Learning to live without seeing; North Dakota School for the Blind teaches adults to cope with vision loss
GRAND FORKS — Bob Klade sat poised in front of a large book, fingers on the page, reciting what sounded like a word game.
Klade, 60, was learning his first words in Braille at the North Dakota School for the Blind in Grand Forks. Last year, he lost his vision and hearing after a surgery.
Although the school is mostly known as a resource for children, about 200 adults have attended classes there in the past two years, the vast majority of them people who have recently lost part or all of their vision, like Klade.
Recently, he spent five days relearning some of life’s most basic tasks — from gauging the oven’s temperature to written communication.
He used to do things on his own all of the time, he said. “Now I have to ask for help, and that’s hard.”
Tall and stocky, Klade maintained a busy lifestyle in the years before his surgery, traveling around the world for his job at Arctic Cat, spending time with his wife and their four grown children and heading outdoors as often as he could.
He had lost hearing in one ear, but the other was still pretty good, he said. “I could go out in the woods and hear birds sing and hear deer walk through the leaves.”
But during surgery for an aortic aneurysm last year, he said, he lost a “massive amount of blood” that damaged his optic nerve, causing his blindness, and triggered a near total hearing loss in both ears.
Klade grew emotional describing his life now. He can’t fully experience hunting and fishing, his primary passions, or even worse, see his children’s faces, he said.
“It’s hard not to be able to see their faces anymore,” he said, his eyes filling with tears. “They tell me it gets easier as time goes, but I haven’t found that yet. I suspect that it’ll be a few years before I’m totally comfortable with the fact that I’m blind.”
Since he’s grown blind, he said he’s noticed people don’t treat him the same as before. At restaurants, he can’t hear well and can’t carry on a conversation, he said. People also don’t know how to respond to his condition and don’t know what to say, he said.
Part of the problem is the public hasn’t been exposed enough to an average blind person, said Ken Dockter, an outreach teacher for adults. On television, blind people are rarely portrayed and, if they are, they’re usually comical characters, like Mr. Magoo, or superheroes whose other senses operate at superhuman levels, he said.
“We don’t run into a blind person on a daily basis, and we’re pretty uncomfortable around them,” he said. “We don’t know what we should say or what we should do.”
Learning to live
While the School for the Blind serves blind people like Klade, most students are people who have lost some vision but aren’t completely blind. For example, some have lost peripheral vision or sensitivity to light.
To better adapt to their condition, adults spend a lot of time at the school memorizing the dots that make up the Braille alphabet, learning to do old tasks, such as cooking or walking down the hall, in new ways, and understanding technology designed for the visually impaired, such as computers that read to them.
Klade learned Braille from Candy Lien, one of 18 teachers who travel around the state to teach blind residents.
Like some teachers at the school, Lien has a vision problem, which helps her empathize with students. “I know what it’s like to have low vision, and I know what it’s like to have no vision.”
The school building itself helps students learn to orient themselves. When using the school’s kitchen, they rely on dots of orange puff paint on the dials to indicate temperature. As they move down the hall, they can tell a doorway is near when they hit square tiles with their cane.
There are also counselors to help students work through their emotions during what is largely considered a grieving process, school staff said.
“It’s a very frustrating time in my life,” Klade said. “It’s hard to think at 60 years old, I’m going back to school and I have to relearn everything again.”
But he said he realizes he can’t always count on other people being there. He plans on returning to his favorite outdoor activities in some form again and wants to improve on what he’s learned at the school.
“I’m sure there are a lot of people who give up,” he said. “But I don’t lose well.”