Future Reflections Spring 1992, Vol. 11 No. 2



                      by Mary Ellen Gabias

     Editor's Note: The following comments were lifted from a letter Mrs. Gabias had written about the usefulness of a CCTV (closed circuit television--a powerful magnification device) for a particular partially sighted student. I have edited and published her sensible, thought-provoking comments because they are especially relevant to blind students who use, or are considering using, CCTVs. Mrs. Gabias, a blind woman, is a long time leader in the National Federation of the Blind and an expert on employment of the blind (she is the former Assistant Director of Job Opportunities for the Blind).

     There are several companies which provide closed circuit televisions for enlarging print on a page.  The cheapest I have seen is approximately one thousand dollars.  It's easy to spend five thousand dollars or more on a complex system.

     If a student is thinking about using a closed circuit television system to read print, she should test equipment in situations like those she is encountering in school.  Sometimes the system will work very well under controlled showroom conditions.  The same equipment may be of little or no practical value when it is taken home. It is usually helpful for someone considering the purchase of equipment to get a thorough low vision evaluation from an optometrist or ophthalmologist who is skilled in helping people find visual aids.

     Magnifiers, telescopes, prisms, closed circuit televisions, and other visual aids can sometimes help.  It can also do a great deal of damage.  I am not suggesting that a person's eyesight will get worse if it's used.  I am talking about a much more subtle, and in the long run more destructive, type of damage.

     Most people use their eyesight to do a wide variety of things.  Usually there are alternative techniques which can be used instead of eyesight and which work equally well.  Someone who has ten percent or less of normal vision (the generally accepted definition of legal blindness) can take two general approaches to solving the problem blindness creates.

     The most tempting approach is to try to maximize remaining vision.  The second is to develop alternative techniques to replace vision in situations where it is inadequate.  The first approach concentrates on overcoming a deficit.  The second approach builds up strengths.  I believe the second approach, that of developing alternatives to vision is psychologically healthier and is more likely to succeed on a practical level.

     Let's look at an analogy.  Suppose there is a young man who is an excellent student.  He has great skill in math, English, and languages.  However, he is a disaster on the football field. For one thing, he is very small.  For another, he is not terribly coordinated.  What should the young man do?  Should he build up his muscles and try to become a great football player, even though his size will keep him off most college or professional teams?  Or, should he play football for the fun of it and concentrate instead on building up his academic skills so that he can become a college professor some day?  You probably are saying that he ought to go with his strengths.  That doesn't mean you think he should sit around without exercising and become flabby and unhealthy.  It simply means that you think he ought to plan a strategy that has some hope of success.  After all, it is just as respectable to be a college professor as a football player.  I think it's that way with blindness, too.

     Blind people who have some remaining sight should not ignore it or pretend that it doesn't exist.  On the other hand, they should not spend so much time working on stimulating their remaining vision that they neglect to develop the skills of blindness that will have more practical value in the long run.  After all, it's as respectable to be blind as it is to be sighted.

     I hope the parents of the little girl you mentioned will seriously consider teaching her Braille.  There will simply be situations where a closed circuit television isn't practical.  When she grows up and attends a meeting, how will she take notes?  If she takes them in print, but can't read them back until she gets home to her closed circuit television set, how will she refer to the notes she's taken?  What about giving a speech?  She can't take her television set to the podium with her.  Even if she could, she would lose the value of having eye contact with her audience.

     Braille could solve these and a number of other problems for her.  It is also faster, less tiring, and more pleasant than a television screen.  Someone who is blind and has not learned Braille is forced to rely on print for everything from writing recipes to keeping phone numbers.  That often leads to increased eye strain and headaches.  It also means that the blind person has no maneuvering room if there is a change in vision. Even for eye conditions which are stable, visual efficiency decreases with age.  It gets harder to use limited vision as time goes by.  As a result, many people gradually decrease the amount of reading they do as they get older.  They get out of the habit.  Reading becomes a chore, not a pleasure. With Braille, the partially sighted student can enjoy reading and still use the CCTV or other magnification aids for specific visual tasks.