December 06, 2005.
Press & Sun-Bulletin - Binghamton,NY,USA.
That old expression "the blind leading the blind" takes on new meaning when Ralph Gedeon's at work.
Through the Association for Visual Rehabilitation (AVRE) in Binghamton, he enters the lives of clients who, like Gedeon, are sightless.
He teaches them to maximize their other senses to compensate for the one they're lacking so they can hold jobs as well as cook, clean and perform other routine functions around the house.
Routine, that is, for sighted people.
If you scrunch your eyes tightly shut so no light gets in, you've entered Gedeon's world. He's not only legally blind, a term that covers a wide spectrum of visual disability, but he's unable to tell darkness from light.
Born in Haiti 44 years ago, he lost his sight gradually. Surgeries were unable to stop the progressive blindness.
"I didn't feel sorry for myself when it happened," says Gedeon, who lives in the Town of Binghamton. "It was a challenge for me."
His parents stressed college for their six children, and even while their third child contended with that new challenge, they expected results from him.
So Gedeon studied until he got a master's degree in special education for the visually disabled from Hunter College in Manhattan, then joined AVRE, where he's a certified rehabilitation therapist, in 2001.
AVRE, a non-profit organization, serves individuals in Broome, Chemung, Chenango, Cortland, Delaware, Otsego, Schuyler, Tioga and Tompkins, and three Pennsylvania counties.
Its Web site also mentions a dismal fact: About 70 percent of blind individuals are unemployed.
"One of our goals is to make that non-working rate the same as it is for sighted people," says AVRE President and CEO Robert Hayne. He adds that nothing has been finalized regarding plans to sell the AVRE.property to accommodate the SUNY downtown academic center, as reported recently.
At the annual National Industries for the Blind Conference in Baltimore this past October, two AVRE employees — Ken Fernald, vice president of operations, and Penelope Simon, switchboard operator — won awards.
The agency received the 2005 Employment Achievement Award for having created the most job opportunities for blind individuals, surpassing any other NIB-affiliated agency that year.
Wayne Cleveland, 33, began working at AVRE a few months ago. When his workday ends, his other life begins: He's Dad to Corbyn, 6; Hannah, 2; and Tyler, 8 months. His life companion, Kristin Bartlett, 22, works full time at Fairview Nursing Home caring for residents there, so she really appreciates that he can toss in laundry, change diapers and tuck the little ones into bed while she's at work.
And now, thanks to Gedeon, Cleveland is also learning to cook.
Poke holes in the chicken leg with your fork so it can absorb the marinade, Gedeon explains in the kitchen of Cleveland and Bartlett's Binghamton apartment; listen to hear when the fork punctures the skin. Gedeon affixed raised dots to the stove, oven and microwave controls, so Cleveland's fingertips can discern what his eyes cannot.
With one man's hands atop those of the other, Gedeon shows him how to sprinkle salt into his palm to estimate quantity, and how to organize spices and supplies so they're always in the same, predictable places.
At the end of the baking time, they test the chicken by feeling its texture and sniffing its aroma. A tactile or beeping thermometer would also be useful.
AVRE dispenses adaptive equipment, such as an oversized timer with raised numbers, a tactile wristwatch — and a pouring device that plays Yankee Doodle Dandy when fluid touches the sensor — so clients can live alone.
"The toughest part for me is that he can't drive," Bartlett says. She either drops Cleveland off at work and picks him up again, or he takes the bus. But he astonishes her with how much he is able to do.
Cleveland, who lost his sight to glaucoma, washes dishes, feeling to be sure they're squeaky clean. And although the children's toys inevitably litter the floor of their apartment, he feels with his toes so he seldom trips or stomps on the toys when he's walking.
"My sister was surprised that he can shovel the walkway," Bartlett says. "He just knows ..."
AVRE sighted employee Alan Eddy of Binghamton is Gedeon's driver. He, too, has often been impressed by the extent of a blind person's self-sufficiency.
"(Gedeon) takes care of his own finances and writes his own checks," Eddy says.
Gedeon uses a check-writing guide with cut-outs that line up with the appropriate areas of the check — and teaches clients to do the same.
Clients comment most often on Gedeon's patience. It's a hard-won virtue instilled by the challenges he himself faced.
"I know what they're going through," he says, "because I've gone through it already."
© 2005 Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin.
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