Teaching Blinded Veterans to Cope

By CDR Byron D. Varner, U.S. Navy (Ret.)

Miracles happen as a matter of course here at the Blind Rehabilitation Center, Tucson, AZ, where staff members of this world-leading state-of-the-arts facility go about their daily business of improving the mental outlook and physical ability of newly blinded veterans. It is obvious they love their work.

These transformations of perspective quickly become a positive change in the lives and well-being of the “students” as they learn they can perform many functions they may have thought impossible.

Most of them have lost or are losing their sight because of accidents, various eye diseases or degeneration. Talking with a number of these men and women of varying age and physical infirmities was a heartwarming experience.

Their upbeat attitude and high praise for this facility and its dedicated staff of professionals was a recurring theme. They made no derogatory comments about anything, not even about the food — which is rare for a former serviceman! But according to Executive Director Jim Hennessey, “There is no reason anyone should leave here with a complaint.”

Too often, the only news one hears about VA hospitals is an occasional story about how bad things are — which is sometimes misrepresented in fact, but widely believed nonetheless. If there is anything bad about this particular facility, it certainly isn't evidenced by the veterans undergoing this training.

The first thing one notes upon entering the building is its vibrant interior colors — bright and cheery, with special color markings on the floors and walls. The decor is not only attractive, but serves as landmarks for those students who can detect light and color. Most blind people have that ability to some degree. As they walk along the passageways practicing the use of a white guide stick, the color changes help them discern their exact location on any given floor of the building. They can find various class or work rooms without assistance.

Equally striking is the friendly and helpful attitude of the people who work here. Some of the staff members are themselves blind veterans, but the casual observer might not realize it watching them go about their business with little or no physical aid. They are outstanding examples of what the Center teaches its students — self confidence, belief in one's ability, and how to lead near normal lives, including completion of higher education, after losing their vision.

Typical of these is Robert Moreno, a former Army Sergeant who was blinded when his Jeep overturned during night field maneuvers. He was 23 years old at the time and thought his whole world had ended with the accident. But, completing the blind rehabilitation program at Palo Alto, CA, changed all that. Now, in addition to holding a responsible job as Outreach and Recreation Coordinator at the Center, he has completed his bachelor degree and is working his masters and a Law Degree.

One of Robert's favorite pastimes is jogging, which he encourages incoming students to do and accompanies them as their tethered guide in the beginning stages. If you think that is safe and easy, blindfold yourself and try it! He is also a computer buff at work and at home, something he learned through the blind rehabilitation program. “I 'see' more now than I did before I lost my sight,” he marveled.

What kind of recreation would you select for a blind person? At the Center there seems to be few limits in their quest for normalcy in students' activities. They take them to such places as the golf driving range, bowling alley, horseback riding, fish fries, movies, plays, local areas of interest, shopping, restaurants, arts and crafts shows, bingo, and some have even competed in marathon runs for local charities.

Paul Hanley, a retired Air Force officer in his 70s from San Antonio, talked about the program during his session of weaving a chair seat, stopping occasionally for approval or further instructions by a staffer. “This place is wonderful,” he said warmly. “At first, I thought doing something like handweaving this chair bottom as kind of silly, but now I realize I needed to learn patience and tactual control — improving my sense of feel.

“These people are so good and deserve every accolade you can give them. We each have our own private room here and are provided food, medical care and lots of love during our stay.”

Newly blinded veterans have many concerns, ranging from employment, financial matters, health care needs, loss of independence, etc. The inability to drive their car, for example, is a major negative impact that requires dependency on others and limits their freedom. Being unable to read newspapers, correspondence, bills or magazines, or even complete simple forms is a frustrating experience, as is not doing simple repair jobs, using tools, equipment and many other things they once took for granted.

In one-on-one sessions, the Center staff trains them to become independent through the following programs:

LOW VISION OPTOMETRY

After careful examination and evaluation of each patient, low vision specialists work closely with each one to help them gain a better understanding of their eye problems and teach them how to effectively use their remaining vision. Those with usable vision receive aids such as lights, prescription glasses and sun glasses, a monocular to read street signs, a lighted magnifying glass, a TV-like monitor to enlarge printed matter and other such devices, as needed.

ORIENTATION AND MOBILITY

Students learn how to use their remaining senses in combination with protective techniques and devices to safely move about in familiar and non-familiar settings. Typical travel situations are trips to restaurants and stores, crossing streets at signal lights, reading street signs, using public transportation, etc.

