Ogden Reporter, Iowa USA.
Friday, May 12, 2006.
When her eye doctor told Irma Lee Newton 25 years ago she had macular degeneration she didn't give it much thought. After all, her vision seemed perfectly fine.
Then when her husband passed away 15 years ago Irma Lee thought she should be a little concerned. How would she manage to take care of herself should she lose her sight?
Irma Lee didn't notice much of a change until about five years ago when she began to lose vision in her right eye. Then she began to have troubles with her left eye. Unlike the right that had a "wet" form of macular degeneration, the left eye was the "dry" kind.
"It was supposed to be a slower degeneration," explained Irma Lee, "But all at once . . . It happened so quickly. It normally doesn't happen this fast."
Although Irma Lee was told by the doctor she would never go black blind - she would always be able to pick up some light - she knew her everyday life was going to change dramatically. No longer could she drive, she had all but given up reading, her favorite hobby, and she found that simple tasks such as dialing a telephone were going to present problems. She tried to compensate using a large-button telephone, and a magic marker to write down notes and appointments.
Those were only temporary fixes to a more permanent problem.
It was a frustrating time for Irma Lee who had become very self-sufficient in her small condo in Ogden. She realized she could only brighten the lights so much and the magnifying glass she depended on was no longer powerful enough. How was she to shop for groceries when she couldn't tell one can of beans from another, or even beans from corn?
Irma Lee expressed her concerns to an acquaintance at a water exercise class, who then offered to contact the Department for the Blind. A counselor was sent up for a visit.
It was Irma Lee who took the initiative the second time, asking for assistance five months ago when life was becoming a struggle.
The counselor began calling on her a few times a month. She was given tips on home management and made aware of services offered by the Council for the Blind such as free directory assistance through the telephone company.
But it was a five-day session Irma Lee attended at the Department for the Blind in Des Moines in April 2006 that had the biggest impact on her.
When they were told right off, "We don't use the word can't. You can do it if you want," she responded, "You are very kind, but very firm!"
There was to be no feeling sorry for herself. As Irma Lee admitted, "They'll listen to your pity story the first time, but after that, they don't want to hear about it."
Irma Lee admits she was afraid at first but her outlook changed after the first day of class.
"When I realized I was losing my sight, I made up my mind I was going to meet the situation. I'm a realist," she said. "After I met it, I knew I could cope." This is not the case for many in her situation as the Director of the Department for the Blind, Allen Harris, explained in his introduction to those attending.
"Of the hundreds of people that should be here, there are seven of you. You are the cream of the crop." "Many don't go because they are scared to death," said Irma Lee.
Her days began with breakfast at 7 a.m. followed by a braille session, then a lesson on home management that included tips from arranging your home to counting money. The scariest for Irma Lee was the traveling session where they were taught how to get around with a white cain. Even though she had partial vision, Irma Lee, as with the others, was required to wear a blind fold most of the time, forcing her to use all senses available.
Lunch at the department consisted of food prepared by those in the home economics session the day before. Throughout the week Irma Lee re-learned cooking, how to make chili, cake from scratch (with frosting), and snapped green beans.
Irma Lee grudgingly tolerated the craft session each day. She said crafts were never her thing. But the learning experience, she admitted, produced a cheerful centerpiece for her kitchen table.
By the end of the week, Irma Lee said they all had a different outlook.
She told of the lady who recently lost her sight:
"When asked the first day 'What is blindness to you?' The lady responded bitterly with 'I want to play bridge. I love playing bridge. They won't take time to work with me now.'" They all had frustrations that mellowed as the week progressed.
Another said, "I don't want to carry a white cain."
Sometime during the week, the white cain lost its stigma.
"When I go into a store with my white cain, people are more than willing to help," said Irma Lee. "And we are learning to be willing to ask for help."
"At a fast food restaurant, they don't know I can't see the menu. When they see the cain they offer to read off the selections."
Irma Lee feels it's her responsibility to educate others about blindness. "How we act directs others to know what to do," she explained.
Every day is a learning experience for Irma Lee, who with the help of the Department for the Blind, can once again enjoy books through the use of a talking book machine. She is in the process of rearranging her kitchen and was taught how a simple thing such as sticky-back Velcro makes it possible for her to find the proper settings on the oven and microwave.
Except for missing her car, Irma Lee feels she is coping just fine. "I may even learn to read braille," she said proudly. All she has to do is say the word, and a counselor will come up from Des Moines for the free lessons.
She only wishes that others would set aside their fears and reach out as she has done.
For more information, or to meet with a counselor, contact Director Allen Harris, Iowa Department for the Blind, 800-362-2587.
PHOTO ID: With her chin up and a strong determination, is how Irma Lee Newton faced the fact she's going blind. Her kitchen is made more user friendly with the use of Velcro tabs on key microwave buttons. -Photo by Kathy Pierce
End of article.
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