by Jake Doetkott
From the Editor: This article was first published in the Sauk Rapids Herald weekly newspaper on October 27, 2018. They have graciously given us their permission to reprint. This article is a fine example the way all of us should be working to make Meet the Blind Month stand out in our annual calendars. Here is the article:
Gayle Bengsten was thought to have been born completely blind, but to her family's shock she could track motion and see color. Doctors had assumed her optic nerves were dead. "I consider it a miracle," Bengsten said. "However, my partial eyesight did get in the way early on. I'd always be staring down at my feet instead of learning to use a cane."
Bengsten is an active member of the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota and has been spreading awareness of the disability for seventeen years even when certain aspects of blindness are tough to convey. Bengsten delivered her most recent presentation in Sauk Rapids on October 17 as part of National Meet the Blind Month. She shared her experiences, courtesy rules, and accessibility concerns with a group that gathered at Russell Arms Apartments.
"I love answering questions, but sometimes I wish I could throw sleepshades on people and have them go about their day like I would," said Bengsten, who joined the Central Minnesota Chapter of the Federation in the 1970s. "In terms of how I see, all I can say is there's a place for everything, and everything has its place. It's about remembering where things are."
Along with her long white cane, Bengsten carries a humorous attitude and a plethora of idioms. "A sense of humor goes a long way," Bengsten said. "I've had moments where people have jumped over my cane, thinking I'd hit them. I say, 'Beware the long white cane,' in a spooky tone to diffuse those situations."
During her talk, Bengsten explained courtesy rules of the blind. "Never touch blind people without consent, and don't pet a harnessed guide dog; it means they're on the job," Bengsten said. "We [people who are blind] can be independent and prefer to be, so don't take us by the hand unless we ask."
A growing concern for those who are blind is the noise reduction of vehicles. Bengsten urged electric and hybrid vehicle drivers to be alert to those trying to cross the street, especially those with a white cane in hand. "Many of us were taught to listen for traffic, but newer cars, and especially hybrids, aren't as loud as past models," said Bengsten, who uses a cane rather than a seeing eye dog to assist her mobility.
Although concerns remain, Bengsten appreciates how accessibility has improved since her youth.
In the ninth grade, Bengsten learned Braille, a letter system of raised bumps that offer the blind a way to read by sense of touch. "I'd use audio books or have people read to me before," Bengsten said. Braille opened new opportunities for Bengsten.
"First I was just happy to write my blind friends, but the Braille signs in public buildings were a benefit that greatly increased my independence," Bengsten said. "Public Braille sign locations aren't uniform though. The garbage room was a well-hidden secret to me for some time living at Russell Arms Apartments."
Another monumental accessibility improvement was computer screen-reading software. Bengsten uses NonVisual Desktop Access to relay what is on her computer's monitor via text-to-speech. Bengsten uses a combination of Braille and computer notes for personal organization. "Screen-reading software was a godsend for my independence," she said. "I wish it existed sooner."
Another improvement was cane resizing. Canes were formerly measured from the breastbone to the ground. Now, they typically extend to the bridge of the nose. "You'd hit things before your cane would," Bengsten said. "Over time we've discovered the longer the cane the better."
During her talk, Bengsten recommended the film Love Leads the Way: A True Story for its educational power. The movie shows a blind man's struggle with legal constraints that limited the use of his guide dog in public spaces.
"Although we've resolved some of the film's dilemmas, issues of guide dogs in public remain," Bengsten said.
Through involvement with the Federation and by spreading awareness in her community, Bengsten continues to help people meet the blind on more than a monthly basis.