours. They told me I wasn't facing up to my blindess."

He tried it out in his own head. "OK Jeff, you're blind. You still have some sight, but you're blind. " The thought of it scared him deep inside.

"I was at the bottom of the barrel, looking out. I kept thinking, 'It's darkest before the dawn. It's gonna break here pretty soon.'"

It did. After a sleepless night that had followed weeks of discussion with his parents and the school director, Jeff chose the blind center, with its aggressive approach.

"The relief came when I finally decided to do something, to finish something. I said this is the way. You have to go for it.

"I knew I was a leader at the center. The way I deal with the cane will affect how others deal with the cane. "After that, things started to look up. It's something someone says at a point in time. It's pieces of a puzzle. You're there, trying to get the frame, the perspective. The more pieces you get in, the more you can see what's going on.

"Like barbecuing steaks with your sleep shades on. Or the first time you walk to Foodland on your own. Going out on cane travel and not getting disoriented.

"Going to the grocery store in sleep shades. At first it was 'No way!' I've been doing this as a sighted person all my life. But then, a certain something clicks. I can do this. I can walk to Foodland. It's those little things that build on one another. Like when I made an omelet for 20 people. It might've been a little runny, but it was fine. Stuff like that builds confidence.". . .

He's now able to say:

"I'm Jeff Dalman. I'm blind. That's OK."