The stories of blind, DeafBlind and visually impaired people are not so different from ordinary Minnesotans, but so often assumptions about their disabilities become the focus.
Take a moment to read the stories below. They'll give you a brief glimpse into the lives of SSB customers.
I lost my eyesight when I was a very young boy living in Taltale, a rural village in Ethiopia. As a result of my blindness, most of my childhood was spent behind closed doors, in the protection of my home; I had no access to formal schooling, and my world grew smaller and smaller. My young life suddenly changed from light to dark, from promise to sorrow.
The accident occurred at the end of 2000. I vividly remember that eventful day. It was very nice, sunny and gorgeous. After I had lunch with my family, I went to climb one of my favorite trees; when I reached the top, I lost my footing and fell many feet to the ground. The fall from the tree changed my life dramatically.
Within a year, I lost my eyesight. It was tough and difficult to accept at first; it was very hard for me to cope with the loss or get used to being blind. I stopped playing with children as I had before, and I quit going to school. I imagined there was no independent life for me; I thought I would have to depend entirely on others and never have a life of my own. There was no blind school or any resources available for blind people in Taltale, the town I lived in. Sadly, I became immured as a young boy. As a result, I became idle and spent all of my time with my family; in addition, I always needed people’s help to leave the house for a breath of fresh air. I couldn’t do anything by myself. I endured this situation for seven years. It was hard to deal with.
When I came to the United States, with great effort and determination, I was able to overcome my disability and regain my independence. After I lived in the United States for two months, I decided to enroll in blind school and learn to walk with a cane, but, at the same time, many people I knew discouraged me and wanted me not to walk on my own because they were concerned that I might get lost or get hit by car. I spent one full, lonely day pondering what was next in my life. Then I made my decision and asked my brother to take me to the State Services for the Blind, a blind rehabilitation center. The counselors there advised me and told me what blind people could and could not do. I began to instruct myself and became hopeful. I was optimistic and looked forward to having a great, bright future. I was committed to working hard and long.
These last three years, I have studied in the ABE program at Southside Education Center, and, most recently, I passed the GED. Soon, I begin classes at Minneapolis Community and Technical College. My plan is to complete one or two years of courses there and then enter the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Minnesota.
I’m very thrilled to have passed the GED and to have the opportunity to earn a college degree and, in time, help others, as many have helped me. I thank my teachers for their encouragement, time and patience. I pray and praise God for leading me from the darkness and for the brightness that fills my life today.
If you ever find yourself at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and craving a snack, Eugene “Gene” Riebe is the man to see.
Riebe worked for the Minnesota Department of Revenue for 27 years as an auditor. In 1985 he lost his right eye, due to diabetes. Then in 2004 his life changed completely. He didn’t realize it at the time, but the retina in his left eye was barely attached. Riebe had surgery but retained only a 10 percent field of visual acuity.
After surgery his doctor referred him to SSB’s Rochester office. Riebe, like many SSB customers, went to an adjustment to blindness (ATB) training center, where he learned skills including cane travel, braille, use of assistive technology and daily living skills.
During his training, Riebe learned about SSB's Business Enterprise Program from Emily Zitek. The program provides profitable vending business opportunities and ongoing support to eligible blind Minnesotans. Zitek could attest to the program's success: Her husband, John, was a participant and operated his own vending business.
Riebe decided it was just the right opportunity. He applied to the program and was accepted. While waiting to start the six-month long training segment, Riebe worked for Zitek’s husband John, gaining valuable experience that would serve him well in the future.
In 2008, shortly after completing the training program and becoming licensed, Riebe became the operator of a vending business at Lino Lakes prison. A year later, he took over the business at the DNR headquarters. The DNR business includes a small convenience store and several vending machines.
Riebe says he is doing great and enjoys his new profession. His store sells books, cards, food, beverages and his best seller, Public Recreation Informational Maps. People come to DNR for licenses and often end up in his store purchasing the maps. He enjoys interacting with customers, a real change after working as an auditor for so long. He also enjoys meeting other BEP operators and serving as a mentor whenever possible. He thinks that with the training he received through SSB and the BEP along with his experience adjusting to his blindness, he’ll be at the DNR for a long, long time.
Dan Bernstrom is a happy man, though always busy. Every day, he’s up before dawn to get a bit of writing done. He’s already sold three of his engaging children’s books to Harper Collins. The first, One Day in the Eucalyptus, Eucalyptus Tree, is available as of May of 2016. Two more will follow in 2018.
