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A guiding light in clouded world

Training breeds hope for blind and visually impaired people who take classes at the Watson Center, where independence lies in the details.

Published October 17, 2004

[Times photo: Lara Cerri]

LARGO - Barry Richard, who is nearly blind, once paid $23 for a hamburger and a beer. He intended to cover his check with a $5 bill and three ones but handed the waitress a $20 and three ones by mistake. She accepted the windfall without a peep.

Here's what Richard since has learned about handling cash when you can't see:

Get $5 and $20 bills from the bank. Fold the fives in half like a book and the 20s lengthwise like a hot dog bun. Paying your check, combine fives and 20s so your change only includes $1 bills. Put those in your wallet unfolded. Carry only quarter coins. When you get smaller change, keep it in a separate pocket and run it through a coin counter at the grocery store.

* * *

Every weekday, taxis converge on an industrial section of Pinellas County, bearing people whose eyes are failing. In spartan classrooms, they learn about simple Braille and talking e-mail. They learn how sandpaper and common safety pins can change their lives. They pour drinks without spilling and slice vegetables without losing fingers.

At the 48-year-old Watson Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired, training breeds hope.

Put a glass of water on a table. Now close your eyes and pick it up without knocking it over. The trick: Slide your hand slowly along the table until your fingers touch the glass at its base. That's where it's most stable.

About 40,000 Tampa Bay area residents are blind or nearly blind, enough to fill the city of Dunedin. Most have succumbed to age-related ailments like macular degeneration and glaucoma, which often strike quickly and, with the darkness, bring isolation and depression.

Without charge, the not-for-profit Watson Center sends out case managers who teach people to adapt their homes and navigate public transportation. Classes at the center bring people together to learn practical skills.

Eighty-two-year-old Jean Kurus says she wanted to die last year when her doctor said her eyesight would never return.

"I sat on my bed and just cried and cried and cried," she recalls. "I thought I was going to be alone, just sitting in my room, feeling here and there just to get around."

Kurus attended her first six-week Watson Center class to placate her daughter and granddaughter, not really hoping for much. "I was amazed at the things they did to help you, the stuff they showed you."

At the center's Sight Shoppe, she bought a device that fits in a cup or glass and sounds a buzzer when liquid reaches the top. Special goggles allow her to watch a little TV - still fuzzy but she can follow the gist. Giant bingo cards help her play twice a week at the Salvation Army.

A Watson mobility specialist showed her how to walk in her neighborhood for exercise and use a special taxi service to travel to church, the hairdresser and out to eat.

Looking for cold-weather clothes? L.L. Bean, Lands' End and many other mail-order houses will send audio catalogs. Upon request, most businesses produce large-print invoices. If you have impaired vision, Verizon will give you 50 free calls a month to directory assistance. Special movies have voice-overs that describe the action when there is no dialogue ("He is opening the door ... ")

The cane tap-tapping along the classroom wall belongs to the teacher, but it's no demonstration.

Wanda Austin lost her sight 11 years ago to an eye disease. At the Watson Center, the 57-year-old leads discussions about day-to-day coping, particularly how to deal with feelings. Her infirmity gives her instant credibility - whether she rhapsodizes about the ballet, with its music and foot-thumping, or lambasts an open cabinet door that put a dent in her head.

"Life doesn't stop," she says. "You put the pieces of your life together again."

To plumb emotions, she sometimes asks people to complete sentences like: "I feel frustrated when . . ."

Barry Richard: "I can't play golf. I miss my life. I went to clubs. I had all the social life one could want. These last 18 months have been the worst bit of life existence I have ever experienced. It's like I've lost everything."

Ron "Spike" Roberts: "My wife is almost deaf and she won't understand what I'm saying. As nice as I am, I swear and cuss and I'm not very nice to her. I just can't help it."

Bob Fincher: "When you have had a long professional career that was very successful and you felt you could do anything, then it's a blow. I used to be the primary shopper; now I get the bananas."

Wanda Austin: "Self-esteem is often linked to what we do. But in essence, it should be linked to who we are. A few people say their self-esteem actually improved after they learned to cope. They think, "I didn't let this situation get me down.' "

Barry Richard: "They must have had a terrible life."

Wrap a rubber band around pill bottles, at the top, middle or bottom to signify whether the medicine should be taken morning, noon or night. Attach small safety pins to clothing labels with the circle either up or down to distinguish dark clothing from light. Can't tell bug spray from hair spray or canned Alpo from Chicken of the Sea? Glue a smidgen of sandpaper on stuff you wouldn't want to eat or spray in your face.

Betty Wilson's home could make a classic advertisement for the Watson Center.

Plastic blobs on her oven controls let her feel the settings - right where a case manager stuck them. She uses only the back burners after learning that blind people burn themselves reaching over front burners.

Her living room is stripped clean of nonessentials ("Get rid of coffee tables; they are lethal," one instructor said.) An easy chair sits within reaching distance of a large-print Bible and a talking-books tape recorder (tapes mailed to you for free).

An exercise bike occupies a corner of her bedroom, right next to a special radio that broadcasts the daily newspaper so she can keep up with current events while pedaling. A three-ring binder lists important telephone numbers in huge type.

Though she can barely see through the dim periphery of her vision, the 79-year-old is the glue that holds her family together. Her husband, Warren, suffered a stroke last year and struggles with short-term memory. She does the cooking, correspondence and bill-paying, using a stencil-like writing guide and huge magnifying machine she picked up at Watson.

She walks 40 minutes a day with a cane and doesn't hesitate to ask for help filling her cart at the grocery store, just like Wanda Austin taught her. When her eyes deteriorated even more, she returned to Watson for a brushup on cooking.

"I think we all have a tendency to try to hide this disability, and I'm not going to shout about it," Wilson says. "But I'm not ashamed of it, because it's not going to change, and I have a long life ahead of me. I'm not going to let this get me down.

"I just can't."

In restaurants, order a "kitchen cut" and the food will arrive cut up. People who cut their meat should consider keeping the fork in one hand while cutting and eating, instead of switching the fork from left hand to right. Many Europeans eat that way all the time.

[Last modified October 17, 2004, 01:21:19]

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