by Brock Brown
From the Editor: In a physical sense most of our readers have a good understanding of blindness. But beyond the physical, what is it? Throughout history and in different civilizations, blindness has been viewed as a curse from God, a tragic condition that can never be more than partially mitigated by the charity of others. Some of us have been so bold as to say it is mostly a nuisance and an inconvenience, one characteristic among many that makes us who we are. But never until this article have I heard someone refer to the inability to see or see well as "the gift of blindness."
Lee Martin lives in Indiana and is an active member of his chapter, affiliate, and our national body. What follows is part one of a two-part article that appeared in the September issue of the Speedway Talk newspaper. Brock Brown writes for Speedway Talk newspaper, which has enthusiastically given us its permission to reprint this article.
As I sat waiting for a friend, I watched a blind man with a white walking cane come down the main corridor at the Healthplex. It appeared he was exploring. He was not in a hurry, and he didn't ask for help. I suppose he knew he would be back.
He now comes regularly and has his exercise routine on various pieces of equipment both upstairs and downstairs. (He does not use the elevator.) He sets his exercise machine on slow (steep uphills) and pushes and pulls hard, building strength.
When I saw him in the locker room shining his shoes, I introduced myself and mentioned I had never seen a blind man shining his shoes. He said in a patient way, "Well, I do want to look nice."
I think you'll find Lee Martin's story inspiring.
I met Lee at his office—where he runs a radio program and holds meetings with the Circle City Chapter of the NFB.
Lee: It took me a few years, but I learned how to be blind. You can live a full life, but the main challenge is the discrimination that's involved with the conditions of blindness. Everyone doesn't have the same capacities, but our society thinks that the blind are generally not capable at all.
Brock: We each have limitations, and we each have different abilities, and knowing what they are and figuring out how to work around the limits is a challenge.
Lee: Yes, but knowing how to work around them is the key.
Brock: It's how we become stronger.
Lee: That's right, and that's one of the gifts God gave us. I now believe He gave me the gift of blindness.
When I first came up with that little philosophy, I was talking to our chapter members. I was philosophizing one day and mentioned "the gift of blindness." One of our members said, "I don't know what you're talking about, this ain't no damn gift." And most are taught that. However, when you work with what you've been given to work with, things happen.
I heard a lady say one day, "God didn't choose you to be a blind, weak saint."
Brock: He chose you to live fully in this wonderful world.
Lee: Right. And for me, it's to direct and show others. It's the work we do with the National Federation of the Blind Newsline. I'll set this out for you.
The National Federation of the Blind Newsline provides the opportunity for blind, visually impaired, and print-challenged citizens to read newspapers and magazines independently, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, for free.
We provide access to over 460 national and fifteen international newspapers. We have "breaking news" with ABC, CNN, Fox News, Huffington Post, and others. A patron can pick up their landline phone or an app for their cell phones. We also have a small device that's called the Victor Reader Stream. I can read any newspaper with that.
The Victor Reader Stream is a device that has multiple features on it. I can do podcasts; I can download books from the Talking Book and Braille Library.
I download a lot of books, and there's a lot of podcasts dealing with what's going on in the blind community. There's a lot of entities working within the blind community, and they have been doing so for long before I lost my sight.
Brock: How did you lose your sight?
Lee: They found an inflammation, scleritis, and it deteriorated my retinas. It turned them into wet tissue paper. So, there went my sight. It took a while for it to totally go, but when it did, I was forty-eight years old.
Brock: You must have realized something was going wrong with your eyes; you went to find out what it was, and they probably told you, "Well, there's no fixing this," or, "We'll try our best to—"
Lee: Yes, it took time. But finally I was told there's no point of return to normalcy as I would know it.
My mother—my wonderful adopted mother—I called her up. She was in her nineties at the time. I finally called her up to let her know why she hadn't heard from me too much because I had lost my sight. And her words were, "Well, that's God's plan. God knew this long before you did, and I expect for you to not be a weakling and be strong. Let Him guide you through this." That's what I basically did.
So, I would say after losing my sight, I lost a lot of friends and lost my job at Chrysler. That impacted my life because my family was ready to say, "Okay, so you're losing your sight. None of us know about blindness, but you're gonna have to come home, and we're gonna have to take care of you."
