Kathy Pingstock was diagnosed with a condition called retina pigmentosa in 1988, and by 1993, she lost her sight altogether. “It’s kind of like pulling a shade down over a window and you can’t see anything outside,” says Pingstock, who got involved with the Akron Blind Center as a student, eventually becoming a teacher. She now helps other visually impaired residents by leading Braille and computer classes, along with serving as a mentor for those who lost their sight more recently and are still adjusting.
Christine Bates, who’s 84, was blinded when she was a baby, when her uncle tried to scare her mother with a firecracker. Bates has been a member of the Akron Blind Center since 1957 and is thankful the organization has helped her with acceptance. “It’s very hard to accept that your sight is not normal and that you have to make adjustments,” she says. “It’s helped me make a lot of adjustments in my adult life.”
When someone loses their sight, they often go through the commonly known stages of grief, says Scott Reisberg, executive director of the Akron Blind Center. And when they reach acceptance, he adds, then they’re ready to join this membership-based organization, which remains staunchly independent after more than 100 years serving the Akron area.
“I challenge anyone to put a blindfold on and see what life is like, how they react and how they interact with you,” Reisberg says, adding that on Saturday, Oct. 7, the Akron Blind Center will offer residents a chance to step into the shoes of the blind and visually impaired as part of the White Cane Walk. The fundraiser takes place at 10 a.m., at Canal Park Stadium in downtown Akron. “People are going to get blindfolded and use a white cane to get around with, and they’re going to be led around by a blind person,” says Reisberg. “We’re turning the tables.”
And along with turning the tables, the Akron Blind Center’s members and volunteers help combat stigma and stereotypes. They ride bicycles; they go to baseball games. They also volunteer and help the community, like the 1,500 hats that volunteers and members knit every year. “Last year, we donated hats to first-graders in need, hospice programs, Stewart’s Caring Place and also to the Ronald McDonald House,” says Reisberg.
Being visually impaired is incredibly difficult in modern society, especially in our visual culture of smart phones and computer screens. But Pingstock has leveraged technology to improve her life. For example, she’s thankful for her iPhone’s voice-activated capabilities. “I can do email, I can do the Internet, I can send text messages,” she says. “Apple also has a color reader, a money reader and an app where you can bring up a sighted person on the phone and they can help you.”
The computer classes she teaches help visually impaired members using a software called “JAWS,” (Job Access With Speech) which is keyboard-activated and will read email and web pages for the computer user, eliminating the need for a monitor or mouse.
Pingstock also teaches classes for reading Braille, which features six raised “dots” that are reconfigured to form sentences and words. She uses a muffin pan and tennis balls to help beginning Braille readers learn the basics.
An independent spirit
Although its iterations have changed a bit over the years, one thing remains constant: the Akron Blind Center’s membership is staunchly independent. In fact, in 2008, the Blind Center temporarily shut its doors after taking its Board of Directors to court for trying to merge with a larger organization. The membership prevailed, and the center reopened in 2010.
“We make it clear here that we are not victims,” Reisberg adds. “We get out and we contribute and we show what the blind and visually challenged can do in society.”
And sighted community members are a welcome contingent. “You don’t have to be blind to come here; we have fully sighted members,” says Reisberg. “It’s a membership-based organization, and the members run the show. It is intended to be for and by the blind and visually challenged.”
Karen Grantham, who lost her sight eight years ago, says that membership at the Blind Center has helped her adjust and communicate better with others. “You’re always adjusting, but I’m also blessed that I have family and friends to help me,” she says.
Pingstock had to adjust to her visual impairment twice: when she first lost her sight, and then when she lost her husband in 2012 to lung cancer. After he passed, she says she had to “learn how to be blind again.” But the Blind Center has provided her with the confidence she needs to keep helping others.
To volunteer or contribute to the Akron Blind Center, visit www.akronblindcenter.org.