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 SSB customers.
Sitting around a table at the SSB office in Marshall, you would think the five older folks gathered together were a group of siblings reunited after a long separation. The group is warm and welcoming and eager to hear about each other. One of the group members begins to express a thought and before she can finish the others jump in to reinforce her idea. What they really are however is a group of seniors who have been struggling to come to grips with vision loss. The group consists of Wilbert Werner, Gene Hochhalter, Lloyd White, Anne Rockman and Eunice Hanson.
This group came together for eight weeks in 2010 to go through an Adjustment to Blindness class taught by rehabilitation teacher Sylvia Diers who is a contractor for SSB. The class teaches blind and visually impaired people to learn new ways to do the things they need to remain independent. They learn cooking techniques, technology, skills of daily living and white cane travel. “It shouldn’t be called adjustment to blindness.” says Hochhalter. “Maybe something like, adjustment to vision loss would be better.” The group did agree that when presented the idea for a group by Lynne Zick in SSB’s Marshall office the term “blindness” sounded scary, but they realized once they were there just how valuable the class was.
What was the most important thing the members learned? Each member pointed to specific things they liked such as working with tools or using their fingers to feel their way through a problem, eating without self-consciousness or learning to cross the street safely. In the end though, the overwhelming consensus was that the class was important to teach confidence and acceptance of the vision loss. They agreed that creating a comfort level with the loss was essential for moving on with their lives.
One member, Lloyd White, has been blind all his life. He has always had a guide dog and came to class to learn cane travel skills. The group agreed that White’s attitude and example of having lived such a full life was an inspiration and helped them realize that they didn’t need to be afraid of blindness. White says, “If you get upset, you compromise your ability.” Well, he sure got through to Anne Rockman. Before the class she was having difficulty adjusting to her blindness and was considering selling her home. In fact her son and daughter had been staying with her to provide support. After the class she says, “If something else happens I know I will be prepared to deal with it.” She now is happy living just where she is, in her own home.
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.
Judging by college freshman Anne Naber's active life and numerous accomplishments, it's clear that being blind has done little to prevent her from living the life she chooses.
The 18-year-old is a strong student, active volunteer and avid skier. After attending Twin Cities Academy, a St. Paul charter school, she was accepted at St. Olaf College, where she now majors in political science.
She has volunteered with the Animal Humane Society, the Salvation Army, Loaves and Fishes, and State Services for the Blind's Braille Services Unit. During the school year, she devoted one Saturday a month to mentoring younger blind students. She’s gone to several “Youth Slams,” National Federation of the Blind’s summer science program. “One year I was a reporter for the ‘Slam News,’ and another year I was on a team that got to test the first model car for blind drivers, then share our ideas with the developers,” says Anne.
Along the way, there have been some needed accommodations. Since she was three years old, she’s had an orientation and mobility instructor who has helped Anne orient to new environments, most recently the St. Olaf campus. Through SSB's Communication Center, Anne has had her textbooks put into braille, giving her timely access to the same instructional materials as her fellow students.
When she was younger, she also had such materials as Girl Scout manuals, school play scripts and camp materials put into braille. She currently uses the National Library Service’s digital player to listen to leisure books, such as mysteries and historical fiction. Anne’s mom, Dorie Miller, also learned basic braille through a “Braille for Parents” class put on by the Communication Center.
Anne appreciates the option to have information transcribed into braille. “It’s not as easy to find a place that will do braille,” she said. “But I learn better with braille text than I do with audio transcriptions.” She gives a little shudder when she thinks about taking her pre-calculus class without a braille text. “Listening to it on CD just wouldn’t have worked — it was HUGE to me to have that text in braille.”
St. Olaf will now take on the bulk of her transcribing needs, though the Communication Center will continue to do some of her materials, most recently an intermediate Spanish textbook, as well as the exam Anne took to test out of two semesters of Spanish.
With background in math, science, Spanish and journalism, to name a few subjects, why did Anne choose political science as a major? It’s because she considers political science good preparation for a potential career in disability law.
Anne is part of a generation born after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (now the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act). These civil rights laws guarantee that people with disabilities have equal access to education, employment, public services, and public accommodations.
