Future Reflections       Special Issue on Low Vision       LETTER FROM THE EDITOR

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Closing the Divide

by Deborah Kent Stein

Deborah Kent Stein with Braille Monitor editor Gary WunderI began my formal education in a resource room in Paterson, New Jersey. Our classroom was equipped with slates and styluses, Perkins Braillers, a tactile globe, and a wall of Braille books. The term resource room wasn't in use back then; our class was always referred to as "the Braille class." It served children who were totally blind or who had so little vision that they could not read print, no matter how large the letters might be.

The school in Paterson also had two "sight-saving classes" for children who were referred to as "partially sighted." The term sight-saving derived from the notion that partially sighted students could preserve their fragile vision by reading large-print books under the proper lighting conditions.

At school and at the summer camp I attended, operated by the New Jersey Commission for the Blind, children and adults freely categorized blind people as "partials" or "totals." I was always aware of a sharp distinction between the two groups. Because they had some sight, adults treated the partials as though they were more capable than we totals could ever hope to be. Based on their sight, the partials were granted enviable privileges. During lunch hour at school, the sight-savers were allowed to cross the street and buy treats at the corner candy store, while we totals waited at the curb. At camp the partials were permitted to go out in the rowboats without a counselor on board. As a totally blind camper, I was not allowed to cross the road unless one of the partials escorted me. The message was clear--vision ruled.

I was shocked one day at camp when I heard my partially sighted bunkmate read aloud, haltingly and without expression, from a large-print book. I knew she was a bright girl, and I didn't understand why she found reading so difficult. Later in the summer, she broke her glasses while roughhousing on the grass. In an instant this lively, outgoing girl became helpless and terrified. She clung to my arm as we headed back to our cabin and clutched the railing as we mounted the familiar steps. Although she was attending a camp for blind children and had many blind friends, she had none of the skills that would have helped her function when vision was not an option.

A great deal has changed since I attended the Braille class in Paterson. The term sight-saver has fallen out of use. New terms such as legally blind, severely visually impaired, and low vision have taken its place. But the tendency to divide those who are totally blind from those with some usable sight has changed very little. From Maine to Arizona, students with low vision still are taught to rely upon their sight as much as possible. Parents are told that their child won't need Braille because he "can get by" with magnification and recorded books. They are advised that their child "can manage" without a long white cane. Using a cane or reading Braille would make these children “look blind.” They're not blind, the reasoning goes--they just don't see very well.

With its deep-rooted conviction that it is respectable to be blind, the National Federation of the Blind works to dispel the shame and stigma that have long been attached to blindness. Furthermore, the NFB rejects the time-worn distinction between those with low vision and those who are totally blind. Instead of focusing on the amount of vision a person possesses, the NFB emphasizes the mastery of skills that build confidence and efficiency. It operates on the premise that nonvisual techniques for handling a given task are as effective as techniques that depend upon sight.

The articles in this special issue of Future Reflections examine low vision from a number of perspectives. Parents recount their efforts to ensure that children with low vision become fully literate. Adults with some sight look back upon their struggles to come to terms with their blindness. Instructors explain the use of sleepshades in teaching nonvisual skills to low vision children and teens, and attorneys review the special education laws that ensure the right of all blind children to be taught Braille.

The NFB has sometimes been accused of "trying to make everybody blind." In reality, the Federation tries to help those with limited vision discover techniques of literacy, travel, and daily living that will afford them greater independence. It seeks to empower all blind people--including those with some usable sight--to live their lives to the fullest.

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