The opportunity to provide tools that help the youngest blind population in the country is one of the missions of the National Federation of the Blind in Puerto Rico.
For this reason, the entity offers this month virtual workshops that seek to help blind children, and their parents or guardians, giving them advice and tools to empower themselves and lead an independent life.
As explained Shalmarie Arroyo, who works in the organization, with these workshops “we seek to cover all the basic skills that blind children need to be more independent” and, in addition, “bring education to their parents” so that they learn how they can help their children achieve that self-sufficiency.
“When parents discover that the child is blind, it is something very difficult, and they have to learn to let them discover their world. And it is not that they are going to let them go alone down a ravine, but rather give them the space to learn to live in that world. For example, learning how to use a cane, echolocation ”, he explained.
As an example, he indicated how the cane helps to get and move around somewhere, such as the University of Puerto Rico in Río Piedras. “If you leave the (urban) train, the floor at the station is smooth, on the sidewalk it is different, rougher. If it’s the street, the tar also feels different. And if they are in the grass it is softer, it sinks. And so you get your bearings and you know where to go ”.
He insisted that it is important to understand that blind people can perform countless activities and participate in all areas of society like anyone who sees. He stressed that it is important to learn the skills to live as a blind person, and warned that, if the minor has low vision, he should not be forced to read, because that ends up hurting him.
“There are still many prejudices with the blind population. Even today many people do not imagine that blind people can do almost everything, like anyone else. We are humans. The only thing we can do is drive a car and guide an airplane ”, he insisted, mentioning his own experience as a person who became blind at the age of 12 and since then has been able to study until obtaining a university master’s degree.
Arroyo explained that, as part of the workshops, parents are explained what to expect from the workshops, how to maintain a positive attitude, how to find creative solutions to problems, and gain self-confidence.
They also address issues of literacy, use of the Braille reading system, assistive technologies for telephones and computers such as screen readers. Likewise, they educate on mobility and orientation, the use and handling of the cane, guide dogs, orientation in terms of directions and other essential aspects for a blind person to be successful.
“The issue of critical thinking and creative problem solving mentality is essential, because the blind child can do everything, but at some point they need something adapted,” he said. “For example, with my daughter I play to paint and I have many crayons, some are jumbo, others with different sizes, to be able to identify them, and so I know that the jumbos are green. The same if we buy clothes, because I want it to be a different texture, one with long sleeves, short sleeves, with some detail, and so I can identify them. And so it can be at school. For example, if you are going to show a map of Puerto Rico, then if it is raised, it can already be understood. Even if it is a ball, they put sound inside it and they can play soccer ”.
She recalled that when she had her daughter “I thought she was an independent woman, and then new problems came to be solved, because she is very naughty, and I think she realizes that I don’t see and hides, because we put some bells on her clothes to find it. And it’s about that, being creative and looking for solutions ”.
He added that throughout the workshops it is also explained that “when a person goes blind, it is not that you are going to immediately develop the other senses, but that you are going to learn to use them better. And we teach him how to use those senses, how to know that something is already cooked, using taste, smell, how to learn to cross the street by listening ”.
He explained that in the workshops they use a format of much interaction with the participants, listening to the parents’ questions, and adapting to their needs according to what they express. “We want them to also think about how they would do it. We give them a lot of information, but we want them to see that it was in me, I was able to think about it, solve it. If you change that mentality that they don’t know, you can find that dynamic to solve problems. “
The workshops will also include the testimony of blind people showing the impact that these skills have had in their lives and how they are today independent adults, as well as information about the Federation and its work in the fields of education, legislation and rights, among others.
The workshops are free and will be offered every Saturday of this month of October, which is awareness month on visual health and blindness, from 11:00 am to 1:00 pm Those interested can contact the number 787-462- 5973.
“We have spaces available, the workshops are totally free, and we are in the best position to help them,” Arroyo invited.
And judging by comments from a participating mother, the workshops have a very positive impact.
“I can say that I loved participating in the workshop. My daughter’s diagnosis is recent and I am slowly learning how to help her. I had never heard of the screen reader … It was very interesting to hear their experiences, ”said Verónica Rodríguez.
He said that he noticed that his daughter Mia Verónica Cintrón Rodríguez, nine years old, was losing vision when she saw that she looked for things by touch and hit herself with items that were out of their usual place, in addition to colliding with other people at school constantly. He added that since kindergarten he had difficulties with reading and writing, while teachers insisted that he should copy and read more, and that he had an attitude problem.
“Now everything changes, now I have to learn to help her”Added Rodríguez.
She explained that with the diagnosis of visual loss they told her that she would have a visual impairment teacher for orientation, mobility and Braille, but once this school year began they told her that there was no vision teacher assigned to the school. Meanwhile, as far as technological assistance is concerned, they offered him an electronic magnifying glass, inclined planes and an FM system, but he has not received those equipment yet.
Rodríguez gets excited when he hears the instructors talk about their accomplishments. “(When they say) that they are independent, it is great news for me. That they can feel the world with their other senses, it is wonderful. Her diagnosis (Mia Verónica’s) gave me a lot of feeling, I thought that it will always depend on someone, that everything will be more complicated for her. I know it is not easy for you, but what made me most happy was her smile, her way of explaining to me that we can achieve many things”.
In Puerto Rico, although the statistics in this regard are not the best, according to Arroyo, in the 2016 community census it was calculated that there were more than 120,000 people who are totally blind or legally blind, a figure that does not include people in conditions of loss of gradual view “which are many more.” He explained that totally blind is a person who sees absolutely nothing. Legally blind is the person whose vision exceeds 20/200 and is so low that they are considered legally blind.
Those totals do not include statistics on how many blind boys and girls there are. According to Arroyo, there are also no clear statistics regarding blind people in the different age groups, but “I would dare to say that there are a slightly higher percent of blind elderly people, due to conditions associated with age.”
“The statistics are a bit old, and incomplete. The reality is that under normal conditions the needs of the blind population are not met as we would like. Now with the pandemic, much less. So the statistics are a bit old. For example, in the census -which is every 10 years-, people with disabilities or functional diversity are not included. One wonders, how is it possible that this information is not collected? ”He commented.
However, Arroyo stated that there are several organizations, such as the National Federation of the Blind in Puerto Rico, that seek to take care of the blind population, even when their resources are limited.
“The Federation already has a job for many years. It has affiliates in every state (of the United States) and has earned recognition. And with that recognition, because it already has some funds and it is taken into account. We nourish ourselves with programs that are carried out at the national level, ”stated Arroyo.