by Cecile Betts

(Author's note: This essay was included in the collection published by Saddleback College Foundation, Reflections VIII. It has also appeared in the quarterly magazine published by the California Council of the Blind under the title "I See Things Differently," and in the fall 2003 issue of "Alaska Women Speak.")

In October 1999, shortly before my 82nd birthday, I drove to the DMV office, passed the written but failed the vision test.

"See your ophthalmologist, then return for a road test," the clerk advised.

Armed with a report from my doctor stating my vision was 50/200, I returned a month later, passed the road test and received a two-year license.

A week afterward, I drove to an appointment with the visual aids representative from the Braille Institute. Jamie tested me with various strengths of handheld magnifiers. "I am not a doctor but I doubt if your vision is 50/200 today. See your doctor as soon as possible."

On December 6th, Dr. Lean, a retinal specialist, examined my eyes. "I am so sorry," he said. "There is nothing I can do to improve your sight or to keep it from getting worse."

"What is my visual acuity today?" I asked.

"It is 20/200 or less in each eye," he replied.

"But, that's legally blind," I gasped.

"Yes, I know. I will give you a letter so you can obtain some benefits," he replied as he closed my file.

I left his office in a daze. With my eyes still dilated by the drops used before the examination, I could hardly see the sidewalk. To get home, I had to cross busy eight-lane Avenida de Valencia. Standing at the curb, I listened intently to the sound of cars speeding by. I could not see the traffic light. Did it change? I stepped off the curb, then jumped back with my heart pounding as an oncoming car blared its horn at me. A Good Samaritan across the street saw my dilemma and called out a minute later, "It is safe to cross now. Traffic has stopped."

When I arrived home, I collapsed in my recliner in my darkened room and burst into tears. "I think I could cope with almost any disability," I often told my friends, "except losing my sight." My thoughts tumbled in confusion as I tried to picture how being blind would change my life. How would I travel to my medical appointments and other activities without driving? How would I manage to keep house, use my computer, finish revising and editing my book? Was God punishing me for past sins? I tried to bargain with God. But God does not negotiate.

I thought of the many wonderful people I met during 10 years as a volunteer with the Braille Institute Outreach Program in San Clemente. Most, my age or older, lived alone and managed their lives with dignity. Could I do less?

I knew the agencies and programs that could help me. The next morning, after a sleepless night, I called the California Department of Rehabilitation, Division for the Blind. Ms. Emerson came to see me, accompanied by her guide dog and her driver. She evaluated my degree of disability. "I'll refer you to a low vision optometrist who can prescribe special devices. These will assist you with shopping, reading and your other activities. I will also refer you to the Salvation Army Rehab for one-on-one instruction in using ZoomText on your computer."

I sent the Braille Institute in Anaheim, Calif. a copy of Dr. Lean's letter and enrolled in two classes there. One taught me how to use my computer and printer with the help of ZoomText. The other class, Living with Visual Loss, enabled our group to discuss our feelings and share coping strategies.

There are many new things to remember. Now, I have a table model closed-circuit TV, as well as a portable one. I have a 19-inch monitor, a lighted hand-held magnifier and ZoomText for my computer. I have a talking watch. The Bell Telephone Company furnishes a special large-number phone.

The Braille Institute, under contract with the Library of Congress, has 22 miles of shelving containing talking books. They also furnish the special player for these 4-track tapes. These are free.

My support cane, wrapped in white tape, signifies I am blind. Some people who see it think I am also retarded or stupid. Others don't realize my limitations.

I enrolled in an experimental program at the Doheny Clinic in Los Angeles, but after six months they dropped me because my sight had worsened so much. I felt devastated. Again, I had to choose. I could sit home, do nothing, cry, feel sorry for myself, a living death. Or I could find ways to continue with my many activities.

I realized when you hit bottom, there is only one way to go, and that is up. I chose life.

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