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Visual center offers skills for independence

In an earlier column, I wrote how I regained confidence and self-esteem from taking a self-help course at Pinellas Center for the Visually Impaired in Largo. (I have retinitis pigmentosa, a serious retinal degeneration that usually leads to blindness.) I learned different adaptive skills in everyday tasks, thus gaining more independence.

Shortly afterward, however, I had a scary experience. I awoke one night with a throbbing toothache. Not wanting to wake my husband, Joe, I fumbled in the medicine cabinet for what I thought was the Motrin bottle. Instead, I downed two antihistamine tablets. Joe told me the next morning what I'd done when I complained the pain hadn't subsided. This episode could have been serious. Clearly, I needed to return to PCVI for more help.

I enrolled in Independent Living Skills, a weekly all-day class in basic skills. One of the instructors was Rosie Lapaglia.

Another instructor, Virginia Bescher, showed how people with partial sight can identify objects (such as medicine bottles). Colored stick-on labels, miniature plastic vegetable and fruit labels for food, rubber-textured labels, Velcro, even rubber bands help.

Large-print cards can be placed inside food containers such as freezer bags, along with cooking instructions.

In dialing a phone, Rosie told us, we should place our third finger on the No. 5 digit, the only one with a Braille dot. As in typing, certain fingers reach for certain phone numbers.

In making money change, Virginia taught us a system of folding. Fold $5 bills in half left to right, $10 bills top to bottom, $20s into quarters and paper-clip a $50 bill. Coins? Dimes and quarters have serrated edges.

Learning these skills greatly improved my ability to cope with daily household tasks. I was grateful to Rosie and Virginia for helping me to gain confidence and a sense of independence. (Virginia is now teaching basic skills to elderly minority residents who are blind.)

I also needed help in mobility. Even with my white cane, I missed finding my neighbor's sidewalk one day and had to be rescued.

Suzanne Hirson, orientation and mobility instructor at PCVI, visited my home a dozen times to teach me how to navigate my territory. I kept to the side of our five roads by listening to the sound of my cane on grass and on macadam. Because of my hearing impairment, Suzanne taught me to "listen" with my feet to vibrations underfoot of approaching cars. (This is called sensory awareness.)

With greater confidence, I was soon tapping my way to the laundry, mailboxes and pool, where I swim 20 laps daily, weather permitting.

I'm still timid about crossing our park roads because I don't see or hear bicyclists. I ask them to please look out for me when they see my white cane.

Some of my neighbors who read my columns ask how I can see to write. I'm an excellent typist. I cannot see to read typed letters or manuscripts unless placed under my TeleSensory. This machine is a closed-circuit TV and magnifies up to 45 times. It's an expensive but invaluable tool for the visually impaired. PCVI has such machines for student use.

Since 1994, when I started taking courses at PCVI, I've been learning Braille. Barbara Pusey _ who, like me, has retinitis pigmentosa _ is my patient, capable and dedicated teacher.

There are six basic dots in Braille that must be "read" with the fingertips. Concentration, memorization and sensitive fingertips are essential. Fortunately, I inherited my mother's good memory.

I'm now in advanced Braille where there are more than 275 contractions (Braille shorthand) to master. These contractions save time and space when reading or writing Braille. It has been one of the most challenging learning experiences of my 74 years of life. Thanks to Barbara's encouragement and that of Sandra Hix, another Braille instructor, I keep plugging away at learning Braille. I hope soon to be reading my favorite travel and biographical articles available in talking book, large print and Braille formats.

(Anyone who thinks he or she might be helped by the Pinellas Center for the Visually Impaired, or who has questions, should call 544-4433 and ask for a case manager.)

Betty B. Carter is a freelance writer who lives in Largo.