Florida Lions

‘Blind' for a day, his eyes are opened...

by Mike Lafferty, Sentinel Columnist

Orlando Sentinel article
Published Friday October 24, 2003

Even though Sally Plant is standing nearby, I have never been so nervous about crossing the street.

The cars sound louder than I have ever heard them. Some kind of truck roars by, and it sounds very large.

In my right hand is a 54-inch cane that I have used to tap my way awkwardly through the Conklin Center for the Blind, out the doors and out to White Street and Dunn Avenue in Daytona Beach.

Over my eyes, the world is made dark by a mask like what you would wear on an airplane when trying to sleep. Some light filters through, but this everyday environment suddenly seems dangerous and unsettling.

Still, even without sight, I have an advantage over the boys and girls and men and women who go to Conklin so they can learn to negotiate intersections and perform far more mundane activities that I — and I'm betting you — take for granted.

In addition to degrees of blindness, they have cerebral palsy, epilepsy, deafness or other impairment.

In my mask, I learn how they fold money in different patterns to discern a $1 bill from a $20, how to use a template to sign checks, how to dust furniture in a grid to make sure the whole area gets wiped.

In the kitchen, Plant, a manager at the Conklin Center, shows me how to peel a potato by feeling the difference between the dryness of the skin and the wetness of the meat.

I measure the size of each slice with a fingertip, put the side of the blade against my finger and then move it back before cutting. I figured out when to stop pouring a cup of hot water by waiting for my forefinger to feel heat on the outside of the cup. I shake boxes to figure out whether they hold pasta or mashed potato flakes.

In a workshop, I stuff envelopes with tickets for a motorcycle raffle and use an air gun to assemble small, oil-covered parts for car engines. In the background, a radio plays a quirky selection of songs.

There are moments when I have the urge to look down the crack between the mask and my face for a clue of my surroundings, or just yank the mask from my face.

It is nice to have that option, something denied to people who live or visit the Conklin Center, a project of the Florida Lions club that also sends therapists to do home visits.

I heard about it through a friend whose son was born with several disabilities, including blindness. Bob sang the center's praises, crediting it with helping his son learn to adapt.

I believe it. During an earlier visit, I talked briefly with Emily, a young woman who has cerebral palsy and, while not completely sightless, is legally blind. After living at the center, she felt confident enough to move to a group home. Someday, she might get her own apartment.

Emily probably had crossed the same intersection where I now stood, waiting for a bell to start ringing, my signal to cross. If Plant were not by my side, I would have to trust that some hurried motorist would not come blasting through the intersection, oblivious to the guy lurching through the intersection with a cane.

Even with the bell giving me an audible cue to follow, I begin veering to the right. I must look like a drunk. Plant takes me by the arm and steers me in the right direction.

At the other side, I sheepishly think it probably was the bravest thing I would do all day, something I should remember the next time I see someone crossing the street with a cane.

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