When we pulled up in front of Ron’s house the first thing I noticed was the startling clean line of porch and shrubbery. There was nothing to trip over. In fact, a thick doormat was placed in front of the porch itself, so a blind person would know when it was time to step up onto the porch.
Very clever, I thought. I smiled nervously at John as I rang the doorbell. I haven’t met many blind people.
Ron opened the door with an enthusiastic smile, and invited us in. As we all introduced ourselves, I was struck by the fact that he seemed to know exactly where we were standing, and how far to extend a hand to shake.
Several months ago I wrote about meeting Ron Freitas on the phone. We became acquainted after I read his story in The Little House That Cares, a book of stories by blind people, published by the VIPS of Modesto . VIPS means Visually Impaired Persons Suppoort. When I told Ron I was thinking about putting patches on my eyes, and experiencing a day of blindness, he enthusiastically invited me to his home for a few pointers!
Ron is a retired resource teacher for the city of Modesto. He worked for the school district for 30 years. It became obvious that he is a teacher when he reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out some index cards covered with Braille writing, “How much time do you have?”
John and I grinned at each other. Clearly our visit was not an imposition. Ron was going to enjoy being a teacher as much as I was going to enjoy being a student.
“Be careful,” Mr. Freitas warned, as he turned to lead us into his living room, “there’s a step-down here.” As we walked he held out the back of his hand so it gently ran along the wall. This is called trailing, he explained, a way of seeing where you are going when you can’t see with your eyes.
The living room was fairly cluttered, but in a precise and orderly way. A table was covered with reading materials and a collection of vitamins and pills. He explained that a reader, a family friend, comes over to read to him, and also sorts the pills and vitamins into their various compartments of several containers.
The walls were covered with family pictures, and a guitar stood off to the side. Yes, he plays the guitar. And his wife is a very good singer he told us proudly.
He indicated a desk with some paper and a strange typewriter-like machine. “This is a Braille writer. I’ll show you how to use it, but first, let’s take a walk – do you remember what I said about trailing?” He pulled two different kinds of blindfolds from a desk drawer and handed them out to me, offering me a choice. Or no choice.
We walked through several rooms of his house, trailing hands along the walls and counter edges. John followed, taking notes and pictures. Sometimes, Ron said, he uses his cane in the house if there is company or things have been moved. A cane will give advance warning of anything that might not be normal. You hold the cane in front of you and slowly move it from side to side. When the cane is on your left, you step forward with your right foot, and vise-versa, in a natural rhythm. There were several canes placed strategically at doorways around the house.
Blindfolded, I followed John and Ron outside, where I practiced using the cane. Ron then showed us the appropriate way to help a blind person. He said most blind people are glad of help in a strange place or in public, but many sighted people feel awkward about offering. Simply ask if you can help. When you are guiding a blind person allow him or her to hold your arm just above the elbow and walk at a natural pace, keeping your eyes open for obstacles, unevenness and stops.
There is a lot of help available to blind people today. Ron told us that, among other gadgets, he has a talking watch, thermometers, and pedometer. And you can hear just about anything on the computer. People who are born blind can learn about the shape of very large things by holding models of cars, elephants etc.
Back in the living room, Ron explained the Braille system and machine. The Braille writer has six keys, and using a shorthand system of six dots arranged in differing order, Braille letters and words are pushed into heavier than normal paper. The blind person reads the Braille by running his fingers gently over the tiny impressions.
Ron demonstrated the Braille-writer, then insisted that I put on the blindfold again, and sit down for a turn at the machine.
My respect for blind people soared, as I nervously tried to remember Ron’s instructions on how to sightlessly maneuver those six keys. It was really hard, but I was able write a few simple words.
One of the ways to learn the alphabet is with a Braille model with 6 ping pong balls in cells. The balls can be moved around and removed make the various letters. There are also Braille shorcuts for commonly used words.
It staggered me to think about trying to learn so many new things, but the VIPS book was full of stories about people who became blind in later life and were able to successfully learn, and live victoriously.
Finally we said goodbye to Mr. Freitas, and thanked him for his help, and headed home. It was time to put on my eye patches and experience an afternoon of blindness.
To be continued…