After an early morning of writing, he’s off to his day job as the coordinator of the learning lab at Southeast Technical College. In addition to managing the lab, Dan puts in several hours tutoring students in a wide range of subjects. “It can be challenging, especially in subjects I don’t know as well, but it is always satisfying.”
In the evenings, Dan often has parenting responsibilities for his two young children. Even with this busy schedule, Dan is grateful for all of it. “It’s a simple life,” he reflects, “But I am very happy with it.”
Dan even appreciates paying taxes, “Working with SSB showed me the value of the services available to Minnesotans“ he says, “and I’m glad to give back.”
Not too many years ago, Dan could not imagine that any of these ordinary pieces of a satisfying life would ever come his way. In high school and college Dan experienced dramatic changes in his vision. He has a degenerative condition called Juvenile X-Linked Retinoschisis, which, like Macular Degeneration, is characterized by a deterioration of the central vision. As his sight worsened, much that Dan took for granted, like driving a car or reading a book, began to slip from him.
Like many people who lose vision, Dan alternated between denial and fear. “More and more, my transportation options narrowed,” Dan remembers, “First, I couldn’t drive at night. Then I couldn’t drive when it was rainy or foggy. Then, I nearly hit someone, and it was so terrifying to me that I quit on my own.”
Even so, Dan wasn’t quite ready to admit to his friends the extent of his vision loss. “I would say that I forgot my glasses, or that I just didn’t like driving. I would depend on others for rides. I had no idea how to get around on my own.”
With the steady loss of functional vision, Dan could only imagine a bleak future. “I didn’t see how I could do anything. How could I apply for a job? How could I date? Who would go out with me? How would I be able to live?”
In college, Dan’s deteriorating vision began to seriously impede his school work. “As my functionality began to drop, it would take me longer and longer to take tests. I was struggling to read. That’s when I realized I couldn’t keep running away from this much longer.”
Dan turned to State Services for the Blind and our Workforce Development team. His counselor recommended Adjustment to Blindness training as a way to gain the skills he needed to live successfully with less vision.
In 2009 Dan took a tour of Blind Inc. There he found blind people doing things better than he had done them when he had sight. “I said to myself, the way these people are acting doesn’t seem like life is standing in their way.”
“I learned how to do things I never imagined doing,” Dan continued, “We went out in the woods and cut down our own Christmas tree, then brought it home and decorated it. I learned how to cook, how to clean, how to get around. I did everything wearing the blindfold so I had no vision, and I learned how to appreciate life without seeing at all.”
Dan shared a telling example of the difference that adjustment to blindness training made for him. “Before I started the program, I had applied to ten graduate schools and didn’t get in to any of them. But when I applied after I had learned how to use technology and not depend on my failing vision, I applied to two schools I was really interested in and was accepted at both.”
On his way to becoming a published author, Dan enrolled in the Master of Fine Arts program at Hamline University in St. Paul. There he received the Critical Thesis Award in the writing program. “I actually found I was way ahead of my classmates,” Dan remembers, “Because I was taking the bus everywhere and always reading while I was waiting for the bus or riding.”
In his final year of school, Dan wanted to push himself to make sure he could balance both work and writing. He found work as a tutor and an evening job as a custodian. It added another hour of bus time, and a two mile walk, but the grueling schedule and the self-discipline gave him the confidence to know he could meet the challenges he set for himself.
Even so, after graduating from Hamline, finding fulltime work wasn’t easy. He met prospective employers who were unsure that he could do the job with his limited vision. “I’ve learned to be completely up front about my vision,” Dan says, “I tell people what I learned to do getting around downtown Minneapolis wearing sleep shades. I’d ask folks to give me the chance to prove what I can do.”
Now Dan is proving what he can do every day. “It’s a pretty simple life,” Dan says of his days of writing, working, and spending time with his family, “but it’s a good one.”
As individuals, Ruth Weber, Anne Nelson Murphy, Roz Strimling, and Barb Spiess are each quite impressive. Together, they’re nearly unstoppable. To be with these four women is to be surrounded by stimulating conversation, lots of laughter, and plenty of energy. You might get the feeling you were sitting down with friends who had known each other for a long time. The truth is that these four met in 2015 at an Adjustment to Blindness class at BLIND Inc. in Minneapolis.
