Try this: Close your eyes and walk from room to room in your house. That would be no big deal for several minutes or so, despite a few stubbed toes. But if you really were blind 24/7, how would you cook? Shop at a store? Handle a job interview?
For most of our nation’s existence, all those answers would be the same: “I couldn’t.” A blind person’s lifetime entailed no sense of independence, plus associated low self-esteem. The precious sense of sight that most of us take for granted still represents a daunting challenge for millions of Americans.
While no cure for blindness yet exists, organizations such as Lighthouse of Pinellas provide a number of programs at no cost and — most importantly — understanding and acceptance by passionate staff members and volunteers.
My wife experienced blindness for nearly a year at the age of 19, regaining her sight only after the despair of facing the rest of her life homebound. My mother-in-law’s sister was born blind and remained so until her death, an ordeal that placed an enormous burden on her and family members.
Nearly 35,000 individuals in Pinellas County experience severe vision loss, and more than half of residents older than 65 are at high risk of blindness or vision impairment because of glaucoma, diabetes, macular degeneration and other maladies.
“Lighthouse of Pinellas has been serving communities such as Clearwater for 58 years — we’ve helped tens of thousands of people,” said Dan Mann, the organization’s president and CEO. “You become emotionally affected with every blind person’s struggle, no matter if he or she is a baby or a senior citizen.”
Programs for adults include Independent Living Skills, Orientation & Mobility Training, Adaptive Computer Training, Individual & Group Counseling and Vocational Rehabilitation. Youth services involve Early Intervention for kids from birth to age 6 and a Teen Transition Program for youths 14 and older.
I recently attended a graduation of Lighthouse’s Teen Transition Program at the agency’s facility in Largo. Eight neatly dressed teens were seated in a classroom facing an audience of proud parents, friends and staffers. Each young man and woman delivered a five-minute presentation about overcoming barriers and working with others to reach their goals.
Introduced by their first names, Alexis spoke first. “I’m more confident in myself and don’t feel left out anymore,” she said. “I can do a job interview and if necessary defend myself.”
Ravi, who’s in the last year of the transition program, described some of the jobs he’s held. “I work hard every minute while at work and do my best,” he said.
Christina also described her duties working at Publix, a company that has supported hiring of the blind for the past 20 years: “I’ve become much more comfortable speaking to strangers.”
“Being here has taught me how to not let a disability confine or define you,” said Paul, a 14-year-old in his second year of the program.
Others spoke about sponsored outings for kayaking and building sandcastles, as well as engaging in mock job interviews, planning to move into their own residences in the future and developing can-do attitudes about life in general.
Even this crusty old writer became teary-eyed at times as the teens spoke bravely and eloquently about becoming productive members of society rather than depending on charity. It’s incredibly inspiring when people with blindness are given the opportunity to rise above the fray, and they do so with heads held high.
“It’s all about helping them become proactive,” Mann told me. “We invite the public to make a donation, volunteer, take a tour of our facilities or purchase ‘A State of Vision’ license plate.”
Lighthouse of Pinellas is located at 6925 112th Circle N., Suite 103, Largo. For details, call (727) 544-4433 or go online to www.lhpfl.org.
So now I ask you this: Close your eyes again and imagine the swearing-in ceremony of the first blind president of the United States. Is that possible? Just ask anyone at Lighthouse of Pinellas.