Braille Monitor                                                 May 2011

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Two Weeks at the Center

by Father John Sheehan

From the Editor: Father John Sheehan is the chairman of the Xavier Society for the Blind in New York. Many will remember his spirited address at our 2010 national convention and his participation in our protest of the Authors Guild after it pressured Amazon to disable the text-to-speech facility in some books, fearing that a text-to-speech feature might cut into audio sales. Not only is this a bizarre supposition easily disproved by observing the reaction of audio readers to the strange voices produced by synthesized speech, but it is a fundamental violation of the right of the consumer to purchase a book and have it read in whatever form he or she desires--reading it in print, scanning it for transcription into Braille, or listening to it read aloud by a human or using synthetic speech. Father Sheehan understands this principle and has been an articulate spokesman for the right of blind people to have access to books, no matter how they are presented, but our recent partnership has introduced him to the National Federation of the Blind and the NFB to a scholar, a gentleman, and a fighter for the rights of blind people.

Father Sheehan recently enrolled as a student for two weeks at the Louisiana Center for the Blind. In this article, which first appeared on the Xavier Society’s Website and which he has adapted for and generously provided to the Braille Monitor, he describes his abbreviated blindness training, what it has meant to him as a sighted person, and the value blind people receive in mastering the skills and adopting the attitudes of the National Federation of the Blind. Here is what he says:

From January 16 to January 31, I was in Ruston, Louisiana, at the Louisiana Center for the Blind (LCB). I was a guest student, taking courses in home management, cane travel, shop, Braille, and computers--all wearing sleepshades. I wore the shades a minimum of nine hours a day, and some days darkness lasted as long as thirteen hours.

The hardest question for me to answer is, “Why did you do this?” When I first learned that several NFB centers around the US do this kind of work and that I would be welcome as a guest, I felt it was something I needed to do as chairman of the Xavier Society for the Blind to share at least some of what our clients (and some of my friends) experience as blind people. Now that I have done it, I am still reflecting on the experience.

Arielle Silverman learns to install the belt in an upright vacuum cleaner.Note--The word “blind” includes a range of conditions from seeing nothing to seeing light and shadows to seeing things distinctly in a very small part of the visual field. In fact, many of the students at the LCB have some sight, but all wear sleepshades when undergoing training and attending classes. Many of the faculty are blind, but all have taken the LCB program, and many of the sighted instructors wear sleepshades when they are teaching.

Another note—sleepshades are a large, black covering for the eyes, originally developed by the military. They are lined with foam so that they rest away from the eyes—you can open your eyes under the shades—but they completely block the light so that you can sleep. They are useful for training purposes, and blind organizations and individuals use them a lot. They have the advantage of warning others that the person wearing them is not able to see. Unbelievably (to me, at least) many people do not realize that a long white cane means that the user is blind. The shades are fairly comfortable, but my eyebrows itched, and it was difficult to scratch anything around the eye. You want the shades tight enough to keep out the light but not so tight that they compress your sinuses or crunch your ears. I know, it sounds funny, but, when you’re wearing these things nine hours or more at a pop, this gets to be relatively serious.

I was met at the airport and taken to my apartment. The next day I took the bus to the center. I was given my sleepshades and cane, my slate and stylus (for writing Braille—more on those later), and my class schedule. I was walked to my first class, home management, and my adventure began.

Nicholas Gawronski learns the art of pancake-flipping.Since this is not a day-to-day account, I’m going to talk about each of the areas of training. Home management includes cooking, budgeting, cleaning, polishing shoes, and tying a necktie. I learned to vacuum but also to take a vacuum cleaner apart and put on a new belt. We were given a list of foods that everyone needed to cook, including homemade noodles and pastry. We had to learn to use a blender, a crock pot, and a long list of other equipment. Each student must prepare a lunch for eight (by invitation only) and a lunch for forty, which everyone enjoys. Each of those exercises has a budget, which influences menu planning.

Each student learns the layout of the kitchen, the use of the appliances, and the way food items are stored and identified (salt is in the peanut butter jar, and the honey bear holds virgin olive oil—I never did learn where they keep the honey). Mistakes happen—one young man used a cup of whole wheat flour as part of the four cups of confectioner’s sugar in the frosting of a red velvet cake. He had measured three cups before he ran out of sugar. The resulting frosting wasn’t bad, but it was also not according to the recipe.

I fixed bacon and eggs my first morning and eventually biscuits, brownies, a beef stew, and fried pickles. I learned how to sew on a button although fulltime students have to sew four or five kinds of buttons (remember this is all done while being blind, and I now can thread a needle more easily with my eyes closed than ever I could with them open). I can now tie a Windsor knot (on those rare occasions when I do wear a tie, it’s a simple four-in-hand knot). I learned how to handwrite a check, use a signature guide, and write on a blank page. Some students who are blind from birth have never learned to write, so they are taught the shapes of the letters by touch.

Chelsea Muñoz uses a click rule and a scratch awl as she works on her grid block.Cleaning is also part of the curriculum and includes dusting, bathroom cleaning, and laundry. Each apartment is inspected regularly, and hints are offered about how to take better care of the space. Each student lives in an apartment—some singly, some with a roommate—and students take care of their own rooms, their own laundry, and their own shopping and cooking. The goal is instilling confident independence, and everything taught is geared toward that goal.

