SALEM (AP) — At the talk of white canes and cane signals, and crossing streets, Terry Chapman is reduced to tears.
It’s too much. At this moment, it’s too much.
“I’m very timid and frightened, and I’ve never been that way in my life and I find myself lost,” she says, holding tight to a tall wooden staff that her husband, Bob, carved for her.
There are eight or so people gathered around a large table listening to Terry speak. She can’t see them well. Most of them can’t see her, either.
They are telling her that a white cane is important because it alerts the public to vision impairment. Terry’s left eye is dark, but she has some vision in her right, peripheral mostly.
She resists. Bob touches her leg comfortingly.
“I’m here because I realize it’s only going to get worse,” she says.
Carol M. McCarl founded Blindskills Inc., 30 years ago in January. How the world has changed since then.
Today there are talking scales, alarm clocks and thermometers. There are vibrating canes that detect obstacles and GPS devices for the blind. Books on tape that had to be ordered by mail decades ago can be downloaded by dinnertime. There are methods for voting privately and independently.
Blind since birth, McCarl taught visually impaired students for 35 years in Connecticut and Oregon. During her time working for the Oregon School for the Blind, she traveled to public schools in several Oregon counties. McCarl remembers the day a child ran her hand over the book she was reading.
“When she felt my book was in Braille, she jumped into my lap and said, ‘You read like me!’” McCarl remembers. “When I left the school that day, I thought, ‘There’s nobody there like her when I’m gone. All these kids are the only one of their kind in these schools.’ “
It was clear the children needed a role model. McCarl founded the nonprofit Blindskills — skills one needs to be successful as a blind person — and a magazine called Lifeprints, written solely by blind or visually impaired people about their accomplishments, work and hobbies.
In 1990, Blindskills took on the task of publishing a second magazine called Dialogue. Five years later, the two publications merged and Dialogue stands today. Blindskills continues to fulfill its mission through the magazine, but also by offering a toll-free help line and a monthly support group.
“The hardest part about losing sight,” McCarl says, “is not knowing where to turn.”
With vision loss, people need time to express their anger and fear. It’s a grieving process with many stages.
“Especially when they’re older and haven’t had those problems all their lives,” says Cathy Bickerdike, who volunteered in McCarl’s classroom at the Oregon School for the Blind in the ‘70s.
Macular degeneration, for example, is the leading cause of impairment among people ages 65 and older, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The eye disorder results in permanent impairment of sharp and central vision. By 2020, it’s estimated that nearly 3 million people will be affected.
Bickerdike and McCarl formed the Blindskills support group in 1994. Today, it’s called Shared Visions and, as its name suggests, people with varying degrees of vision gather monthly in the MICAH Building on State Street.
Every session begins the same: with members sharing an “SMS” or a “WOW.” The former stands for “save my sanity.”
Attendees are invited to share a recent struggle: “I have bumps and bruises from running into things.”
The WOWs are a skill or feat accomplished independently: “I voted.”
“Sometimes I think the SMSs and WOWs are what keeps us coming back,” McCarl said.
At 92, Marge Moore is reinventing herself.
The walls of her West Salem home are covered with her paintings. They represent two significant time periods: art before vision loss and art after vision loss.
The “before” paintings are impressionistic in style. They are soft watercolor landscapes and French scenes created with delicate techniques. The post vision-loss paintings are abstract explosions of color. Color Moore can see.
She describes her new style of art as “far out.”
In her vision loss, Moore found a sharp sense of humor and a new outlook on life. She appreciates people more and is grateful for her talent and what little vision she has left. She has macular degeneration in one eye and glaucoma in the other. Tunnel vision in one. Peripheral in the other.
“I’ve got two eyes that don’t match,” she likes to say.
Moore’s vision loss in her right eye came suddenly two years ago, when a blood vessel burst. At first, she was certain she would be heading to a retirement home. An Oregon Commission for the Blind mobility instructor visited her and assessed her needs. He suggested she attend the Blindskills support group meetings.
Moore took his advice, and she was inspired when she learned McCarl has lived independently for many years.
As Moore gained confidence, she realized that though her vision had slipped away, her urge to paint had not. She’s been an artist all her life, and an accomplished one at that. She just wasn’t ready to hang up her paintbrushes, and so she decided to explore a new style.
“I’ve decided I’m gifted with intuition in the creative department and it’s still there,” she said. “Even though I can’t see, it’s still there.”
All the technological advances in the world can’t change public perception.
“We try to use every opportunity to clear up some of the misconceptions people have about sight issues,” says B.T. Kimbrough, executive director of Blindskills and editor of Dialogue Magazine.
Kimbrough always is willing to answer questions about being blind, but he treasures the times when a stranger wants to chat about politics, music, sports, “the real stuff of life having nothing to do with this one single characteristic of blindness.”
The Kentucky native was blinded within his first year after tumbling down a set of stairs. He was diagnosed with optic nerve atrophy. Today, nearly seven decades later, he has light perception in his left eye. He also has more than 30 years of management experience in broadcasting, publishing and assistive technology.
Dispelling misconceptions is important not only for the public, but for people who are facing vision loss. Kimbrough realizes it can be frightening and challenging, but essential information can’t be absorbed by fear.
Blindskills receives about 2,000 calls each month on its toll-free line from people across the U.S. and a few other countries. The group has personal contacts to help locate services and organizations .
“There are many new skills to learn — many misconceptions to unlearn about the role of sight in everyday tasks,” Kimbrough says, “and many different adaptions to master.”
Terry Chapman is taking baby steps. The first step was attending Shared Visions. Maybe next she will use a white cane, although it’s not likely. She enjoys the weight of her wooden staff. She feels safe with it in hand.
The 63-year-old former nurse had plans for this phase of her life, and they didn’t include losing her hairbrush on a regular basis or feeling lost in familiar places.
Bob cooks and grocery shops. Shopping for women’s clothing drives him crazy. The Chapmans’ house isn’t in a state for company these days.
“I can’t let people in. They wouldn’t understand. It’s embarrassing,” Terry says, and then adds with a hearty laugh: “And they might move something.”
Terry has always been an optimist. She liked the idea of a support group because of the camaraderie.
As she and her husband head to the parking lot outside Salem Public Library on a recent morning, Bob asks her if she wants him to get the car so she doesn’t need to navigate any steps.
“No,” Terry says with a heavy sigh, “I’ll give it a go.”
Information from: Statesman Journal, http://www.statesmanjournal.com
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.