Laura Tanna, Contributor
Have you ever wondered what the opportunities are for the 26,000 Jamaicans who live daily with blindness? Those of us in Kingston who drive on Old Hope Road will have at some time or another glimpsed that marvellous quotation in elegant black script written large upon a blue wall which covers the entrance to the Jamaica Society for the Blind (JSB).
It's a quotation from Helen Keller which reads: "The worst thing is to be born sighted but to lack vision." Makes you stop and think.
Most of us "sighted" people would be terrified to be blind. Yet in the last few months I've met with two people who are truly an inspiration. The first was Virginia Woods, who just retired in March as executive director of the JSB after almost 32 years with that organisation, the last 11 in the top position. She walks with a cane and readily takes public transport, long distances by herself, confident in her own abilities and the caring nature of Jamaican people. I know in her former job she was something of a poster person for the blind, with a will not only to survive, but also to help others reach their greater potential.
The other person I met with is someone you should hear. His mellifluous voice should, in fact, be on radio for that is what he specialised in at UWI when he obtained his degree in mass communications in 1992. Conrad Harris, who joined the JSB in 1993, is now the acting executive director and a most articulate man he is. Unlike most of his fellow blind Jamaicans, he was actually born blind from a genetically inherited glaucoma.
Most Jamaicans who do turn blind in early adulthood, average age 41, from ill effects of either diabetes or glaucoma. This blindness is often preventable and so the European Union, Sight Savers International and the Caribbean Council for the Blind are funding a programme called Providing Sight 2020 in the Caribbean especially to provide education and outreach projects to assist in preventing blindness in Jamaica, Haiti, St Lucia and Guyana.
Having been born blind, Harris studied at the Salvation Army School for the Blind which educates blind people up to the age of 18. He says in any given year they have approximately 100 students in total and they learn to use Braille for reading and writing. It is the 56-year-old JSB which helps adults after that age. Harris has been, and hopes to continue as director of programmes, supervising the Adjustment to Blindness project. This programme responds to calls from blind people throughout the island.
He explained to me that once they receive a call from someone who wants their assistance in adjusting to blindness, it is the responsibility of the field officer to determine how many other blind people there might be within a reasonable range of the community so that the field officer can go to that location for two weeks and teach not only a group of those who are blind, but also their families. They have conducted these programmes in St James, Hanover and Westmoreland as well as in the metropolitan area, and he always tries to go at first with the sighted field officer so that both blind persons and their families can appreciate how well a blind person like himself can function. After that he leaves it to the sighted field officer to stay and conduct the training. If a family requesting assistance offers to provide accommodation to the officer, this assists with funding. Otherwise, a moderate accommodation is found.
The sighted field officer is used, particularly in rural areas, to avoid any accidents as rural drivers especially are not yet familiar with having blind people using canes on the road. Harris says it is important to train families since blind people can be taught to cook for themselves, clean, learn to use a cane and, in general, care for themselves, something which families often don't realise.
Families often revert to making the blind person dependent unless the families participate in the training sessions and learn that blind people can do many things independently.
Two-month training session
At the Old Hope Headquarters the JSB usually teaches penmanship, Braille, typewriting and computer use, plus allows access to a large library of Braille manuscripts and audiocassettes. An especially exciting programme was that offered through a two-month training session. Robert Milton, a graduate of that class, showed me how after being trained in JAWS (Job Access With Speech) software for Windows he can now go online and access newspapers, email and use the search engine to gain information through the software which speaks to the users.
The software costs US$1,000 for an individual to buy and is discounted for organisations which use a larger number of computers. Now blind people who have been trained like Milton can pay J$100 per week to the JSB to assist with electricity costs and use JAWS in the JSB computer room. Milton says his life has been transformed in a revolutionary way by gaining access to the Internet.
Conrad Harris estimates that only 3,000 of Jamaica's blind are being assisted by the JSB and even that is threatened now. The JSB receives approximately one-third of its operating costs from a government subvention but the rest must come from donations. Many organisations and individuals have been generous in the past. With the declining economic situation, however, donations have also declined and, over time, a debt of $2 million has accrued. The board, under the chairmanship of Lola Marson, has taken the decision that it must now come to grips with the situation and clear the accumulated debt no matter what, so that the JSB can restructure and resume activities with a clean slate.
Unfortunately many donor agencies will fund projects but not salaries. Drastic times call for drastic measures and to this end seven of the 11 members of staff have been laid off to save the cost of their salaries until the debt is cleared. They may even have to sell some assets. These controversial measures have not gone down well with everyone in the blind community but as Harris explains: "The Jamaica Society for the Blind is experiencing challenging times so we're trying to clear off the debt to continue providing service."
If you want to help, donations can be made to: The Jamaica Society for the Blind, 1111/2 Old Hope Road, Kingston 6.
Tel: 876-927-3760, 927-6758-9 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
In the USA, tax-free donations may be made to The American Friends of Jamaica (designate the donation to be directed to The Jamaica Society for the Blind), 850 7th Avenue, Suite 1106, New York, NY 10019, Tel: 212 626 6883, Email: email@example.com