Seeing Blindness Clearly

“Seeing Blindness Clearly,” Ensign, Dec. 1988, 42

Seeing Blindness Clearly

When I found out that our stake was going to produce The Music Man, I nearly went crazy with the desire to participate. I had been in many skits and plays, but since becoming totally blind three years earlier, I had neglected my love of ham-acting. I feared that the directors would never take a chance on a blind actress, and I wondered if I would be able to handle the complex staging and choreography. But my desires overpowered my fears, and I tried out.

The tryouts went well, but even my very supportive husband warned me not to get my hopes up. To my surprise, I not only got the part I wanted, but one of the directors hadn’t even realized I was blind! A high school drama coach took her students to one of our performances, challenging them to pick out the blind actress. Not one of them picked me! Had I let my fears keep me from trying, I would have missed one of the most delightful experiences of my life.

Unfortunately, such fears and misconceptions about blindness abound not only in the minds of blind people, but also in the minds of their sighted peers. People have a tendency to think we’re somehow different from the rest of humanity. Some people I’ve talked to think that going blind would be the end of the world for them; they’d rather suffer anything but that! But life isn’t over if you’re blind. A blind person is, after all, a regular person who just happens to be blind.

What Does It Mean to Be Blind?

The only thing most blind people have in common is the blindness itself. The notion of a stereotypical blind person is ludicrous when you consider the vast number of causes of visual impairments, the wide variety in the degree of vision a legally blind person may have, and the individual personalities and attitudes of people who are blind.

Some are born blind because of congenital defects or accidents at birth; others lose their vision much later through accidents or through diseases such as diabetes and retinitis pigmentosa. Loss of vision may come suddenly or gradually, and it may come at any age. Visual impairment is common after age sixty-five from problems such as cataracts, glaucoma, macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy, and high blood pressure.

Blindness isn’t always absolute darkness. The majority of people who are legally blind have at least limited sight. Some see broad outlines of objects but are unable to see any detail; others see well enough to read large print. Tunnel vision enables a person to see only directly ahead; other types of blindness enable one to see only to the side. Night blindness afflicts many, while the glare of bright light causes blindness in others.

The world of the partially sighted may be particularly frustrating, as Ron Gardner, a Salt Lake City attorney, points out: “Partially sighted people are not blind in the way you usually think of a blind person, and they aren’t sighted in the way you usually think of a sighted person. So people have a hard time relating to them as either sighted or blind. The partially sighted person may have a hard time admitting even to himself that he is blind.”

For those who grew up sighted, adjusting to blindness can be traumatic. But, like coping with any other change, the person’s attitude—as well as support from others—can ease the transition.

When I first became blind I had a hard time even buttering bread, and I despaired of ever taking care of my husband and young children by myself. I went through a period of great depression. But then I finally realized that I could still do most everything I used to do if I worked hard, practiced, and used a little ingenuity to find another way of doing it.

The adjustment to blindness can be particularly difficult for elderly people who are newly blinded. I was both appalled and saddened to learn from one 82-year-old blind woman that she spent her days reminiscing about the past and wishing she could die because she could no longer see to read, sew, or do any of the other activities she had once enjoyed. Another elderly woman told a friend that when she could no longer see to take the sacrament, she would quit going to church.

While such feelings may be typical in the initial stages of a person’s adjustment to blindness, these sisters need encouragement of family and friends to help them realize that life still holds great meaning and that barriers to full participation in the Church are more imagined than real.

Caring and supportive friends can be a source of crucial emotional strength and physical assistance to someone who becomes blind, and it’s important to maintain that support past the initial crisis. The needs of the person who is visually impaired may change as he or she learns to adapt and become independent, but sighted members should try to be aware of needs that may persist. The persistent need of almost all people who are blind is simply to be accepted and loved as individuals who have unique personalities, talents, and abilities.

Could I Be Seeing Blind People Incorrectly?

Probably the greatest challenges faced by people who are blind stem from their sighted peers’ misunderstanding. Two of the most detrimental myths—on opposite ends of the spectrum, yet equally harmful—are that a blind person is either (1) a “superman” or “wonder-woman” who can do amazing things even though he or she is blind, or (2) an unfortunate soul incapable of doing even the simplest task. It would be far more helpful to the blind person to view him or her—and treat him or her—as a regular person.

“Treat me as an individual, just as you would anyone else,” says Leslie Gertsch of Woods Cross, Utah. “Just because once upon a time you knew a blind person who behaved a certain way, don’t expect me to be the same.”

