Just like everyone else
With the help of technology, creativity and determination, four Tulsans are conquering their loss of eyesight and creating hope for others with vision impairment.
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Situated in south Tulsa, the Sanders residence looks like any other on the block.
From the curb, certainly no one would identify anything out of the ordinary. Even from the doorstep, only an astute observer would notice that the front door lacks a peephole. After a few minutes inside, however, more clues that the Sanderses’ home is unique begin to reveal themselves.
Virtually every appliance in the house talks — all at different times, speeds and decibels. The clock, for instance, has a female voice. She sounds proper, clearly enunciating the time and date. The computer has a man’s voice. He speaks so quickly that he could be mistaken for an auctioneer urgently calling for the next bidder instead of an electronic device reading dialogue boxes on a Dell laptop.
A tour through the house unveils more talking gadgets: a calculator, a voice recorder, a blood pressure cuff, a cell phone and several watches.
In the kitchen, each microwave button has a piece of clear tape embossed with a Braille code. Cans in the cupboards also bear Braille labels.
The house belongs to Marilyn and Perry Sanders. They are blind and are among as many as 3.4 million Americans age 40 and older who are blind or visually impaired, according to a Vision Problems in the U.S. report. That number is expected to double in the next three decades as the population ages.
Although the Sanderses cannot see, they are far from helpless. They employ various technologies throughout their home and office to get through each day.
“People who are blind can do stuff,” Marilyn says. “We just want to be treated like everyone else.”
A person is considered blind when he or she is unable to see at least 20/200 with corrective lenses. That means, the smallest letter that a blind person wearing glasses can see at 20 feet could be seen by a normal eye at 200 feet. (This is the big “E” from the typical Snellen chart used in an eye doctor’s office.)
Marilyn has retinitis pigmentosa, a hereditary disorder. Blind since 1992, she can still see changes in light. For instance, she can detect a light sofa against a dark wall but cannot tell whether someone is sitting on it. Perry, who has been blind since he was 9 because of detached retinas in both eyes, sees only black.
Still, the couple have demanding careers.
Marilyn is a program manager for the Oklahoma Department of Rehabilitation Services. She supervises the instructional staff members who work with people who have recently lost their sight.
Perry also teaches. He landed a job at Langston University as an adjunct professor after earning an Ed.D. in adult education.
To create notes for his lectures, Perry uses a computer software program that allows him to type on a standard keyboard and then “translate” the text into Braille. He prints his notes using a special printer that embosses the dots.
Unlike her husband, Marilyn isn’t proficient in interpreting Braille. When she wants to read, she turns to books on tape.
She uses a Victor Reader Stream to listen to digital recordings of books. It also plays music and voice recordings.
“It’s like an iPod,” she says.
To get dressed in the morning, Marilyn uses a color reader. A small black box, it can determine the color of whatever object it’s pointed toward.
But she also has a lower-tech option to coordinate outfits: safety pins. She labels many of her clothes with pins that have raised dots. The number of dots signifies a color.
“We do a lot of labeling,” she says.
To keep up with news, the Sanderses use The Newsline (at 743-3332), a telephone information line from the Oklahoma Department of Rehabilitation Services. Free and available 24 hours a day, the service reads news articles from the Tulsa World and The Oklahoman, as well as legislation and sample ballots.
Marilyn says the most frustrating part of not being able to see is the loss of mobility.
The Sanderses used to travel on public buses, but Perry was hit by a car while crossing the street years ago, so the pair avoid the bus.
Fortunately, Marilyn says, The Lift program, Tulsa Transit’s curb-to-curb service for people with disabilities, enables her and her husband to travel.
The hardest part of going blind for Ted Hinson wasn’t his loss of independence.
Hinson, a petroleum landman with Marjo Operating Co., has managed to maintain his autonomy despite losing his sight more than 20 years ago. He takes the city bus to and from work and uses his guide dog, Link, to navigate downtown. He regularly runs and even goes water and snow skiing.
The hardest part of being blind, he says, is not being able to see his children’s faces.
“On Christmas morning when they’re opening gifts or when they’re playing ball,” those are the times when he most misses his sight, he says.
When Hinson lost his vision in 1986, he thought it was temporary. Doctors said his rare disease, optic neuritis, was likely stress-induced — which made sense to Hinson, who had just been laid off.
But after more tests and a few months, it became clear that Hinson’s sight was not coming back. So he learned to live as a blind man.
He attended an independent-living skills school in Arkansas and got his first guide dog in 1987. Hinson says he liked the idea of an animal guide because he always loved dogs and thought it would be a good way to keep his independence.
Link, the black Labrador who spends his days at Hinson’s side, is Hinson’s third dog and is about to retire. Hinson says he received a new dog in March from Guide Dogs for the Blind in San Rafael, Calif.
Despite his vision loss, Hinson says he tries to keep a positive attitude.
“I’ve got a pretty good excuse to lay around and be negative, but I don’t want to be a bad example for my kids,” he says.
