Specialized Services for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired
Specialized services enable blind people to:
- Read and write braille.
- Come and go safely with a long cane or dog guide.
- Use computers with speech synthesizers, or braille or large-print displays.
- Take care of their homes and personal needs using specially designed techniques and devices.
- Secure satisfying and productive employment.
Eliminating specialized services--a dangerous and costly idea.
Specialized services are the key to dignity, productivity, and independence for people who are blind or visually impaired. In an age of cost cutting and budget slashing, blind and visually impaired people are increasingly concerned that the services that best serve their needs will be eliminated, and that the only option will be large all-purpose disability and health service organizations--where some blind people have already fallen through the cracks.
[A photo appears in the published print version: A walk/don't walk traffic signal not fully visible because of a large white area, simulating macular degeneration. Caption: Specialized services teach people with macular degeneration the proper techniques that will enable them to cross this busy intersection while safely avoiding that five-ton cement truck that is quickly approaching.]
It's very likely that in your lifetime you or someone you love will become blind or severely visually impaired.
The loss of specialized services isn't just someone else's problem--we may all feel the effects at some point in our lives. Because we're living longer than ever before, more and more Americans are experiencing vision loss, which increases sharply with age. And, because of medical advances, children born prematurely or with multiple disabilities are now surviving, and a high proportion of these children are blind or visually impaired.
There are already ten million Americans who have problems seeing, and this number is growing at an alarming rate--among older people it is expected to more than double by the year 2030. And yet, even with a population this large and skyrocketing, America remains a "seeing" society, with few allowances made for the unique needs of people who cannot see or cannot see well. Myths and stereotypes abound when people think about blindness. Blindness is one of the most feared and misunderstood disabilities, distorting both public opinion and the attitudes of professionals who lack specific knowledge about visual impairment.
What does it mean to be blind?
If you're like most people, you can't imagine how you would function in daily life if you lost your sight. For one thing, you'd learn very quickly that most information is perceived visually. Imagine all the things you're used to doing every day--preparing for work in the morning, reading the newspaper, or riding the train or bus--then imagine doing them without being able to see. Or imagine being a parent of a child who is blind--how would you teach your child the skills he or she would need to grow to be a productive adult?
People who are blind or visually impaired have learned effective solutions to the challenges brought about by vision loss; however, these solutions are not immediately obvious. Although it may be possible to think of some ways to compensate for vision loss, this is not the same as knowing about the specific skills that millions of successful blind people use every day, such as using a long white cane correctly to walk down the street and avoid oncoming traffic, or reading and writing braille to communicate. These skills can best be taught by specialists, professionals who can teach people to adapt to the challenges posed by blindness or visual impairment.
[A photo appears in the published print version: An extremely blurry close-up of newspaper help-wanted ads.
Caption: To people who are visually impaired, this is how the "Help Wanted" section appears. With specialized services, they will learn to use magnification devices, like closed-circuit televisions, to see that the job listed here in column three is perfect for them.]
Specialized services are a proven and cost-effective solution to the challenges of blindness and visual impairment.
If you needed major surgery, would you want it performed by a general practitioner, or by a qualified surgeon specially trained in the procedure? You would choose the expert for your care. Blind people have the same right to receive the services they need from qualified specialists.
Specialized services, which enable blind people to receive an effective education and learn the skills that are needed to participate in family and community life, are the alternative to becoming dependent on family and friends or costly government support. Without specialized services, blind people risk what we all fear most: loss of independence and dignity. Society loses too--we all lose productive, tax-paying workers or active retirees who contribute to family and community.
Eliminating specialized services will not mean real savings. It will cost society more in the long run. For example, if you lost your sight, you might find that a general rehabilitation agency can offer you a tape recorder and someone to read your mail for you. However, specialized services would teach you the skills you would need to use "talking" computers and read and write braille. Not only would you keep your privacy, but society would not have to keep paying someone to do for you what you could do for yourself.
[A photo appears in the published print version: Almost entirely black with several unclear white shadows.
Caption: When you're blind, this is how your medicine looks. Through specialized services, you would learn how to use braille to label the bottles, which would prevent you from taking the white pill when you should be taking the green one.]
Remember, blindness can affect every one of us. If you were the parent of a blind child, or the child of an older parent who is losing sight through age-related eye disease, you would want your loved one to lead a life of independence, productivity, and dignity. Specialized services are an important step toward that life.