Preparing for a possible part-time job at the Catholic Guild for the Blind, teaching blind and nearly blind students to help them get their GED certificates, I browsed through amazon.com’s listing of books concerning teaching the blind. The first thing I noticed was that many of them were surprisingly expensive. This specialized area apparently commands higher prices. I ordered a few of the less expensive books plus Belo Cipriani’s Blind: A Memoir, published in 2011 by Wheatmark of Tucson, AZ, this last sent to me for reading on my Kindle e-book reader. This book opened for me a window into the world of the blind.
Cipriani’s blindness was caused by a severe beating given to him by former friends who felt he had shunned them by going on for higher education that they themselves could not obtain. Belo is openly gay, as were these friends, and had feared the intolerance of straight society, but as his book demonstrates, he was often victimized one way or another by those with whom he shared the homosexual lifestyle. As a blind gay man, so rare that he jokingly called himself a “unicorn,” Cipriani used his intelligence and inter-personal skills eventually to overcome or accommodate to the losses his blindness produced.
Those of us who still have our sight, and mine has deteriorated a bit, cannot fully appreciate the implications of its loss. Some of life’s simplest things become difficult, and almost everything takes much longer than it would if one could see. Cipriani’s description of these frustrating incidents make them clearer to the sighted and helps explain the anger with which he often had to cope.
His being gay is an important sub-theme of the book, but it is presented in a tasteful way, so that even a straight male such as myself need not find the passages repulsive. There is no explicit sex, and one gets used to his having a boyfriend, rather than a girlfriend, fairly early in the text. My now deceased gay friends prepared me for some of the themes dominant in this area of the book, the emphasis on looks, youth, physique, finances and fashion. These near-obsessions are not so different from those I found recently in reading a romance novel evidently written for women in their 20s and 30s. My own tastes lean more toward action and detective novels, as do those of most other heterosexual men, and even these are often spiced with beautiful and sexy women.
Cipriani grows from being a rather superficial party-boy and “clubber” to a serious, contemplative, skillful writer. This development was assisted by introspection, interactions with others blind and not-blind, and organizations such as Lighthouse for the Blind, the Orientation Center for the Blind, and Guide Dogs for the Blind, whose adaptive techniques and equipment and --- finally --- a guide dog, Madge, gave Cipriani renewed capabilities and freedom that he thought he would never regain.
Both the sighted and the vision-impaired or blind need to be more empathetic toward each other. Just as Cipriani finds shortcomings in his treatment by those who can still see, his book reveals his somewhat unjust impatience with those who still have their sight. He criticizes those who, on learning that he is blind, say that they’re sorry, which he interprets as erroneously taking on some blame for this misfortune. I think that saying they are sorry really should be translated to “I think it’s a shame that….” Not everyone knows not to pet the guide dogs without permission. Having returned to his college, Belo finds himself isolated by the reluctance of almost all the students to strike up a conversation with him, for example at meal times. People are typically somewhat uncomfortable with those they view as different, and they are not sure how not to offend those who are handicapped. Still, many people tend to find guide dogs, such as Belo’s Golden Lab an inviting topic for conversation, for breaking the ice.
Eventually, the students who first welcomed Cipriani among them were the athletes, football and basketball players, for example, and as these friendships developed, and as his writing classes continued his education, Cipriani has faced his future with renewed confidence.
Who are the blind? A small fraction have been blind from birth. Others, like Cipriani, have been blinded by trauma, others by diabetes, HIV, age-related macular degeneration, as well as sickle cell disease and retinosa pigmentosa. Among the vision-impaired themselves the first questions revolved around the degree of vision loss and the causes thereof. One young woman is cited by Cipriani as saying that she would not want to be not-blind, because her blindness now defines who she is.
I think we would each agree that of our five senses the one we would find most difficult to lose completely would be our sense of sight. Fortunately, science and engineering are giving us increasingly useful adaptive technologies for the blind, for the near blind and even for those of us still with sight. This fascinating book was read to me using Amazon’s Kindle, which I find very convenient, allowing me to listen as I rest or drive or search the book. I am dictating this with my eyes closed using the Dragon Naturally Speaking program. Of course, to edit it, I find it convenient to have my eyes open, but the Dragon program would indeed read it back to me for editing, and there are other similar programs used by the vision-impaired to read, to write, and to edit using their computers.
Adaptive technologies and greater understanding of the needs of the blind and the vision-impaired, and deeper insight as aided by the material in Cipriani’s book, will certainly help to make a brighter future for those who cannot see and those who care about them.
Douglas Winslow Cooper, Ph.D., a retired environmental physicist, lives in southern New York State with his beloved wife, Tina Su Cooper, who has been bedridden for two decades due to multiple sclerosis, quadriplegic and ventilator-dependent at home for the past eight years. Tina is the central figure in Dr. Cooper’s book, Ting and I: A Memoir of Love, Courage, and Devotion, available from Amazon. Barnes and Noble, or their website, tingandi.com.
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