Probably the most dramatic of the classes is shop because for many students it is so removed from anything they have done before and because a tremendous amount of responsibility is placed on the student. The only specialized tool is the click rule. Every other tool in the shop, whether hand tool or power tool, is unmodified, exactly the same as you would find in any woodworking shop. The shop instructor, however, doesn’t remove the safety guards as other shops often do, and safety with tools is a constant theme. Whenever a major power tool is to be used, the student prepares and, when ready to cut, calls for a check and is approved by one of the instructors, who either visually or manually checks for safety.

The student is given a series of arithmetic problems and then is taught to use the click rule. After mastering the click rule, he or she has to score a piece of wood with a scratch-all to create a checkerboard pattern, mark the intersections, and then drill a hole at each intersection. Since a blind carpenter cannot see a drawn line, the scratch-all becomes his or her pencil. Another series of exercises introduces the student to other tools, and in the course of two assigned projects the student will have learned to use every tool in the shop confidently.

At that point the second instructor walks the student through selecting and designing a final project. It can be a mantel clock, a grandfather clock, a chest of drawers, a chair. The student picks the project; designs it, and, when the design is complete, builds it. There are no predetermined plans; the whole design process comes from the student. The process takes anywhere from three to five months. Cuts must be within a tolerance of one-eighth of an inch, or the cut must be redone. Students take great pride in their projects, and they work hard at them. They learn precision and responsibility, and the work they turn out is very professional.

Father Sheehan sets out for a travel lesson under sleepshades.Cane travel is a foundational course because that’s how the blind move. In the first week or two, depending on a student’s experience and skill, he or she is cleared to travel and is no longer allowed to take the bus to and from the center. Students have to walk and learn to deal with carrying loads, facing bad weather, and walking at different times of the day. Basic techniques are taught and re-enforced, and students are given routes to walk. Other exercises include a drop (in which the student and usually a teacher, both wearing shades, are dropped by car at an unknown location and required to find their way back to the center). Checkerboard is an exercise in which a group of students goes out, and at each corner a different person chooses the direction to take. Eventually the teacher selects one person to start going home, and at each corner the teacher picks another student to be the guide. It doesn’t always work out the way you planned.)

As I went through the courses, I heard some of the same themes being repeated. “Don’t overthink” was one. True in shop, true in cane travel, true in the kitchen, true when trying to read a line of Braille. “Keep up the pace” was another. True in the Braille room, true when walking with a cane. “Keep your focus” —in the kitchen, in the shop, on a travel route. These are all lessons for life, not just for cane travel or cooking. These are things we all need to do, to know, to practice in our lives, and they are true and important whether we are blind or sighted.

One dimension I had not considered is the prevalence of diabetes as an illness among the blind. I don’t know how widespread that is, but certainly in the kitchen great care was taken to include recipes using Splenda and to teach students how to use Splenda in cooking. Regular sessions with a nutritionist were scheduled for those who needed it, and students looked out for one another. A student who wanted to try a piece of cake that a friend had made was refused “because there is too much sugar in it for you.”

When I was given my slate and stylus, I wondered how I would do since I had had only a little practice reading Braille with my eyes and none using my fingers. I found I learned the alphabet quickly, starting with writing rather than reading. I soon got the hang of using a stylus and found I could churn out a fair amount of correct Braille in a short time. Of course I was using only the alphabet. Braille also contains contractions, and, as you get more experienced, you come across more contractions, which make it possible to read Braille at over 400 words a minute. That is a very fast Braille reader but not terribly unusual. For instance, a letter standing alone represents a word. Thus “b” = “but,” “k” = “knowledge,” and so on. There are many contractions and combinations, and grade 2 Braille includes them all.

I also learned to use the Perkins Braillewriter. That too came fairly quickly, and in my last class I filled two pages with material. Reading was more difficult since, although I knew the letters, my fingers found it hard to distinguish between them. I was taught to read with both hands at once, emphasizing the left on the left side of the page and the right on the right. I am right-handed, but my left hand is actually better at reading than the right. My teacher constantly said not to “scrub” the Braille, i.e., move the fingers up and down to identify the pattern; move straight across the line, maintaining the pace, repeating entire words as necessary. Reading Braille comes very slowly, but it is coming. Every student at the center learns to read and write Braille.

For me the computer class was a survey of what’s available. Everything on the computer is sound-reinforced, from having the screen-access program echo the letters or words entered, to reading material on the screen. No matter how fast the voice reads—and it can read so fast I can’t understand it, although they say that I would with practice—it is still slower for me than reading with my eyes. Another lesson—patience. Sometimes I just had to stand or sit and wait my turn. In the kitchen I was always running late; everything took more time than I had expected. Walking took me longer. Reading and writing took more time. After all, I was there for only two weeks of instruction in skills that were completely new.

Playing with the computer programs I had heard about for years was fascinating. The technology is changing almost daily, and blind users are becoming more and more proficient at using it to increase their access to the Internet, to jobs, and to the world.

I Don’t Have to See to Know Where I’m Going.”

My biggest post-event reflection is that being blind is not extraordinary. The blind and visually impaired students are being helped to realize that they can do almost anything a sighted person can, and the staff uses everyday activities as the platform to reinforce that conviction. The center develops basic skills for everyday living (many sighted people could undergo this program to great benefit), and the students graduate with both skills and personal confidence based on experience. While extraordinary people are part of this program, both students and instructors, what the center does is simply to make it possible for its graduates to do what everyone else does.

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