Blind World Magazine

Blind veterans are refusing to give in to their disability. - Hackensack,NJ,USA.
Tuesday, July 4, 2006.

He was a young lieutenant on a fast-track career, a platoon leader with the 1st Armored Division in Germany.

Then Army doctors told him he was going blind from retinitis pigmentosa.

The diagnosis did not bring Vito DeSantis' dreams to a screeching halt.

First, he did some fast talking.

"I was able to convince people I could stay in the service," DeSantis said. "I had little enough vision where I could fake it."

For the next seven years, he disguised his diminishing eyesight by "compensating, inventing tricks" -- relying more on his first sergeant, avoiding night work or saying, "Oh, I just didn't notice."

Fortunately, no mission was ever jeopardized: DeSantis didn't drive a tank; he commanded medical units.

But as retinitis pigmentosa slowly destroyed the cells in his retinas, leading to night blindness and loss of peripheral vision, DeSantis knew his days in the military were coming to an end.

The Army didn't need a blind officer, no matter how gung-ho he was.

Ultimately, he accepted his fate, retiring as a captain in 1984 after 11 years in uniform.

"The fact of the matter is, they [the tricks] didn't work real well," DeSantis said. "That's why I had to make that decision to retire."

Today, DeSantis, 54, of Robbinsville, is executive director of the New Jersey Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired and one of the nation's leading advocates for blind veterans, a small but growing segment of the veterans population.

Nationwide, 160,000 veterans are blind, according to the Veterans Affairs Department. An additional 1 million veterans have low vision -- uncorrectable visual impairment -- but are not legally blind. About 600 blind veterans live in New Jersey.

In his talks around the country, DeSantis preaches the importance of accepting one's blindness.

"The first thing you have to do is accept the fact that you are blind," he said. "Once you accept that, that you're not trying to hide it, excuse it or blame everything on it, you're OK."

Anger and denial

Before he accepted his blindness, Joe Ruffalo, 56, of Bloomfield, a Vietnam veteran, went through periods of anger and denial.

"Once I got rid of the anger and accepted it -- God, life became so much easier," Ruffalo said. "The most important thing we need to do as blind people is to understand blindness ourselves."

After 13 months in Vietnam with the 1st Air Cavalry, Ruffalo's outgoing personality served him well as a salesman at Miles Shoes in Willowbrook Mall in Wayne, where he and Frank Valvano, a Korean War veteran, formed a popular duo.

Driving home from New York one day, Ruffalo could not read the highway signs. The next day, the paperwork at the shoe store was blurry.

The diagnosis was retinitis pigmentosa. A doctor told him he would be blind some day.

>From 1976 to 1983, Ruffalo was legally blind, but he worked in shoe stores all over the state. Thankful to have a job, he was determined to become the "most organized manager, the hardest worker" the shoe company ever had.

"I wanted to prove to myself I could do it," he said.

Ruffalo said he was named manager of the year in 1983.

"What did me in was, we were the first store to get registers with computer printouts," Ruffalo recalled. "The paper was gray, the ink was gray. It looked like blank paper. I knew my days were numbered."

At first, Ruffalo struggled with his loss of sight. "I didn't know who to turn to," he said.

But he started baking at home and sold his products to bars. He joined the local Lions Club and even became a Scoutmaster.

"To pay back society, I needed to be active," Ruffalo said.

Now, he serves as president of the New Jersey Chapter of the National Federation of the Blind. He gives pep talks to blind and visually impaired high school students, and works at the First Occupational Center of New Jersey in Orange, where he teaches living skills to blind senior citizens, and hosts a radio show for the visually impaired.

"If you show you are competent and your attitude toward your blindness is a positive one, and you accept it, others will accept it," Ruffalo said.

Keys to success

Acceptance is one key to a life-changing makeover.

So are education and training -- and taking advantage of them, said DeSantis, who has been honored by Congress for his community service work and by the Blinded Veterans Association in Washington as a person who exemplifies the principles of initiative, independence and self-reliance.

"One of the most important aspects is gaining access to information," he said. "That's where agencies like the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped come in."

Through its network of regional libraries, the NLS talking-book program lends eligible individuals a wide selection of recorded books and magazines and playback equipment at no cost.

The free library service is available to any veteran or other person who cannot read standard print or handle books.

The challenge is "getting people to admit they need the service," said Anne McArthur, head of Audio, Vision and Outreach at the National Library Service's regional library in Trenton.

Unfortunately, some veterans are not aware of the wide variety of services available, said Stuart Nelson, a spokesman for the Blinded Veterans Association, which has 10,500 members, mostly World War II and Vietnam War veterans.

"We get e-mail from the sons and daughters or grandchildren worried about their elderly veterans," Nelson said. "They have no idea where they can get help."

The VA has 10 Blind Rehabilitation Centers around the country, and "you don't have to be a combat veteran to enroll," Nelson said.

The closest center to New Jersey is in West Haven, Conn.

The Blinded Veterans Association is working with the VA on a plan to expand local outpatient clinics to include basic vision rehabilitation, said Tom Miller, the organization's executive director and a Vietnam veteran who lost his sight in a land-mine explosion.


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