Handling Vision Loss in Minnesota

Handling Vision Loss in Minnesota

Has vision loss robbed you of many of the things you once enjoyed? Do you feel isolated and cooped up in your house? Have you given up driving and are no longer able to read the newspaper? If you have experienced any of these things, you probably feel angry, depressed, and overwhelmed by life. Members of the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota (NFBM) know how you feel and want to help you begin putting your life back together.

We can provide you with the basics of getting started as you adjust to vision loss. We want to help you think about possibilities and new beginnings. The National Federation of the Blind has a wonderful series of kernel books full of short stories written by people who have solved many problems with creativity and ingenuity. You can read these kernel books at the Kernel Books section of the NFB website.

The first thing to remember is that you are not alone. Each year, hundreds of Minnesotans experience a change in their lifestyle due to vision loss. Putting out of your mind all the old images and stereotypes you previously held about blindness and how people function is the first step along the road back to independence. After all, vision loss did not take away your ability to think, carry on a normal conversation, or your desire to help others. People with low vision or total blindness are working in competitive jobs, doing volunteer work, and serving as leaders in their communities. 

The second thing to remember is that there is usually a solution to every situation you are facing. For example, if you are a mom and have questions about how you can manage a household, the federation can put you in touch with visually impaired moms who are raising children and participating actively in their communities. If you are a senior, we can introduce you to many people who have learned the skills of blindness and are helping others as they begin the adjustment process. 

The third thing to remember is that there are many ways to accomplish a task non visually. If you use oven mitts to remove an item from an oven rather than using a potholder, it really doesn't matter-the food still tastes the same. Marking medicines with adhesive-backed dots, large print labels or talking prescription labels means you know exactly where your medications are and when to take them. Folding a five-dollar bill one way and a ten-dollar bill another will ensure that when you make a purchase, you will know exactly what money you are handing the clerk. Learning about these little things will give you a feeling of pride and help you take the bigger steps toward independence.

There are many products designed to help visually impaired people return to work competitively, read newspapers, and participate in recreational activities. For more information about these products, see products that help blind people. For a complete list of resources on many topics, see the complete resource list.

Where Do I Begin?

Start by getting more organized! Since you can't glance in the cupboard to find the can of mushroom soup, develop a system that makes sense to you for locating various food items. Vegetables may go on one shelf and fruits on another. Taking pre-made labels to the grocery store and placing them on the items as you purchase them will help you when you are putting the groceries away. Whatever system you create, stick to it, and ask your family members to follow it. After a while, forming these new habits will become second nature and automatic. Think of each room in your house and the things you need to find on a regular basis. You want to know where your favorite shirt is, the stack of bills that need to be paid, and important telephone numbers. You don't have to spend lots of money to get organized. Pill boxes work nicely for storing earrings, plastic containers rather than the coffee table can be used for keeping important papers together, and big print check registers, calendars and address books can be very helpful in locating information you need quickly. 

Asking for Help

One of the hardest adjustments to vision loss is having to ask for help when you are used to doing things yourself. Remember, your family and friends feel just as awkward as you do. They may want to help you but don't know how. The more you can tell them about how to help you or not help you, the less awkward they will feel. You will quickly determine which people genuinely don't mind picking you up, will help sort through mail, or assist in your initial organization efforts. If you were a contributing member of a group, the members will still want you to be a part of it. People want to spend time with you because of who you are, and will usually make the effort to get you where you need to go. Having a meeting at your house will solve the problem of transportation and will give you confidence in your ability to serve as a host or hostess. Asking for help will never be easy no matter how long you are visually impaired. However, if you think about it, everybody asks for help from somebody. Parents help their children, employers help their employees, and neighbors help each other. The more opportunities you have to demonstrate how you do things despite vision loss, the less awkward people will feel.

Okay, so I have accepted the fact that I need to do some things differently. But who will teach me what I need to know? 

Locally, Blindness: Learning In New Dimensions (BLIND, Inc.) offers a variety of training programs designed to help people of all ages learn what we often call the skills of blindness. By these skills we mean: using a computer with magnification and speech software, walking around with confidence using a white cane, learning to read and write braille, and cooking all sorts of delicious foods using non visual techniques. 

In addition to the programs offered at BLIND, Inc., State Services for the Blind (SSB) provides a variety of services to legally blind adults of all ages. Rehabilitation teachers visit people in their homes and teach home management skills. SSB contracts with private vendors to teach independent travel and computer skills. Job placement services and guidance and counseling are provided free of charge. 

What Happens After Training?

Once you have participated in a training program and gained some new skills, you will be ready to share your experiences with others. The National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota has .local chapters that meet monthly. We will appreciate your contributions and wisdom as we continue to seek new ways to expand and grow. Providing us with additional resources, tips you found helpful in adjusting to vision loss, and your ideas for how we can better serve legally blind Minnesotans will also be appreciated. 

Questions People Ask about Vision Loss

I still have some remaining vision. If I use a white cane, won't I be misleading people? I don't want to look more blind than I really am.

Using the white cane simply indicates that you have a visual impairment. The public does not usually stop to think about how much you can or can't see when they see a cane in your hand. Many people feel that using the cane means there is no hope and that it's like giving up and accepting defeat. Read these two illustrations of people facing this all-important decision and form your own opinion as to which one is really beginning the adjustment process. The names are fictitious, but the situations are real and are repeated on a daily basis in homes across Minnesota and the United States. 

