Janet Bernhardt, TBS, CLVT
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My grandmother lost her vision when I was 12 years old. This will sound harsh, but it’s true: my parents crippled her through love and ignorance by not allowing her to do anything.
This special lady had always taken care of her family. She did everything. She was always about family, she planted and harvested the garden, she gathered the eggs, she cooked, she sewed, and she was always focused on everyone else. My parents just could not fathom her living alone, being independent or doing anything without vision.
They crippled her, to the point that she sat in a rocking chair for the remainder of her life. She wasn’t allowed to do the dishes, because—they’d say—“She might cut herself on a knife,” or “She might not get the dishes clean.”
Even as a 12-year-old, I knew that nobody—blind or sighted—could see the knives in a sink full of suds! (Tweet this!) She was so depressed that, whenever they’d tell her it was time to eat, somebody would have to help her out of her chair and guide her to the table.
But when it was just the two of us, she’d jump right up. You see, sometimes my family would leave me to “watch” her, so—even at the age of 12—I decided that sitting in a rocking chair was no way to live. I’d take her outside and say, “Grandma, let’s go feel the sunshine,” or “Let’s go listen to the rain.”
That’s about the only time I saw her smile after she lost her vision.
I was a rebellious kid. I remember raising my voice at my parents and getting in trouble a lot, because I knew this was no way to treat someone whose brain was working just fine. She just couldn’t see. Since my parents weren’t listening, I knew there had to be someone out there to help people that lost their vision. I kept searching and searching, but sadly I didn’t find anyone.
I eventually went to college, even though I really wasn’t particularly interested in doing so. I wanted to go to work, make money, own a car, and have my own apartment. My daddy talked me into school, though, and my sister recommended that I major in education. “You’ll take some easy, general classes,” she said. “Most of them will transfer when you decide what you really want to do.”
So, I took her advice. I registered for a special education class, and volunteered to read aloud to a boy who was blind. He was homebound (for a whole host of medical reasons beyond blindness), but I saw so many parallels with my grandma. I got hooked on working with blind kids and adults.
From tears to giggles
When I went to observe a special ed classroom in the fall of 1973, I saw a precious, three-year-old blind boy crying in the back of the room. (This was back during the time of “the open classroom,” where 10 teachers and 100 kids would gather in one big room. This, anybody could have told you, was not a great atmosphere!) My job was only to observe, but when everybody got up to do the hokey pokey, that music was just too loud for me. (It was college, remember? I’d been up late and 7:30 a.m. was not a good hour of the day for anything.)
“Don’t even bother,” the teacher told me. “That’s all he does. For the past two weeks from the time gets off the bus until he gets back on it, he does nothing but cry.”
So, since I’m pretty rebellious, I didn’t listen to the teacher. Instead, I put him in my lap. “Hey, look what I found,” I said with a smile. “It’s a xylophone. Do you want to play it?”
I put the mallet in his hand, and—though I didn’t know this to be “hand over hand technique”—I let him start making music. He stopped crying, and he started smiling. I don’t think he talked, but that’s when I decided that I was going to work with blind kids. “If these “professionals” don’t know what to do,” I said to myself, “I can certainly do a better job than they’re doing.”
After finding out that I couldn’t get certified as a teacher of blind students in Louisiana, I headed to Florida State. It was a major ordeal to get there, since money was a real issue. I typed term papers for people at the end of the semester, to the point that I was afraid that I would flunk out of Louisiana State University because I was typing papers when I should’ve been studying!
I took all the courses that I needed in one summer, for there was no more money to come back and try again. I just thought braille was the neatest thing ever. It was (and still is) a kind of puzzle. I loved the code from the moment I saw it and I still love it.
After I graduated, I worked at the school for the blind for one year. I was the first teacher to teach three to five year olds after public law 94-142 (requiring all schools that received federal funds to provide equal access to education for all students with disabilities). I’ve changed jobs a few times, but I’ve always worked with blind children or adults. I worked in a local district for 17 years, and I had the joy of teaching some children from as young as three years old until they graduated from high school. These kids were much more than students, for I considered them family…and I believe they did, too.
