In his mid-70s, my late husband, a professional writer and avid reader, was diagnosed with macular degeneration. He had what is known as the “dry” type, which is progressive and can take many years to fully obstruct one’s vision. (There is also a “wet” type, which is fast-moving and can lead to blindness, but it can be reversed somewhat with a shot into the eye if caught quickly.) He eventually needed a magnifying glass to read the daily paper and had to give up driving after dark.
For several years, I’ve had those tiny black dots floating across my vision that seem to afflict everyone of a certain age, and I recently developed a “floater” in my right eye that is like a gauzy haze. Although it has been diagnosed as temporary, it is compromising my eyesight.
All of this became particularly pertinent when a friend who leads a class at the Braille Institute in Rancho Mirage asked if I could substitute for him while he was out of town. The class is a discussion group focusing on current events and politics. I was reminded of a time in my early 20s when I took a part-time job reading to a blind college student twice a week; the satisfaction that job brought me made me want to recapture that feeling of helping someone who couldn’t see. Of course, I said yes.
I discovered that La Quinta resident John Billings, a man I met a couple of years ago when we were both taking college classes, is the student adviser at the Braille Institute. Renewing his acquaintance led me to a far greater understanding of sight issues than I could have imagined.
Billings, 57, has always worked in human services. Originally from Long Beach, he moved to the desert about 14 years ago.
“My mom had died, and I was ready to move on,” he says. “One day, I saw a small ad for volunteers to help out at Braille. I called and got in within a week. I honestly believe everything happens for a reason, and my seeing that ad was one of those meant-to-be things.”
After volunteering for 2 1/2 years, Billings has now been a staff member for more than eight years. His job includes interviewing every student who comes to Braille for support and assistance. “We don’t call them ‘clients’,” says Billings, “because that sounds so clinical. I get to meet everyone and find out about their background, their family and their living situation, and to assess and refer them for whatever support services they might need. The first priority is to help people be able to live as independently as possible.”
My first lesson at Braille was to recognize the range of conditions with which the students live. The discussion group I led included some individuals who were “legally blind,” meaning their vision is 20/200 or worse in both eyes, and others who were only “vision-impaired.”
“There are a wide variety of degrees of sight,” says Billings. “Some see only shadow and light, while others merely need brighter or more strategically placed lights, reading glasses, magnifiers or devices that can help them use their computers and be able to access online resources. We can order specialized devices, and some are recycled back to be made available to those who cannot afford to purchase them. We also have trained specialists who can help people understand what their current status is and what to expect. Often, these conditions are so gradual that people don’t even realize what’s happening.”
One of Braille’s most important services is instruction in independent living skills: how to identify money, closet organization, cooking, eating techniques, exercise and balance, shopping skills, sensory awareness, what students’ rights are, and how to access resources in the community. The center offers classes in dancing, memory improvement games, classic movies, guitar and piano lessons, and peer-support groups.
“Our students range in age from 18 to over 100,” says Billings. “We have anywhere from 250 to 300 people a week coming through. Maybe the most important thing we offer is the opportunity for people from every background to come together with a sense of camaraderie and community. Without Braille Institute, that might never happen for most of our students.”
Braille also has a “mobile solutions van” that goes out into the various communities served—in Riverside, San Bernardino and Imperial counties—to assist people who live in outlying areas and/or cannot come into the Rancho Mirage facility.
Braille offers access to books on tape, and offers programs in schools to assist with individualized education plans for students who are vision challenged. Classes are also available to learn to read using the six-dot Braille cell.
The Braille Institute has only a small paid staff; 90 percent of those assisting students are volunteers.
“We need people to host discussion groups, teach hobbies like knitting and do limited administrative work. We have a craft fair at holiday time and art projects that people cannot believe were done by individuals with limited sight,” Billings says. “For some, these projects allow them to express images they can only recall, and you would never believe they were done by people who cannot see.”
The Braille Institute is open from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, and all services are free. The center, located at 70251 Ramon Road, gets no government funding other than books on tape, which are funded through the Library of Congress and mailed free of charge. Otherwise, all support is through donations. Call 760-321-1111 for more information.
As always, when we volunteer, we tend to get more than we give, and we usually learn more than we could ever teach.
“I’ve learned how to ‘see’ everything differently,” Billings says. “I have the best job!”
Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal,” and her radio show airs Sundays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on KNews Radio 94.3 FM. Email her at Anita@LovableLiberal.com. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.