Melinda Hollands is a wife, mother, social worker at Munson Medical Center, cross-country skier and person who is legally blind and is helping me learn what it’s like to navigate northern Michigan. I am extremely respectful of what Melinda knows experientially. As my friend, she is one of the most graceful women I know.
At age 7, she was diagnosed with Stargardt Disease. She has blind spots on her retina that prevent her from perceiving an entire image. The edges of her peripheral vision are impacted, too. It’s like looking at a jigsaw puzzle where the center is missing. I ask her what she cannot see and she says she doesn’t always know what she’s missing.
I close my eyes and she tells me that few people who are blind see just blackness. I think of my own sight in the dark, or when my vision’s been blurred by fatigue, medications or weather.
“Blindness can be caused by traumatic brain injuries, acute injuries, infections and genetic disorders. Muscular issues can cause difficulty with focusing, astigmatism can cause blurriness, and retinal disorders can lead to difficulty processing light. Limited oxygen supply during pregnancy and birth can also hurt the retina. Someone is legally blind if their visual acuity is less than 20/200 and they have limited visual fields. Treatments can include the use of lasers, eye drops and corrective lenses. Sometimes people wear glasses to correct secondary problems, offer protection, limit light and cover disfigurements,” she said.
Discussing what causes blindness touches on the difference between someone losing their sight gradually rather than abruptly. The slow loss of sight allows for adjustment over time. The sudden loss of one’s sight necessitates immediate adaptation. Both bring benefits and challenges.
Melinda has used a white cane since age 10. Her sight is aided by a constant amount of light — not too bright or dim as well as contrasting colors and patterns. She stores items at home and work in the same places, sharp objects have covers and other hazards are in large print or Braille. She utilizes the MOPIC verbal description of movies at the State and Bijou Theatres. A smartphone offers voice-over features that allow for multiple finger gestures that can operate many features as well as apps that can describe color, read currency and labels in a kitchen.
Job Access With Speech) is a computer screen reader program for Microsoft …. Provides in-built optical character recognition for graphics on the screen … Locally, at Low Vision Solutions, 231-935-1000, www.lvsmichigan.com, folks with sight impairments can find magnifiers, large print and lighting aides, and many talking tools, including Job Access With Speech, optical recognition software that turns text into speech.
I ask Melinda about strangers offering her help. She calls helpers “sight guides” and says that offering is always welcome. Honor the answer. Never grab someone’s body, phone, purse or anything else out of their hands as a way to take care of a perceived problem. The person who is blind has a system and such actions will disrupt that system. She adds that “sight guides” don’t need to speak loudly or slowly.
People who are sight impaired generally have good hearing and an intact mind.