Future Reflections March/ April 1983, Vol. 2 No. 2

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By John Cheadle

Home repairs, lawn work, woodworking and automobile maintenance and repair have long been considered the domain of men. It was expected that father's would teach their sons how to hammer a nail, fix the sink, change a tire and mow the lawn. Mothers would teach their daughters how to cook, sew, do the laundry, clean house and perhaps some gardening.

Those expectations have changed and I believe that is a good thing by and large. Now, boys and girls are both encouraged to take home economics and woodshop in high school. Mothers insist on their sons learning to cook, and fathers are showing daughters how to use power tools.

Expectations are also changing for our blind youngsters. In the last issue (Dec 82/Jan,Feb 83) we had an article entitled, "Mom, Let Your Blind Child in the Kitchen." The point was made that blind children (especially boys) are often shortchanged in culinary experiences. Parents (especially moms) were encouraged to give their blind children more experience in the kitchen.

The same can be said of some areas typically associated with fathers, namely home repairs, woodshop, lawn work and automobile maintenance and repair. It is often erroneously assumed that blind persons are necessarily limited in these areas. If we believe that, it is only natural that fathers will not take the time to teach their blind son or daughter how to change a tire, use a power saw, or mow the lawn. And such has too often been the case. The purpose of this article is to 1. dispel the myth that blind people are less safe or capable at these tasks than others and 2. provide some ideas about alternative techniques that blind people can use to perform these tasks safely and efficiently.

First, the myth. The best response to that is to point to the thousands of blind men and women who routinely mow their own lawn, fix the kitchen sink and plant a flower or vegetable garden. Jim Walker (see the article, "Reflections of a Blind Father" page 4) is but one example of a blind youngster, now grown up, who learned these things from his father or on his own. There are others: a pig farmer in Nebraska who fixes the roof on his barn; a teacher in Idaho who changes the oil in his van; a federal employee from Virginia who fixes his kitchen sink; a housewife in Missouri who cans vegetables and fruits from the huge garden she plants yearly and a radio announcer who designs and makes a combination desk/bookshelf for his study.

These people are not amazing or exceptional. They are simply ordinary people going about ordinary tasks. Most of the techniques and tools they use are the same as sighted people use. Sometimes, alternative techniques and adapted equipment are necessary, but there is nothing mysterious or difficult about them.

Thomas Edison once said, "Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration." Neither you nor your blind child, have to be "geniuses" or "professionals" or even very creative to be successful in teaching and learning the common skills associated with home, shop and auto. Belief and persistence are the keys. Following are some specific suggestions in the areas of automobiles, shop and home repairs and lawn work.


When you are working on your auto, encourage your child to observe and help. Show him or her what and where the different parts are. Have them learn about the tools you use and ask them to help you by finding a particular tool. As they become older or more experienced, begin to show them how to do some of the tasks and then let them do it. Changing a tire, checking and adding oil, changing the oil and changing filters are some common things you may want to teach them.

Your youngster also needs to learn from you how much vehicles and their parts can differ. For example, jacks are made differently and some cars will have a certain, special kind of notch or fitting for the jack, and others will not. Some may use a scissors jack, some may need a bumper jack and some may use a screw jack. And there are many varieties within these three types. In some cars, the gas tank will be in the back under the license plates, in others it will be in the front, or on the driver's side to the back or on the passenger's side to the front. It will help if your child becomes aware of these kinds of differences.

For most of the basic tasks, nothing special is needed. The jobs can be done by sound and touch with little if any modifications. Most dipsticks, for example, have full and add markings which are easily felt. If yours is not, just file a notch or scratch a mark where needed. I would also suggest that you not slide your finger down the dipstick when locating the oil. It is best to lightly tap the index finger up and down, beginning at or above the full mark and working your way down. This way you can fell the "tug" or adhesion of the oil as the finger pulls away from the stick. When you have located the oil, leave the finger there and locate the full and add marks with your thumb or thumbnail.

Sounds are helpful, too. If you are working on the engine and drop a part down through it, stop and listen. With experience, you can tell by sound what part or parts of the engine the item hits. Knowing that, you can track the item to its probable location. For example, a generator makes a dull-hollow sound and the engine block has a distinctive sound. Since no one, sighted or blind, can see down through an engine you may find yourself adopting this technique.

Most of us and most of our blind children will only learn enough about automobiles to serve our own personal purposes or interests. Some of our blind youngsters however, may become interested in related vocations. There are blind people who are auto mechanics, engineers, machinists, small engine repairmen and machine operators in industry.

For the more technical and sophisticated levels of work, some adapted equipment may be necessary. Items such as Braille micrometers and Brailled meter-readers and torque wrenches are available. Other tools, including modern torque wrenches.are easily adapted.

Home Repairs and Woodshop:

In this area there really isn't much that a blind person can't do. Again, most of it can be done by touch, sound and by using the same tools and techniques that others use. In some instances, such as electrical work, special adaptations and techniques may need to be worked out. For example, electrical wires these days are color-coded. Most household wiring consists of three wires encased in an outer covering. The uninsulated wire is the ground wire and easily distinguished by touch. The problem is to determine which is the "hot" and "cold" wires. One simple method is to find the embossed or impressed print on the outer covering with your finger. The wires inside always have the same relationship to the printed side of the covering. Using this knowledge, you need never get your "hot" and "cold" wires mixed up or crossed.

