by Ronald A. Owens
From the Editor: Ron Owens is a member of the Board of Directors of the National Federation of the Blind of Arkansas. His state president describes him as a quiet man, but this quietness only enhances the power of his words when he chooses to speak. She says she would like a hundred more like him, and from our brief conversation I am inclined to agree. Here is what Ron has to say about his introduction to blindness, the technology he has learned to use, and the skills that have played an important part in his once again finding independence:
I am legally blind with the eye condition retinitis pigmentosa (RP). As a person whose vision has deteriorated over time, I have come to appreciate the tools that are available to us as blind people. Adaptive technologies have greatly improved my life. Screen-reading technology allows me to access computers as well as an iPhone, and with my stick (white cane) I am able to navigate around in unfamiliar places. While these technologies allow me to venture out from my own little world, perhaps the best tool I’ve come across is Braille. I believe that the learning of this skill is probably the most useful. To illustrate my point, I would like to relate an experience I went through at the beginning of my walk with blindness.
Over two decades ago, when I was starting to lose my vision, I accompanied my wife to a conference that she had to attend for work. Since the conference was on multiple days, we were staying in the hotel where it was being held. On the last day we checked out of our room, and my wife was going to attend the last of the seminars as I waited in the lobby of the hotel. Before the meetings that morning, my wife showed me to the door of the men’s room in the lobby so that I could use the facilities. Afterward I settled in to wait out the morning. The day wore on, and as Forrest Gump said, “I [had] to pee!” So I headed to the restroom. I found the door, pushed it open, walked in, and turned left, just as I had done earlier that morning, but this time the way was blocked by a wall. I felt around, thinking perhaps that I was just not in far enough; feeling along the wall, I was completely confused, because I knew that another door had been there a few hours ago. I just could not understand how a full wall had been erected. I got my answer in a few seconds. A door behind me opened, a woman walked out, saw me, and went out the door I had just entered through a moment before. I was in the foyer of the women’s restroom! I exited very quickly and found the chair I had been sitting in before I had gone to the restroom. I was completely embarrassed. A couple of minutes later a security guard walked by. He did not say anything to me, but I was reasonably sure that the woman reported that a pervert was in the ladies’ room. I waited for my wife to come back to the lobby before returning to the men’s room. I guess I did not need to use the restroom as badly as I thought.
You are probably wondering what this has to do with reading Braille; well I did not know how to read it at the time. If I had been able to read those little dots on the wall, I would have saved myself some embarrassment. It took several years before I finally learned to read, because I simply had no idea where to go to learn. A couple of years ago I attended World Services for the Blind, where I was taught the fundamentals of Braille. Learning this form of communication was not easy for me, and, while I am still a novice at reading Braille, I am of the opinion that it is a must-know skill to live a fulfilling life as a blind person. Even though I am still not an efficient reader (I have calluses on my fingers from working with my hands and playing the guitar), being able to read is as liberating and rewarding as when I learned to read print as a child.
The development of new products and the advancement of adaptive technologies will continue to make life more enjoyable for the blind, but the learning of Braille should remain in our box of tools. I do not know if an app exists to tell people which restroom they are about to enter. It is conceivable that there is one, but there are times that it would not be practical. Can you imagine rushing up to the restrooms, about to break out into “the pee pee dance,” fishing out your phone, unlocking it, scrolling through all the apps until you find the right one, opening it up, waiting for it to load, getting the sign in the frame, and praying that you’re at the right door? Running a finger along a line of Braille is a lot more straight-forward and incredibly faster.
If you or someone you know is facing blindness, I would encourage serious consideration be given to learning Braille. Finding resources may seem daunting, but the reward is worth the effort. A good place to start is with the National Federation of the Blind. I wish I had learned earlier. If I had, many times I could have enjoyed outings to places, such as a trip to Washington, DC, where plaques on the monuments are written in Braille. Some restaurants also have Braille menus that allow us as blind people to have a more independent life. Braille resources can be found and used in our daily life to help in our quest to “Live the lives we want!”
In conclusion, I would like to thank Mr. Jeff Weiss, my Braille teacher, for being patient as I struggled through the lessons. I would also like to leave you with a quote from a very intelligent woman with whom I was briefly acquainted, who has been an inspiration to me. Her name was Mrs. Gracie Jackson, and her gift to me was this quote: “I was not illiterate as a sighted person, and I will not be illiterate as a blind person.” This was and is my vow. Let it be yours as well.