“You might say we’re birds of a feather,” Anne says. Then Roz picks up, “We have different backgrounds and histories, but we all have the kind of attitude that if there’s an obstacle in our way, we can do something about it.” There are murmurs of assent all around the table.
The six week class at BLIND Inc., like similar programs in other parts of the state, teaches practical skills for living with less vision, and gives seniors a chance to network with others who are facing similar circumstances.
SSB made it possible for Ruth, Anne, Barb, and Roz to attend BLIND Inc. It’s part of the suite of options available from SSB’s Senior Services team to help seniors remain independent and active.
Ruth, now in her 80’s, has been blind for over 30 years. In that time, she has been an inveterate traveler, having visited more than 100 countries. While she’s more than self-sufficient as a blind person, Ruth realized that there were still things she could learn, especially in the area of technology; and so she welcomed the opportunity to take part in the classes. Like others of her generation, Ruth was daunted by the prospect of learning to use technology. “Then, I told myself, maybe I can learn this, and I went out and bought an iPad. I just had to get over that hump, and believe that I could do it.”
Technology was high on Anne’s list too, as was cooking. “I was finding that I was spending less and less time in the kitchen as my vision deteriorated,” she recalls. Along with the others, Anne learned simple modifications to get cooking again; and she’s using technology too.
“I found a shortbread recipe with my iPad,” she announced to the others, “and it turned out great.”
Barb admits that she had certain unchallenged assumptions about the classes at BLIND Inc. “I had a preconceived notion that maybe it was going to be a sad place,” she remembers, “but then, every day I would leave at the end of the day feeling so much better than when I came.” Barb credits those classes, the connection with her classmates, and the support and expertise of SSB’s Senior Services with helping her maintain her active life. She’s able to do the things she loves, including gardening (“though sometimes I might pull as many flowers as weeds”), kayaking, reading, and enjoying art. “I don’t see paintings in the same way I used to,” she says, “but I find the changes interesting.”
For Roz too, the classes have provided a confidence boost. Roz stopped working several years ago, not because she wanted to, but because her vision loss made it too difficult to keep working as an activities director. Now she’s re-considering that decision. In the fall of 2015, Roz made the jump from meeting with a counselor in Senior Services, to strategizing about employment options with a counselor in Workforce Development at SSB.
“When you’re determined to do something,” Roz sums up, “You can do it.”
When telling her story of adjusting to vision loss, Amy Ward begins this way, “September 16 2012 was the last day that I drove a car.“ For Amy, that day not only marked the divide between an old life and a new one, but it also marked the beginning of a path that started in fear and brought her to hope.
“I was living in Hutchinson, Minnesota,” Amy reflects, “I had never met anyone who was blind. I lived in a town where everyone drove – you had to.”
Optic neuritis from Multiple Sclerosis meant that Amy no longer had any depth perception. “I was paralyzed with fear,” Amy recalls of that time, “I was scared to death.”
A search for help brought her to John Hamilton, SSB’s Workforce Development Counselor in Hutchinson.
“John is awesome,” Amy says, “Through him and SSB I learned that I could adjust. I had never even met a blind person before then.”
In 2014, Amy moved to the Twin Cities and enrolled in Adjustment to Blindness training at Vision Loss Resources (VLR). Having never lived in a city, or ridden on a city bus, the whole experience was new for Amy.
“The staff at VLR were amazing. In addition to the skills they taught, they listened to me and gave me tremendous emotional support.” Being at VLR also gave Amy the experience of meeting blind people who were capable and confident.
With her own confidence in herself restored, in 2015, Amy found an apartment in St. Paul, and got a job as a Receptionist and Concierge at Walker Methodist Health Center. With her strong people skills, and warm outgoing personality, it’s a job that draws on her many evident strengths. What’s more, her experience in facing down fear and re-building her life gives Amy empathy for the families and the health center patients there, making her a clear asset to the staff.
Given all that Amy has accomplished in a short amount of time, it might be surprising to learn that the new skill Amy is most proud of is --- knitting.
“It’s a skill I learned completely as a person who is visually impaired. Like a lot of things, it’s something I never thought I could do.”
That each of us has the capacity to do things we never thought we could do is one of the lessons that Amy would pass on to anyone else who is struggling with vision loss. “It’s a whole new world,” she says, “and you need to be your own advocate, ask for what you need, be willing to learn, and know that you can do it.”