Jane is a middle-aged woman who is losing vision due to macular degeneration. She quit her job as an administrative assistant and is feeling overwhelmed by not being able to drive where she wants to go. She has dropped out of many of the activities she once enjoyed because she can no longer recognize people by sight and she feels very self-conscious about her vision loss. She never leaves her house at night and is staying home more and more in the day time unless somebody accompanies her. Her husband wants to help but is afraid to push her too hard. After all, he doesn't really know what she is going through. . Recently, she tripped over a step while grocery shopping and the embarrassment seemed overwhelming. Her best friend offers to help her find some resources but Jane is reluctant because she still has some remaining vision. 

Don is rapidly losing vision due to diabetes. He is the owner of a dry cleaning business and enjoys his work very much. He needs to continue working so he can support his two teenage children as they pursue their college educations. Since no one in his family was able to drive him to work, he had to find another way. He tried using friends and neighbors, but somehow their schedules didn't always match. He knew there was a bus stop near his workplace, but he had never used public transportation in his life. Crossing that busy street a block from his business seemed terrifying to him.

After much soul searching, Don decided to take the plunge and learn how to use the white cane. At first, he felt self conscious and was sure everybody was looking at him. After all, what would the neighbors and his business associates think? Would they take advantage of him or feel sorry for him? Don had no idea how his decision would affect others around him. Ethel, who was a regular customer at Don's dry cleaners, was also losing vision, but she didn't want anybody to know. One day she saw Don walking down the street with his white cane. The next time she had her clothes dry-cleaned, they had a wonderful conversation about vision loss and what they were both experiencing. Ethel felt relieved to talk with someone, and Don felt proud that he could help one of his loyal customers.

Some factors to consider in determining when you should think about using a white cane

  • Fear of falling down stairs in public places because you can no longer see them.
  • Always looking at your feet when walking rather than holding your head up
  • When you can no longer read street signs.
  • If you are limiting your activities simply because you are afraid to leave your home unaccompanied.
  • If you cannot locate items in a store and need help reading price tags. People are more likely to assist you if they understand why you are asking for help.

Should I learn braille and how long does it take?

Braille is not that difficult to learn once you understand the logical way in which it was created. It is a system of six dots-that doesn't sound too hard, right? The first ten letters are written using combinations of four of the dots. The letters K through T are written by adding another dot. The letters U through Z are written with combinations adding the sixth dot. As with anything, the amount of time it takes you to learn depends on how much time you spend practicing. At first, progress will seem slow and you will probably feel as if you have gone back to first grade and are starting school all over. 

Many people who have remaining vision use braille on a daily basis. Learning braille does not mean you should stop reading print altogether. Braille can either be your main means of reading or a supplement to whatever printed information you can still read. 

We have known people in their 70's and 80's who learned braille and used it to make grocery lists, write down telephone numbers, and copy their favorite recipes. The pleasure of reading the words yourself will be worth all the time it took you to learn it. 

Once you have made the decision to learn braille, there are several ways to motivate yourself to practice.

  • Think of something you really want to read. Once you have mastered the code, picture yourself reading in that favorite spot in your house and your fingers gliding over the words.
  • Set a timer. If it took you ten minutes to read a page one day, see if you can do it a minute faster the next day. 
  • Don't forget to reward yourself once you have made significant progress. Special treats are even more special when you think of the reason you are enjoying them.
  • Write down a list of all your family's birthdays, anniversaries and other important dates. Even if you have them in your head, the writing practice will reinforce braille's usefulness in your daily activities.
  • Make it a point to read braille numbers in elevators, ask for a braille menu in a restaurant, or write down the words to some of your favorite songs and practice reading them.
  • Practice reading short stories to children. They like nothing better than to snuggle up close to someone they love and be read to.

Members of the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota want to help you learn and stay motivated to keep practicing. If you never start, you will miss out on one of the greatest pleasures in life-reading.

How Can I Still Cook? 

If you enjoyed cooking before your vision loss, you will figure out all sorts of ways to adapt to preparing food with limited or no vision. First, when you find it difficult to read the dials on your oven, stove or microwave, you need to mark the appliances with dots, braille labels, or a bright-colored glue-like substance called High Marks. Once your appliances are marked so you can read them easily, you have made a big first step.

If you have cooked for a long time, you probably have most of your favorite recipes in your head. At first, you may have to do a little more pre-planning before cooking a meal. You will want to have all your spices labeled and in a location where you can find them with ease. For items you use often, it would be helpful to copy the package directions into a notebook organized by food type, pastas, vegetables etc. The more information you have in whatever format you find easiest to read, the less you will have to ask others to help you. Products like pie-cutting guides, measuring cups with raised markings, elbow-length oven mitts, and timers with easy-read dots all help visually impaired people to prepare delicious meals with ease. These items can be purchased at some local stores and from the Independence Market of the National Federation of the Blind by calling 410-659-9314.

If you participate in a training program for the visually impaired, you will learn simple ways to organize your kitchen, and prepare meals for yourself and others. You will probably find that once you are organized, using alternative techniques to cook is just as efficient as looking at a recipe or reading the package directions as you go. 

There is no right way to do everything. Adjusting to vision loss is an ongoing process. What works for one person will be difficult for another. The main thing is to keep going and not give up. Members of the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota care about you and want to help you locate the resources and services you need.