MANUAL SKILLS

This program evaluates and helps develop independence and confidence through hand skills and work activities. Completing tasks in leather work, copper tooling, weaving and wood products improve follow-through work habits, problem solving and motor skills.

LIVING SKILLS

Developing new techniques and skills to adapt daily living tasks for ease and self-sufficiency meets the assessed needs of each individual. Students who reach certain levels learning to type receive a free typewriter. Other aids such as talking watches and talking computers are beneficial to some.

Instructors in kitchen classrooms teach students how to cook or microwave simple meals for themselves, safely use stoves, dishwashers and other appliances, perform cleanup chores and other household tasks that lessen their dependency on others. Personal grooming and record keeping are also included.


The training time requires about six weeks, depending on the needs of each veteran. Thus, they enter and complete the training at staggered intervals, with an average of 36 students enrolled at any given time.

Their common bond of sightlessness and service connection is a ready nucleus for new friendships that often go beyond the time spent at the Center. The spirit of camaraderie and competition serves to stimulate and challenge each other to greater achievement, or at least to try new things they know others are accomplishing.

All potential students for blind rehabilitation must apply through their local region to complete the qualifying paperwork and arrange entrance dates. The waiting list is expanding as word spreads about the good works of the Center.

Other Blind Rehabilitation Centers or Clinics are located at Palo Alto, Cal., West Haven, Conn., Augusta, Ga., Hines, Ill., Waco, Tex., Tacoma, Wash., and San Juan, Puerto Rico.

This VA Medical Center, in its beautiful Spanish architecture, is located at 3601 Sixth Street in Tucson. That setting was considered remote from downtown in the 1930s, when it was built as a Tuberculosis Sanatorium. It became a VA Hospital sometime after WWII and today is surrounded by the sprawling development of the rapidly expanding city.

In addition to the regular courses the Center also conducts a Computer Access Training program for blind veterans who have a practical need for a computer in their educational pursuits, in their job or in their community service. Eligibility for this program is determined by VIST (Visual Impairment Service Teams) at the veteran's home region.

RICHARD HOUSER is a 36-year-old artist from Colorado. He creates masterful wood carvings, painted in vivid colors, which he gave to fellow students and instructors as a memento of time together. He will use this computer training to assist him in his Durango art studio work.

Richard attributes his loss of sight to excess scope intensity or radiation while serving as an Air Force radar operator. His comments about the Center were, “The instructors are great and everyone seems to really care about you.”

His sense of humor and general good nature was evident during his repartee with fellow student JOHN McDOWELL. Their running commentary was reminiscent of the “Odd Couple.” John is from Waco and is twice Richard's age. He serves as a Director for the Blind Veterans Association, Washington, D. C.

Sightless for some time, he entered the computer course to help him better perform his Association work, which includes writing a newsletter.

Special equipment, such as scanners that read text and provide an audio readout in several languages and magnifiers that enlarge the size of letters on the monitor screen, make computers a wonderful tool for the visually impaired. The VA also provides similar equipment to the veteran for permanent use after he leaves the Center.

At some point in the training period, family members are invited for a special orientation to learn what their loved ones are being taught, to realize the importance of the student's independence and continuance of the new-found skills in the future.

Family members are counseled about when and how to assist the veterans when they return home. They are urged not to coddle them and to insist they do things for themselves as much as possible.

Would you believe these veterans are learning how to use shop tools such as lathes, bandsaws, jigsaws, sanders, routers, awls, and other such machinery and tools of the shop? “Yes, people say it is too dangerous,” answers Director Jim Hennessey, “but life itself is dangerous for these people and we feel the risk is worth it. We want them to learn to do the same things they did or would have learned when they had their sight. Those who want it like it, and do it extremely well.”

Jim is too modest to extol his accomplishments, but several members of his staff say he is America's most outstanding executive in blind rehabilitation. Consequently, this Center is setting the trend for the VA and the world in this field.

One of Hennessey's continuing concerns is VA budget cuts, a problem that faces all VA facilities in the downsizing of the Defense Department. He worries that because his facility has a higher cost factor per patient than other types of veteran care, it is a likely candidate for cuts.

Unlike the active military, however, the WWII and Korean War veteran population is growing and aging to the critical point where low vision and blindness sets in, and the need for blind rehabilitation increases. The VA is unique in providing this type of training and those who can't get it will become a burden to their families or the public.

The positive effects of how this program improves the lives of its blind veterans and their families would seem to more than justify the expense involved. Keeping Apace hopes the cost-cutters in Washington D. C. wont be “blind” to this fact.