The federal laws tremendous steps forward in public policy, but Anne has had some recent experiences that have shown her that the ADA hasn’t completely eliminated discrimination against people with disabilities.
“Two summers ago, I participated in a two-month Teen Empowerment Academy to help learn independent living skills,” recalls Anne. “A bunch of us wanted to go to a skating rink during our off hours and the rink wouldn’t let us in because we were blind.”
She also has faced challenges at airports. Even though she is well traveled, she finds that airline personnel don’t always trust her to know her own capabilities. “When I travel alone or with a blind friend, we ask for a guide to show us to the next gate, but even though we specifically say we do NOT need a wheelchair or a cart, they often make us use one,” she says. “Another time a friend and I were traveling with my parents and weren’t seated adjacent to them in the plane. Although my friend and I were both 17 and experienced travelers, the flight attendants insisted that people change their seats so my parents could sit directly behind me, even though we all told them it was not necessary.”
Most recently, Anne’s Advanced Placement exam for English was originally disqualified because she had used a braille writer to take the test, even though the accommodation had been approved in advance. Anne and her parents had to spend considerable time getting the ruling overturned. In summary, says Anne, “We’ve made a lot of progress, but there are still attitudes that need changing. We still need people who are willing to work to make all aspects of the ADA a reality.”
Don’t be surprised if 10 years from now, one of those people is Anne.
When asked where she wants to go to college, Megan Bening has one quick respond: MIT -- an uncommonly high aspiration from an uncommonly accomplished young woman.
Bening, now 16 years old, has been blind since birth due to a condition called Leber's Congenital Amaurosis. She is attends Sibley East High School in Arlington and is taking a full load of college prep courses. Her favorite activities are reading, listening to music, hanging out with friends, skiing and technology. And, she’s maintaining a 3.84 grade point average.
Bening has competed in the National Braille Challenge eight times. The Braille Challenge tests blind students on various braille competencies. Of the eight years she has competed, Bening has placed third, second and, in 2008, she scored a first place. In six of those eight years she made it to the finals.
In the summer of 2009, Bening entered a national letter-writing competition sponsored by the National Federation of the Blind (NFB). The goal was to challenge students to write a letter to the president of the United States about the importance of braille literacy issues. Once all submissions where gathered that fall, the NFB would select the top 100 letters, bundle them and present them to the Secretary of Education who would then pass them to President Obama. Bening’s letter was selected to be among the 100 letters sent. She is not sure if the president has seen them yet, so she may send a copy to Obama personally.
This year Bening was asked to present to the annual Minnesota statewide Lions Club Convention. Hundreds of club members listened to Bening’s eloquent description of how her blindness is really just a trait. She explained that although she does things differently than sighted people, she doesn’t have less of a life. In fact, one of her favorite activities is skiing. Through a program of Mankato’s Center for Independent Living, Bening took an adaptive skiing course and is now hooked on the sport.
“You need to learn self-advocacy early in life because you will find otherwise that no one else is going to do it for you.” Bening explains. “But early on in life I had great and creative support and help.” she adds. She received mobility instruction and braille instruction from the earliest age.
State Services for the Blind (SSB) has been there since very early on as well. Bening's mother, Jean, heard about SSB from a friend who worked in the same building where SSB has its offices. She contacted Maureen Toonkel of the SSB Mankato office to learn more about its services. Jean was told that when Megan reached 14 years old she should apply for rehabilitation services. By working with SSB and her local school, Bening could gain a clear understanding of her strengths, abilities and goals. She would be prepared for the transition from high school to the post secondary environment that best meets her needs and aspirations.
Toonkel and SSB have been a great asset to Bening. Toonkel has always been a participant in Bening’s Individualized Education Plan meetings at school. SSB has provided technical assessments and recommended devices such as a braille note taking device to help her with her school work. Bening has attended the Summer Transition Program, a camp-like experience offered by SSB and the Minnesota Department of Education that brings blind youth together to explore their post-high school paths.
“It’s (SSB) an awesome resource and you need to build groundwork early on to get ready so that when you want to go to college you don’t have to worry about all the preliminary steps.” Bening says.
It's clear that Bening is preparing herself to take the next steps towards a bright future, one that may include studies at MIT.
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.