by Philip Kutner

Living with one foot in the fully sighted world and the other in the visually impaired one has been my lot in life. The question constantly is, “Do you see or are you blind?”

From birth on, being nearsighted (myopic) and having my eyes constantly moving side-to-side (nystagmus) have been challenges to living in the “normal” society. It only has been an almost total loss of sight in one eye, through an unsuccessful attempt to repair and to later fix a detached retina, that I fully accepted my disability. Up to that point, life as an adult was fully within the “normal” society.

Let’s start at the beginning. Entering first grade in New York City at public school (P.S. 61) in the Bronx, I was placed into the special Sight Conservation Class for the visually impaired. There were several grade levels and a wonderful, tall, beautiful, Irish lady as the teacher.

The only other thing that I remember is the yellow writing paper with the blue lines being much further apart than the regular blue-lined pads. It was culture shock in 1937 when Dad moved the family to a farm that had been abandoned at the start of the Great Depression. At the age of 10 my education took a sudden turn. It was now in a one-room schoolhouse with a total of 10 students from grades 1-8, and one teacher as the total of the entire adult teaching and support staff.

There was no inside electricity or toilet, and the heat came from an 1898 potbelly stove that “went out” each night. This began my journey in having to adjust to an education where I could not see the writing on the blackboard and hoping to be seated at the front of the room.

In high school a few teachers were understanding and gave me a copy of the test questions. The others wrote them on the blackboard. To see the writing, I went up to the blackboard, for the writing wasn’t visible even when sitting in the front row. When I was up there, I blocked the other students from seeing the questions. Then began a series of “Move over, four-eyes,” or “Blindy, get out of there.”

Somehow high school was over, and I had learned to listen to the lectures and take excellent notes. This helped with undergraduate and graduate courses. For teenagers, getting a driver’s license is part of the rite of passage in becoming a grown-up. How I acquired a driver’s license, without an attached provisional requirement and having an acuity of 20/200 vision, makes an interesting story.

In those days, to pass the eye exam one had to read a Snell chart. All the prospective drivers lined up and each stepped forward to read in turn. I had memorized the bottom line of the chart. When it was my turn, the tester said, “Start at the top and read down as far as you can.”

I read the bottom line. He said, “Did you hear my instructions?” I replied, “Yes, sir.”

“Well, then do as you are told.”

I read the same line!

He said, “Okay, wise guy, start at the bottom and go backwards all the way to the top.” I don’t know how I did it, but I read the bottom line backwards -- and then stopped. He shook his head and said, “You’re a dumb farm boy — aren’t you?”

My reply was, “Yes, sir.”

I drove for 40 years and had only two accidents — one of which was my fault. It included driving in 1964 to the University of Colorado in Boulder and back to St. Louis, Mo., where I taught geology for the Mark Twain Institute at Washington University.

Let’s return to that time when I had graduated from Rutgers University with a bachelor of science degree in agriculture. I went back to the farm. Our homestead near Baptistown along the Lockatong Creek in Hunterdon County, N.J. was flooded by a hurricane in 1955. We had a loss of 10,000 white leghorn hens. These were breeders and it was a lucrative business of selling hatching eggs. We lost the farm and I turned to teaching.

By that time, I had married my cherished life companion and had three children — the youngest of whom was 2 months old at the time of the flood. Then for 30 years and at various times I taught all science courses and levels from grades 7-12 at a regional high school.

During those years, I was president of the regional school system, and president of a temple with a large congregation in Fair Lawn, N.J. After my retirement in 1984, we moved to San Mateo, Calif., where we have resided ever since. For two years I drove with my New Jersey license and then realized that there would be no chance for me to pass the California vision test. They weren’t using the old Snell chart. So in 1986 I stopped driving and have not driven since – not even to move the car into the garage.

It was only after the loss in vision of one eye (see paragraph 2) that I decided to learn about the visually impaired community and the services available to us. I joined the San Mateo County Council of the Blind, which is a chapter of the California Council of the Blind. Currently I am president and webmaster. For more information about the San Mateo chapter, visit

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