Chicago Sun-Times: What’s it Like to be Blind?

Chicago Sun-Times - Feb 24th, 2015

Written by Neil Steinberg

“It’s awful, but yet it’s a challenge” said Dale Bettenhausen, 59, of Villa Park, who drove semi-trailer trucks before a genetic disorder began restricting his field of vision 20 years ago. “I have four percent in one eye and three in another. I’ve got no depth perception.”

For nearly eight years he has worked at the 20,000 square foot clock factory at the headquarters of Chicago Lighthouse on Roosevelt Road. He operates a die press, cutting faces for electric clocks ranging in sizes from six to 24 inches.

The newly cut clock faces go to the assemblers.

What’s it like to be blind?

“It’s been hard,” Leon Taylor said, pausing from putting clocks together. Totally blind, he uses a metal form with posts that help guide his hands as he assembles the parts: first a square electrical motor, then a round black plastic face, a royal blue sticker to identify him as the assembler, the round paper face, a brass washer and nut, then the clock hands, bowed out, so he can feel which side is the front. “The things you want to do, you can’t do. You have to learn how to make it easy on yourself. You have to accept what you can do.”

When Taylor, and other workers — the factory has 17 full-time employees, and sells $3 million worth of clocks every year — finish the clocks, a conveyer belt brings them to Byoung Choi, 62, who has worked at the factory for 25 years. He stands, feeling the clocks, takes each over to a pegboard and hooks them up to power. They are run, for 90 minutes, to ensure they work properly.

What’s it like to be blind?

“It’s all voice, or hearing,” said Choi, also almost completely blind. “I pay attention. I don’t need vision to work. I’m used to being around here.”

What’s it like to be blind?

“In my case, being genetic, so you can’t say,” said Milan Jerkan, plant manager. “But obviously it must be something, since you can see something from 200 feet that I have to be 20 feet away in order to see. It’s definitely a limiting thing. Good lighting helps.”

Many people assume that “blind” means coping with a world of utter darkness, when in truth only 15 percent of blind people cannot perceive light. Trying to broaden awareness, the Chicago Lighthouse for the Blind, founded in 1906, changed its name in 1999 to “Chicago Lighthouse for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired,” though it usually just goes by “Chicago Lighthouse.”

The ability of the blind to see can be confusing.

“There’s all kinds of blindness,” Bettenhausen said. “So many different varieties. When I leave my house, I always have my stick, and yet I have my glasses. I can see close fine. When they see the glasses, they figure I can see, and ask, ‘What the hell’s the stick for?’”

Debbie Rodriguez, assembling clocks, has a similar problem. Living with her daughter and seven grandchildren, she has to remind them that, contrary to impressions, she can’t see.

“I tell my grandchildren; leave the stuff where I put it so I know where it’s at,” she said. “Mainly my coffee cup, and the salt. Don’t touch it. Leave it where it’s at. Because I do all the cooking.”

What’s it like to go blind?

“For me, it wasn’t that bad,” said Nick Siavelis, 37, who began losing his sight at 10, due to a brain tumor that damaged his optic nerve. “I still get around. It can be pretty blurry, but it doesn’t bother me.”

“Get around” is an understatement. Siavelis commutes four hours a day, two hours on Metra and a bus from his home in Elgin, two hours back.

What’s it like to be blind?

“I do all the work on my own house,” said Mike Wallace, 64, a supervisor who has worked at the Lighthouse since he was 19, completely blind in one eye, with a cataract in the other. “Electrical, plumbing, you name it. I’ve learned to adapt.”

Bettenhausen regards his blindness with a measure of gratitude.

“I consider myself lucky,” he said. “For what I have done. I encounter people on a daily basis who didn’t have the experience of seeing a sunrise, or a nice steak. They haven’t got a clue. You come here, see people who have a lot less vision than I do, or no vision. They come to work every day. If they can do it, why can’t I?”

What is it like to be blind?

“People have doubts of what you’re capable of,” said Jerkan. “Given the right tools, you can function and do things at the same level as people without disabilities.”

He noted that fewer than 1/2 of 1 percent of the Chicago Lighthouse clocks come back as defective, lower than clock industry standards. “Even in the production of these clocks, I always feel, even though 90 percent of our employees are legally blind, I like our customers not to know that, because they might have some misconceptions: will it come out right? We do not just meet [standards]. We exceed.”

Read the article here on Chicago Sun-Times.

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