I’m working my dream job now with the Louisiana Center for the Blind. I work as a consultant for school children and their families, and I also have the pleasure of working with senior adults in the Techniques for Living Competently (TLC) program. In a nutshell, our TLC program is life-changing. We see older people that are depressed and think that their life is over, and we get to show them that there is life after blindness.
Helping blind people live independently
As a Certified Low Vision Therapist (CLVT), I can go into peoples’ homes and help them with magnifiers…but often I explain that they’d be better off using blindness skills rather than using their really bad vision. Us rehab teachers always driven by their goals and answer to the question, “What do you want to do that you feel like you can’t do anymore?”
The most common answer we hear is “reading.” People expect us to give them magnifiers, which we do, but many times, those are good for spot-checking but not long-term reading. If it’s mail that they want to read, I can help them find a better solution. We’ll talk about large-print or audible medicine bottles that they can get from their pharmacy. I also show them how to work with human readers.
Just like my grandma, however, many of these folks have been over-protected or taken advantage of by family members. Some have had money taken out of their bank accounts, so they’re afraid to trust anyone. We talk about telephone banking and automatic bill pay.
In short, we show them common-sense solutions that we’ve learned from blind people. Lots of the ladies with whom I work can’t sew anymore, so we show them how to thread a needle or use a sewing machine with self-threading needles. During our senior retreats, I have ladies bring their machines, and once they’ve learned how to operate the machines by touch, they’ve got it made. We use magnetic seam allowance guides so they don’t have to see in order to sew a straight seam.
We also teach cooking. I love to get the ladies that tell me they used to be a wonderful cook, but who say that they can’t see to do it anymore. I ask, “What would you really like to cook again?”
Whatever that is, we have it for one of our meals. We teach them to organize their kitchens, chop, measure, place items in the oven, and cook atop the stove safely. Once our participants overcome their fear, they cry during our closing ceremony, and tell us that they had no idea that they’d ever get to enjoy their lives again.
So many times these folks have prepared their whole lives to retire and enjoy traveling, reading, sewing and so many other things. When they lose their vision they feel defeated and depressed. Once these seniors learn the skills of blindness, 99 percent of their depression leaves them. (Tweet this!)
My biggest role is to try to keep people out of nursing homes, especially those with no children or who have outlived their kids. “I just can’t do it anymore,” they tell me.
“So, what can’t you do that would keep you living at home independently?” I ask. If it’s managing your bills, cooking, keeping up with appointments or other tasks of daily living, I know that I can teach them alternative ways of doing the same task. Older blind people can live happy, independent lives. So my job is to help them overcome their fear and teach them the skills they need. Once they’ve learned these skills they don’t say, “I can’t do that because I can’t see”. They say, “I can do that, I just do it in a different way.”
My family knows how much I love my job. They are often overheard saying, “If mom wouldn’t have lost her vision, Janet wouldn’t have this job!” I guess that’s true.
A proud grandma
Just before I left for Florida 40 years ago, I went to see my grandma at the nursing home. I didn’t know that it would be the last time I would see her, but I told her, “Grandma, I finally know what I want to do with my life. I am going to teach blind kids.”
“You’re a natural,” she cheered with a bright smile. “You’re going to be wonderful doing that!”
That was indeed the last time that I saw her.
If I had my life to live over I wouldn’t change anything. I’d choose the same career. You don’t get rich monetarily, but I’ve been enriched by so many memories and success stories. It’s a warm and fuzzy feeling kind of job. When you see that you put a smile on someone’s face or the confidence in a person’s step, it’s sweet. To watch people see that they can achieve those goals that they thought were impossible and enjoy life again is rewarding. I know my life has been enriched by my choice of a career as a rehab teacher for the blind.
Louisiana Tech University now offers a master’s degree program in rehabilitation teaching. You, like Janet, can teach adults and seniors who have lost their vision that blindness doesn’t have to be the characteristic that defines them or their future. E-mail or call us today at (318) 257-4554 to plan the next, right step in your career.