An experience related by Bruce Gardner, a blind attorney in Phoenix, Arizona, illustrates both extremes. When Bruce moved into his ward, he met a teenager, blind from birth, who was intelligent and outgoing. But ward members treated him as though he were helpless: they led him everywhere—to the classroom, while passing the sacrament, even to the rest room. “When I moved in and they saw how independent I was, they thought I was an unusual over-achiever,” says Bruce.

“When I was called to be this boy’s home teacher, I immediately bought him a cane. One Saturday morning, we walked the mile to the chapel together, something he had never done before, and then we walked all over the building getting him oriented. After two short sessions he could find his way anywhere in the building independently. The only problem was that some people found it difficult to change their attitude toward him. He is now serving a full-time mission and plans to finish his college degree when he returns.”

A sighted person may close his eyes while doing a difficult task and think, “I couldn’t possibly do this if I were blind!” What he doesn’t realize is that with practice he could do it—and very successfully. Learning to do things without vision or with limited vision requires time, effort, and sometimes even training. But the person who is visually impaired needs neither exaggerated praise nor excessive pity.

“Attitudes toward the blind will always be a problem,” remarks Dr. John Crandell, professor of educational psychology at Brigham Young University. “There are people who are amazed that I can tie my shoes!”

“Getting people to treat me as a ‘normal’ person is one of the hardest things about being blind,” says H. Smith Shumway, a patriarch and father of eight in Cheyenne, Wyoming. “I try to be nice and not defensive, but you feel as if you have to prove yourself everywhere you go.”

Pam Taylor of Bennion, Utah, agrees. She and her husband, Milt, both visually impaired, have seven children, including fifteen-month-old twins. “It’s frustrating that whenever something goes wrong with one of the kids, like a discipline problem, people think it’s because I am blind, not just that every parent experiences such problems with children.”

Can a Blind Person Really Serve in the Church?

Members with visual impairments have served in virtually every Church calling. Even prophets and Apostles have continued to serve the Lord effectively and successfully despite visual impairment—from Isaac and Jacob, both of whom experienced “dim” vision in later years, to President George Albert Smith and Elder Richard L. Evans, both of whom were totally blind in one eye. President Marion G. Romney was heard to jokingly refer to the visual impairments of aged President Spencer W. Kimball, President N. Eldon Tanner, and himself—then members of the First Presidency—as “three blind mice”!

Dr. John Crandell points out the obvious but often overlooked truth that “not everyone can be a great teacher or leader, but blindness is not the cause of that. Unto each—including each blind person—is given a gift, but few have all gifts. Let the blind person develop his or her own talents and abilities.”

“It’s not fair to impose your own set of abilities or limitations on others,” says Ron Gardner. “It’s not fair for a sighted person to say, for example, ‘If I were blind, I couldn’t be a Varsity Scout leader; therefore, you can’t be one.’ Just because others, sighted or blind, may not be able to figure out a way to do it, doesn’t mean I can’t.”

Too many blind members find that their opportunities to serve are limited because of others’ attitudes. Clair Todd, a sister from Norwich, England, who now resides in Homestead, Florida, says, “In some wards—fortunately not my current one—I have not been considered for callings because I am blind. These were callings that I could have done without difficulty! In one instance, the bishop was inspired to call me as Young Adult representative, but he kept rejecting the prompting with the thought, ‘But Heavenly Father, she can’t do it!’ Again and again the prompting came, and finally the bishop approached me. Of course I was able to do it!”

What Are Some Other Challenges?

No matter how well an individual may have adjusted to blindness, there are still many challenges. A sighted brother of a blind lawyer remembers, “My brother handles everything so well that when I recently caught him feeling depressed about his blindness, I was really surprised. I hadn’t stopped to think that it is still a struggle, and I was chagrined to think I’d become so insensitive.”

Reading. The inability to read print is one of the biggest challenges of nearly every blind person. Reading mail and paying bills may be difficult if not impossible; keeping current on the latest developments or trends is difficult; trying to help a child with homework can be frustrating for both parent and child.

Modern technological advances have made the accessing of printed materials much easier than in days when braille was the only available medium. (See “Resources for the Visually Impaired,” p. 46, this issue.) Since becoming blind, I have learned to use a computer with voice synthesizer; this has allowed me to continue writing and editing, which I did professionally for a number of years before going blind. Imagine my joy recently when the Church announced that it had just produced a new computerized scripture program. I have found that this program facilitates in-depth scripture study which was previously very difficult. (See Ensign, Apr. 1988, p. 72.) And I’m grateful for the other Church resources, such as magazines and lesson manuals, that are available to me on tape. However, tape recorders and computers are only a partial answer; since it is so hard to speed-read with this equipment, the volume of material a blind person can consume is limited.