“Life doesn’t always come to you. Sometimes you have to go get it.”
One man’s dream
For Tulsa author Jim Stovall, the best part about being blind is that he’s free to visualize as he pleases.
“In my world, there are no ugly women or cloudy days,” he says.
Stovall has a rare form of macular degeneration that caused him to slowly lose his sight from the ages of 17-29. When his vision finally went dark in 1988, he had the idea for a network that would narrate movies and TV shows, allowing the blind to follow along. So the Narrative Television Network was born.
It works by adding lines of narration between the characters’ dialogue. A voiceover explains what’s happening.
“We add just enough narration so you know what’s going on,” Stovall says.
In its 20th year, the network has more than 1,200 broadcast and cable affiliates, reaching 25 million homes in the U.S., and is shown in 11 foreign countries.
Once a year, the network sponsors a screening of a movie at the Oklahoma School for the Blind in Muskogee.
“It’s rewarding to be in a room full of blind children who are ‘watching’ their first movie,” Stovall says.
Books on tape are one of his favorite technologies, Stovall says. He can speed up the voice and listen to 800 words per minute, faster than most sighted people can read.
“I devour books,” he says. “I read more than anyone I know.”
And reading got him into writing. Stovall has published 13 books, including “The Ultimate Gift,” which became a major motion picture in 2007. He also writes a weekly column syndicated in 400 publications across the country.
While Stovall, Hinson and the Sanderses live with blindness, doctors look for medical advances.
At the TLC Laser Eye Center, 9445 S. Mingo Road, patients receive life-changing surgeries each year.
Executive Director Dr. Joél Sturm says eye care is always changing. “The worst thing you can do is give up hope, because technology is constantly advancing,” Sturm says.
In the past decade, LASIK eye surgery has gone completely bladeless, Sturm says. Doctors also are finding ways to perform corneal implants and are using computer chips to help people see.
“We’re not to the age of the bionic eye yet, but we’re moving forward,” she says.
But, as with most medical conditions, early detection is the key to helping those suffering from blindness, Sturm says.
Cue Prevent Blindness Oklahoma.
The statewide nonprofit screens as many as 250,000 children in kindergarten, first and third grades for vision impairments.
Dianna Bonfiglio, the organization’s president, says children often don’t realize there is a problem with their vision.
“They accept it, not knowing it should be different,” Bonfiglio says.
In a lot of cases, those vision impairments can result in behavioral problems, Bonfiglio says, adding that about 70 percent of juvenile delinquents have a vision problem.
Bonfiglio also says as much as 50 percent of blindness is preventable.
“We, as a society, do not take a lot of precautions for our eyes — even if it’s sunglasses,” she says.
How to preserve your vision
As much as 50 percent of blindness can be avoided, research shows. Prevent Blindness America provides tips for keeping your eyes safe at home, at work and during sporting events.
For a full list, visit http://www.preventblindness.org/safety/index.html.
- Use safety gates at the top and bottom of stairs.
- Provide lights and handrails to improve safety on stairs.
- Pad or cushion sharp corners and edges of furnishings and home fixtures.
- Install cabinet and drawer locks in kitchens and bathrooms.
- Store personal-use items (cosmetics, toiletry products), kitchen utensils and desk supplies where they are out of reach of children.
- Inspect and remove debris from lawns before mowing.
- Keep paints, pesticides, fertilizers and similar products properly stored in a secure area.
- Keep your tools in good condition; damaged tools should be repaired or replaced.
- Wear safety glasses or dust goggles to protect against flying particles and chemical goggles to guard against exposure to fertilizers and pesticides.
- Wear chemical safety goggles when using hazardous solvents and detergents.
- Read and follow all manufacturer instructions and warning labels.
- Do not mix cleaning agents.
- Know that regular eyeglasses don’t always provide enough protection.
- Know the eye safety dangers at work. Complete an eye hazard assessment.
- Eliminate hazards before starting work. Use machine guarding, work screens or other engineering controls.
- Use proper eye protection.
- Avoid toys with sharp or rigid points, shafts, spikes, rods and dangerous edges.
- Keep toys intended for older children away from younger children.
- Avoid flying toys and projectile-firing toys; these pose a danger to all children, particularly those younger than 5.
- Be aware of items in playgrounds and play areas that pose potential eye hazards.
- Keep BB guns away from kids.
- Use occupant restraints, such as infant and child safety seats, booster seats, safety belts and shoulder harnesses in cars.
During sporting events
More than 40,000 people a year suffer eye injuries while playing sports. These eye injuries occur most frequently in baseball, basketball and racquet sports.
To avoid sports eye injuries:
- Wear proper safety goggles (lensed polycarbonate protectors) for racket sports or basketball.
- Use batting helmets with polycarbonate face shields for youth baseball.
- Use helmets and face shields approved by the U.S. Amateur Hockey Association when playing hockey.
- Know that regular glasses don’t provide enough protection.
Source: Prevent Blindness Oklahoma