In the shop, some tools will be used in ways other than their typical use and an adapted or specially made measuring device will be helpful. For the measuring device you can make notches in a yardstick or ruler, put staples in a cloth measuring tape, or buy a roto-matic or a click rule. A rotomatic is a threaded rod with 16 threads per inch. It has been ground flat on one side and opposite that side, every eighth thread is left intact. Additionally, there is an oblong shaped nut which can be turned up and down the rod. Each quarter-turn of this nut moves it l/64th of an inch. The click rule is a threaded rod with a "sleeve" around it. The threads make a small clicking sound every 1/16 of an inch as the rod is pulled from the sleeve. It is also a tactual measure with raised threads every V2 inch.

You may purchase the roto-matic, the click rule and a tactually marked tape measure from the National Federation of the Blind. Prices are $20.00 for the roto-matic, $35.00 for the click-rule and $3.00 for the 60" tape measure.

Send request and check to: National Federation of the Blind, 1800 Johnson Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21230.

The conventional method for marking a cut is a pencil mark. A tactual mark is easily substituted by using a sharp, pointed instrument, such as a scribe or awl. Once you have located your measurement, place a guide (a square works nicely) along the line to be marked, then use your pointed instrument to make your mark. It's simple

After measuring and marking comes the cut. I have described below some techniques you can use in making a cross-cut with a hand-saw and a hand-power saw (such as a circular saw or a saber saw).

Hand Saw: Crosscut

After measuring and marking, put your wood in a vise or secure with clamps. Find the mark, place your index fingernail on one side of the board where the mark begins, and your thumbnail in the mark on the other side. Bring your saw-blade over till it touches your thumbnail and fingernail (it should then be right on your cutting mark). Draw the saw back once to start the cut. Leave the saw in place, move your hand away from the blade, slide a square up to the saw blade (this acts as a guide to keep your saw in the proper place) and make your cut.

Hand-power saw: Crosscut

You will need an edge-guide for this cut. Protractor-style edge-guides are available from most stores that carry a good selection of tools or you may build your own. A template cut from hardboard would also be helpful but not necessary (see description below for explanation of its use).

Measure, mark and secure your wood. Then, take your saw and measure the distance between the tool's blade and the outside of the saw's guiding edge. At that point you can either 1. measure back from your cutting mark the sawblade/saw guiding-edge dimension and secure your edge guide at that point, or 2. place a template that has been cut to the saw-balde/saw guiding-edge dimension beside your cutting mark. Secure the edge-guide next to the template on the side opposite the cutting mark, then remove the template. Finally, bring your saw into position by lining up the guiding-edge of the saw with the edge-guide. Place the teeth of the blade against the piece to be cut and draw it back an inch or so. Turn the saw on and let it come to full speed. Move the saw forward along the edge-guide until contact with the wood is made. Make your cut.

Before ending this section let me make some comments about alternative techniques and teaching these techniques to kids with partial vision. These comments by the way apply to all areas, not just shop work.

We use the term "alternative" instead of "substitute" because substitute connotes inferiority while alternative implies equality. It is accurate to say that some blind techniques are just as good as sighted techniques, some are superior to sighted methods and a few are inferior.

I currently employ many of the alternative techniques of blindness in my own work. My experiences demonstrated that these techniques are often safer, more efficient and more accurate than the "sighted" methods I had been taught. For example, the use of templates and edge-guides provide a safer cut, (there is less chance of binding the saw blade) are more efficient (it takes less time to set up templates and a straight-edge than it does to measure and mark) and more accurate (templates are consistent, pencil marks aren't and the straight-edge reduces the chances of straying off the cutting line).

In regards to teaching alternative techniques to partially-sighted kids, I am a strong advocate of sleep shades (blindfolds). First of all, it makes learning the alternative techniques faster and easier. Secondly, it builds confidence to know that sight is not required to do the task. Finally and most importantly, your youngster will be able to make informed decisions about when his sight can be used safely and efficiently and when an alternative technique is better. That kind of decision cannot be made unless one has the appropriate alternative skills.

Lawn Work:

Again, most lawn and gardening work needs no special comment. Touch, sound, memory, special markings or systems are utilized here the same as in any other area. Each person should work out their own methods and systems according to personal preference and specific circumstances.

In this area, as in all others, you should encourage your child to work out some of their own techniques and approaches. The more experience they can get in doing this, the more confident and independent they will become.

Many blind people do mow their own lawns and perhaps a comment or two would be helpful. The technique used will vary according to personal preferences, type of equipment used and the size and shape of the lawn. Guides or straight edges, such as a moveable rope between poles, or a cyclone fence rail laid out on the ground, might be helpful.

Whether your child ever mows a lawn regularly or not, it would be good for them to know about the equipment used. They could learn where the blades are, how to start it and how to fill it with fuel. As with the automobile, they should be aware of the different kinds of mowers (hand-mowers, power-mowers, rider-mowers, etc.). In fact, it is always a good practice to let your child know and experience the variety of shapes, sizes and brands modern-day equipment and products can come in.

John Cheadle is the Deputy Director of the Idaho Commission for the Blind. He has been involved in rehabilitation work with the blind and a member of the National Federation of the Blind for about ten years. He began his career as a cane travel instructor with the Nebraska Services for the Visually Impaired. Shortly thereafter, he was asked to begin a woodshop class in the Orientation Center for the Blind. Mr. Cheadle had this to say about that experience, "The purpose of the wood shop class, like all other classes at the center, was to provide the opportunity for blind persons to develop confidence in themselves. It was not important whether they would ever use the power tools again, so long as they knew that they could. "

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