How can sensitive Church members help? “When people ask me to substitute teach for them,” says Dianne Brown of Salt Lake City, “it would be very helpful if they would read the lesson onto a cassette tape. Finding a reader available at the time I am able to work on the lesson is sometimes very difficult.”

Often someone will bring by a lesson, handout, or newsletter and say, “Have your husband read this to you when he has a minute.” What they don’t realize is that we already have a two-inch stack of mail and other things that he needs to read to me, and we are both very busy people! Sometimes it’s after midnight before we finally have time to sit down together and read a lesson I’m supposed to give.

Dr. Thomas H. Pettit, a professor of ophthalmology at the University of California at Los Angeles Medical Center and associate director of the Jules Stein Eye Institute, notes, “As a bishop, I would frequently set up teams of people to prepare tapes of materials for the visually impaired as a service project. It worked out well, since many in my area had an interest in drama and were delighted to read into a tape recorder.”

Another reading dilemma, says Tommy Miyasaki of Sugar City, Idaho, “is when teachers write on the chalkboard or display a poster without reading what is written.”

I appreciated the awareness and thoughtfulness displayed by one Relief Society teacher. She gave me a cassette containing the same message she had printed up for the other sisters. She also made an extra effort during her lesson to describe any visual aids she used.

Transportation. The need to rely on others for transportation and the resulting loss of independence is also frustrating to the blind. Finding rides to meetings and activities, to the store, to the doctor, and to the multitude of places an average family needs to go can be burdensome—particularly for a mother who must also find rides for her children to ball games, music lessons, and school activities. “People are willing to help,” says Ron Gardner, “but you find yourself always at the mercy of their busy schedules.”

“People at church have asked me, ‘Where were you?’ and sometimes the answer is simply that I didn’t have a ride,” says Leslie Gertsch. “It’s annoying to always have to ask. Sometimes I would sooner stay home than ask again.”

Sensitive Church members can make a great difference. “I’ve had home teaching companions who were always willing to drive, even when I lived in wards covering large areas,” says Dr. Crandell. Mary Maxfield, a widow in Salt Lake City, says that ward members take her to the temple monthly and to weekly church meetings.

Ward members frequently call me to see if I have a ride to homemaking meeting or if my children need rides somewhere. They offer so frequently that it is easier for me to call when no one happens to offer.

Other Activities. Wendy Bybee and her son James, of West Valley City, Utah, both blind from birth, have found that a helpful Church leader can make a great difference. “James used to have trouble in Scouting, but his current Blazer Scout leader is super! She has spent extra time helping him learn to tie knots; she also prints up materials in larger print for him and always makes sure the announcements she sends home are in dark enough print for me to read. She has helped me find ways to help James pass off merit badges so that it’s fair to him but doesn’t make the other boys think he’s getting off easy.”

But even such typical Church functions as ward buffet dinners can still be frustrating. You should see the spectacle we make as my husband tries to shepherd the children and me through the lines! We each balance a couple of plates as he tries to describe to me the endless varieties of choices. He’ll say something like, “Well, there is a medium-beige sort of salad, and a casserole with some funny brown things in it, and some square cookies and other round ones, but I can’t tell if those things are raisins or chocolate chips.” All the while we try to avoid bumping into the arms and elbows of other people who are reaching for food. Meanwhile, we try to keep our rambunctious three-year-old from poking her finger into the cupcakes or dumping her plate of sloppy joes on the floor! Offers of assistance from less-encumbered ward members are extremely welcome.

Social Acceptance. Although people are kind to them at church meetings, some blind people find that they are seldom invited to do anything socially. One time, several sisters sitting around me in Relief Society were laughing about the great time they’d had water-skiing together. I was hurt not only that I hadn’t been included, but also that they were unaware that I even felt left out. They seemed to take it for granted that a blind person couldn’t water-ski. The truth is that I had learned to water-ski after going blind! And I love it!

It’s more difficult to be outgoing in getting to know people than it used to be before I became blind. I can’t just go sit by anyone I want to or find someone in a crowd after church. And I can’t see who the new faces in the ward are. I often just have to sit and hope that someone will take the initiative to come and sit by me.