A good case in point is what this program has done for MIKE SOMSAN, the youngest veteran undergoing the training at the time of this visit.

On Easter Sunday 1995, Mike became the victim of a drive-by shotgun shooting in Austin, Texas. This Ft. Hood soldier had just been promoted to Captain and looked forward to an Army Career until fate intervened and totally changed his life.

Four months and eight operations later, Mike knew he was totally blind. His left eye had no vision at all and there was only a slight sensitivity to light in his right eye.

Here are Mike Somsan's thoughts about it from our Keeping Apace interview:

KA: “How did you feel when you first realized you were blind?”

Mike: “I was filled with rage, followed by deep resentment. Then I fell into a depressed state, wallowing in self-pity. I threw things over the fence, screamed and hollered and got in the corner and cried a lot. I ran the gamut of emotions.”

KA: “How did you manage to conquer these feelings?”

Mike: “I finally realized, hey, it's not the end of the world. I didn't die from the gunshot wounds and I surely could have, so I acknowledged my gratitude for that. I was thankful that I had lived for 25 years as a sighted person knowing color, form, dawns, sunsets, all the natural beauties of the world, what my family and my fiancee Lisa looks like. It wasn't as if I had been born this way. When I realized all this, I felt I was pretty fortunate despite my sudden blindness. That was the turning point.”

KA: “What about your parents and Lisa?

Mike: “They've all been very strong, loving and supportive, which helped me overcome the self-pity and made me appreciate what I'm starting out with in my quest to return to normalcy. One doesn't appreciate what he has until he loses it — even simple things we hardly give thought to in sighted life.”

KA: “What do you think is the general public's attitude about blind people?”

Mike: “A lot of people seem to think our handicap is God's punishment for some wrongdoing, or that He singles us out for His purpose. If we accept this, it only adds to the burden of the sudden handicap thrust upon us. Others must think if we're blind, we must be deaf, too. Lisa and I were in a store and I asked a clerk several questions, but she kept answering to Lisa, not to me. I suppose the most common misconception is that we are helpless.”

KA: “What is the most important thing you feel you need to accomplish here?”

Mike: “To regain my independence and my self respect. The latter is not so difficult as the former. I am basically still the same person I was before the shooting occurred and I'll work to be accepted as that same man — not as a blind man. The beauty of this program is that we get a lot of tough love and that's what we need to learn to do for ourselves and be as independent as possible when we leave here.”

KA: “Is this training all you thought it would be?”

Mike: “Yes, and more! These people here deserve all the credit in the world. They are doing an outstanding job. It certainly has given me a new lease on life!”

KA: “Well, you're fortunate in one respect. With your tax-free 100% disability retirement, you won't have the financial burden some of your friends here have had.”

Mike: “That is true, but I'd give it back in a minute to regain my eyesight.”

KA: “What is your educational background and do you have any definite plans for the future at this time?”

Mike: “I received my ROTC commission after attending both Cornell University and University of Hawaii, with a degree in Business and Hospital Administration. I plan to seek a Law Degree after I get settled.”

KA: “Do you come from a military family?”

Mike: “Yes, my father graduated from West Point and was career Army.”

KA: “What about computers?”

Mike: “I used computers before I lost my sight and will complete the Computer Access Training here as well. With my previous knowledge it should be easier for me than for some.”

KA: “Yesterday morning, you were standing at a lathe in the woodworking shop with Lisa at your side and the instructor was explaining this program to her. Isn't a lathe a bit risky for you?”

Mike: “Yes, it may seem so, but its all a part of becoming a normal person, and, like I said, I want to be as normal as possible.”

KA: “How does Lisa feel about all this?”

KA: “She was apprehensive about everything at first, but she is coming around. She told me, 'One good thing about it is that you'll always remember me looking young, and never know what I look like as Igrow older.' I think she's beginning to get the hang of it!”

KA: “During the regular weekly group meeting, you were urging others to enter the local charity run. Are you a jogger?”

Mike: “Yeah, I am and thanks to my man Robert Moreno, I'm returning to my old form pretty fast. He tethered me to him and taught me how a blind person can run safely. It was a bit daring at first, but I love it. We have a lot in common and he has been an inspiration to me.”

KA: “You seem to have a great sense of humor and a positive attitude. These should be beneficial to your mental health and quick recovery.”

Mike: “Yes, I'm a happy person by nature and I think seeing the funny side of serious situations helps one get through them easier. It works for me!”