And I wasn't ready for that. I was recovering from the medicine. I was on a cancer-type treatment. I did all that chemo to try to bring back my sight. I was a single man, and it was hard on me.
I knew nothing about blindness. Where am I gonna go; am I gonna have to be taken care of the rest of my life?
I'm a Vietnam veteran, and I found there's a rehabilitation service for blinded veterans at Hines Hospital in Chicago and here in Indianapolis at Roudebush, the veterans' hospital.
When I did go to the Indianapolis VA, my initial visit as a blinded vet, they had a volunteer come out to my apartment. I was having all kinds of anxieties about this guy coming to my door. I don't know who he is, but he's in the system, and at that time we had high crime. You worry about all that you hear on the news. So, this gentleman came to my door; he identified himself, and I went with him to the VA hospital. Nothing bad happened.
I got there, and I'm sitting, waiting on the doctor, and I hear a guy coming with tapping, I hear this tapping.
He had an eye appointment, and the receptionist said, "Well, there's another blind guy right over here," and the guy turned around and introduced himself to me. We talked, and I told him I was new to the whole process.
He started informing me. Mr. Fred Edwards, I'll never forget him. He started informing me about the rehab that was going to be necessary for me and that there was a rehab facility in Chicago. He described the visual impairment service team at the Indy VA. He said, "I'm gonna introduce you to the coordinator, Tom." So, I got introduced.
I just took all that with a grain of salt. But, the following Wednesday, I got a call from the director, Tom, and he had gotten me all set up to go to Chicago.
I had to be there Friday. That means I would have to find someone to take care of my apartment, take care of my mail, take care of all my business. Then I would have to find someone to help me pack, get my clothes together, 'cause being blind you just don't have that. I didn't have all that.
A friend helped me get all that together in that short period of time. I had to trust her with everything I had, and that's hard to do at a moment's notice. Just think about it. If you were single and, all of a sudden, you would give your keys to your life, to your privacy, to your everything, to someone else.
I did it and got to the airport. The airline took care of me at the airport, and I got to O'Hare. A team member was waiting for me. And he got me to the Hines Rehab Center and got me all checked in with the medical staff. You have your own room, and they got me oriented with the center, relieving a lot of my anxieties. I was forty-eight and that was a big start. I was there for a year.
Brock: Is that the usual time?
Lee: The usual length of time was about six months for the first part of the program and then about four/six months for additional computer training.
I learned the orientation and mobility cane. They put me into an industrial class where they have power saws, drills, power drills, lathes; they would assign you a project to complete; you have to learn the machines and learn how to make all that kinda stuff. These were machines I didn't touch when I could see, so I had a lot of issues going into it.
Brock: A whole new world.
Lee: Yes! A whole new world. I'm saying, "Power saws? I don't use no saw! A band saw? Why am I messing with them? They are dangerous! Especially for a blind guy!"
Brock: Yeah, one slip and you could lose your finger.
Lee: Yeah, and I still have all of them. Once I made it through that, it gave me the encouragement that I could return to my job at Chrysler. That was a big thing. Then, with the mobility training and learning how to be out in the public again, I was really encouraged.
I stayed and got computer training; that's what took longer for me. But you had to qualify for it. The qualifications were you had to type thirty words a minute. One of the counselors came down, and he spoke to me in my room. I said, "Man, I haven't typed in years," and he said, "Well it's just like riding a bike, once you get on it." He took me to his office, and he set me up in front of this typewriter. I tried to find the home row, and I hit a key. It dinged, and I jumped back.
He said, "What's going on?"
I said, "I heard the ding from the carriage return, but I didn't hit the carriage return. I'm reaching for the carriage return bar."
He asked, "What are you reaching for?"
I said, "I'm trying to find the return bar."
And he said, "Oh my God, it has been a long time."
It took me a good week to get use to all of that. I managed to pass the test for the class. I was trained by a blinded veteran every day for about six hours a day. Nothing but computer training. I learned an enormous amount of information about how to navigate a computer. That's what I do now.
Lee was trained well and immediately returned to apply for a job with his previous employer, Chrysler. It became national news.