But Could I Ever Be Comfortable around a Blind Person?

Perhaps people are afraid they’ll do or say something offensive to a blind person. But since I always make jokes about my blindness, one way I can tell that others have become comfortable with my handicap is that they also begin to tease me about it. I just want people to treat me like they would any other friend.

A ward member told me that one day she saw a car driving by and, thinking I was the driver, she waved. A moment later, she thought, “How silly! Laurie’s blind; she can’t see me wave.” Her mind didn’t find it at all incongruous that I could be driving the car. “I felt so silly when I thought of it later,” she told me. “But then, I always forget you are blind.” Perhaps that is the greatest compliment I am ever paid—when people think of me as they would any other individual, with my blindness becoming an incidental characteristic. “I forget you’re blind”—that’s music to my ears.

What Can I Do?

  1. Get acquainted with those who are blind so you can understand their individual needs, rather than making assumptions about what they can or cannot do. Ask if you can help before imposing your services on them. When they say they don’t need help, believe them.

  2. Be thoughtful and alert to service opportunities. If you’re going somewhere, see if they need to go or if they would like you to pick up something. Offer so they don’t always have to ask.

  3. Allow them to serve. If you aren’t sure whether they can do something, ask. Don’t assume either abilities or limitations.

  4. Identify yourself when you greet them. Don’t play the game of “Who is this?” Many times they will recognize your voice, but they appreciate it when you identify yourself.

  5. If they want to walk with you, let them take your arm and follow; don’t grab an arm and push them. If they are walking with a cane, ask, “May I help you?” rather than taking it for granted that they need you. When you are helping them find a seat, place their hand on the back of a chair rather than pushing them into it. Remember: they probably require less assistance than you think.

  6. Offer to read or tape-record material for them if it is not already available on tape. When reading, say “quote” and “end of quote” when appropriate.

  7. When giving lessons, read the visual aids or items written on the chalkboard.

  8. Don’t be afraid to use words and phrases like “See what I mean?” around them. They use them, too.

  9. Talk directly to them; don’t ask questions through someone else. Blindness doesn’t impair their intelligence. And talk in a normal tone of voice rather than shouting; most blind people are not deaf.

  10. Do not pet, feed, or talk to a guide dog unless the person who is blind says you may. The dog is supposed to be paying attention to the blind person, so just pretend that the dog isn’t there.

  11. Don’t assume that their other senses, such as hearing, are automatically enhanced. They do learn to use their other senses more fully, but there’s no such thing as natural compensation.

  12. Get to know them! Be friends. It will enrich your life as well as theirs.

Resources for the Visually Impaired

  1. The scriptures, the new Church hymnbook, the Ensign, and many manuals, study guides, and Church books are available on cassette tape, in large print, or in braille through the Salt Lake Distribution Center. Refer to the distribution center catalog in your meetinghouse library.

  2. For a list of additional Church materials available to the visually impaired—or for suggestions or ideas—contact Church Special Curriculum, 50 East North Temple Street, Salt Lake City, Utah 84150. (Telephone 801-240-2477.)

  3. Check with your local library to find out how to order recorded textbooks, novels, magazines, and other publications. In some areas, half-speed tape players are available without charge to the blind.

  4. Computers that can be adapted for speech synthesizers, large print, or braille output are available, making accessible a wide variety of programs that are helpful to the blind.

  5. Many government and community agencies sponsor training programs for the blind and for parents of blind children. Check with local agencies for programs available in your area.

  • Laurie Wilson Thornton is first counselor in the stake Young Women presidency in the West Bountiful Utah Stake. She has been totally blind for seven years. She and her husband, Scott, have four children, two of whom were adopted after she became blind.

Photography by Longin Lonczyna

Ron Gardner, first counselor in his ward’s Young Men presidency, is also teachers quorum adviser and a Varsity Scout leader. On the way to quorum meeting he chats with Doug Larsen (left) and Brian Evans (center) about the fishing and kayaking they enjoyed during a recent high-adventure Varsity camp at Utah’s Flaming Gorge Reservoir.

Blindness hasn’t hindered Linda Braithwaite’s opportunities to develop or share her musical talents. She has served as organist and pianist in several wards and currently sings in the Tabernacle Choir.

Following suggestions of a supportive Blazer Scout leader, Wendy Bybee has found ways to help her son James pass off merit badges “so that it’s fair to him but doesn’t make the other boys think he’s getting off easy.” Both mother and son have been blind since birth.