Seeing Things More Clearly
Blind volunteers provide students with enlightening experience
Modern advocates for the blind visited Salem Academy and College Oct. 16, nearly 100 years to day that Helen Keller – the first deaf and blind person to ever earn a BA degree – paid a visit to the historic women’s institution.
“Helen Keller faced the challenges of being deaf and blind and still chose to hear life with her heart and see life with her hands. She said, ‘The good soldier doesn’t own defeat until the battle is over,’” Industries for the Blind of Winston-Salem’s Anastasia Powell told the students gathered in the school’s auditorium. “She left footprints behind for us to follow.”
Five IFB employees, all of whom are blind or visually impaired, led more than 150 Salem students in a blind awareness program to mark Blind Americans Equality Day, which was observed on Oct. 15 and aims to foster a better understanding and respect of people who have physical disabilities.
“We’re advocating and we’re spreading awareness about blindness, just like Helen Keller did 100 years ago,” said Powell, a grandmother of three.
“The Blind Side,” as the Salem program was called, had a contingent of IFB volunteers leading students in a variety of exercises designed to show them how those with no sight or sight limitations navigate in a world designed for those with sight. There were lessons on braille and guide dog etiquette. Students, staff and faculty also tried to maneuver down a hallway – eyes shielded – using a cane.
“It was eye opening to me to learn how people who are blind are able to do so much,” said Salem Academy senior Catherine Ward “…I think that’s why this has been such an interesting experience – it was something that I really wasn’t aware of.”
Art Saunders was one of the volunteer program facilitators. He lost his sight to glaucoma 13 years ago. The N.C. A&T alumnus credits IFB, the nation’s top employer of the blind and those with vision impairments, with giving him his life back. In addition to working a full-time job and owning his own Greensboro condo, Saunders regularly worksout at a local gym, is active in his church and participates in 5k and 10k runs.
“IFB has enabled me to continue to lead a lifestyle and to do a lot of things I used to do previously,” he said. “…It’s allowed me to be a productive member of the community.”
Participating in The Blind Side is a way of giving back, said Saunders, who has worked at IFB for nearly nine years. By bringing the program to places like Salem, he hopes to break down stereotypes.
“It does not stop us from doing anything,” he said of his disability. “…We may just have to find a slightly different way to do things, but we always get things done.”
IFB produces a litany of products at its North Point Boulevard headquarters, everything from mattresses to eye glasses.
Local author and historian Randell Jones stumbled across information about Keller’s visit to Salem while researching for his 2012 book, “Trailing Daniel Boone: Marking Daniel Boone’s Trail 1912-1915,” and brought it to the attention of IFB leaders. Keller addressed a crowd of more than 1,000 attendees at Salem with the help of her teacher and interpreter, Anne Sullivan, on Oct. 6, 1913.
Jenny Orr, director of Mental Health at Salem, helped coordinate the event, along with the school’s six-member Wellness Committee.
Orr, whose father, L. Glenn Orr’s name graces a building at The North Point Boulevard facility, said she hoped participating in The Blind Side would inspire and empower Salem students to face their own challenges head on.
“I hope they get a better understanding of what it’s like to be visually impaired or blind,” she said. “I hope they understand that it’s not a disability per se, but it’s an obstacle that you can overcome, and you can overcome anything if you work hard.”
Ward said the event taught her valuable lessons.
“The best part is just that disabilities don’t limit you – you can still do just as much as anyone else and still live a fully life, even if you can’t see,” she remarked. “We don’t need to pity those who can’t see, we just need to respect them and be willing to help.”