TAMPA — Irene Brown had no inkling that afternoon in 2004 that her life was about to change. As she and two friends chatted over glasses of wine in her Dunedin home, one friend asked the other a question that stuck with Brown: "If you just learned you had six months to live, what would you do the next morning?"
The friend had no response, but Brown, 50, pondered the question for months until an answer came to her.
"I had always wanted to teach the blind, and now was the time for me to do that," she said. "I wanted a sense of satisfaction at the end of the day that I had helped someone."
These days, Brown leaves Dunedin to work with blind people in Pasco and Hillsborough counties.
The change in her life came at the right time for Brown, who had been employed by Pinellas County in grant fund accounting in the unemployment office. Her only child had recently left home for college and her nurturing instinct, she said, needed a new direction.
Brown began taking classes to teach the visually impaired at the University Partnership Center at St. Petersburg College, working for certification through Florida State University.
In 2004, the Pasco County school system hired her to work with about 100 visually impaired students ages 3 to 21. Her job is to make teachers' lessons clear to students who can't see.
"I teach the kids how to access their educational environment," she said.
First, she assesses how a student learns before determining the appropriate technique to convey the lesson.
Students, she said, learn through hearing, touching and mental imaging, the latter being the greatest challenge for the teacher.
"You have to use descriptive words so the student can create his or her own mental image," she said.
Empowerment through life skills
This summer, Brown is working with individuals from the Tampa Lighthouse for the Blind, which teaches living skills for people suffering from vision loss. Other local counties have similar organizations, such as Pinellas County's Watson Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired, and Pasco and Hernando's Lighthouse for the Visually Impaired and Blind.
About 40,000 Tampa Bay area residents are blind or nearly blind. Most have age-related ailments such as macular degeneration and glaucoma.
In her home one recent morning, Brown displayed some of her teaching tools, along with aids used by the visually impaired. A slate gray Braille machine resembling an old-fashioned typewriter sat on her living room table. Six raised dots on a thick sheet of paper, which is placed into the "brailler," constitute the Braille "cells." The different combinations of dots make letters and words. With this machine, Brown said, she can transcribe teachers' lessons for students.
The other aids range from the simple — a foam ball filled with beads that a blind child can follow by sound — to a complicated electronic app.
Brown demonstrated a small phone programmed with a color ID code. The user can hold the phone, complete with a little camera and video device, up to an item of clothing and hear what color it is.
"This device allows someone to coordinate an outfit to wear," Brown said.
Canes were stacked in one corner of the room, ranging from a "kiddie cane" appropriate for a 2- or 3-year-old to a support cane with a sturdy, cushiony top for an older person. All bore the familiar red band signaling that the user is blind.
"It's gratifying to see a student learn something new for the first time," she said, "but it is just as gratifying to teach adults how to regain their independence following an age-related visual impairment, such as macular degeneration."
Brown has found satisfaction in her new career. "I'm happy on a daily basis," she said.