Ruth Hartman has distinct memories of her ‘Grandma Pearl’ using a Perkins brailler. She can picture her hands passing over the pages of braille she transcribed for Dr. Abraham Nemeth, who developed the Nemeth Braille Code for Mathematics in the 1960s. Pearl Hartman, who was sighted, was Nemeth’s personal braille transcriber. She never would have guessed at that time that her granddaughter Ruth would go blind, many years later.
So when Ruth sat down to a brailler at a Changing Vision Changing Life Immersion retreat at Enchanted Hills Camp in February 2016, she was enthralled.
“When I sat down and tried to type a few words on the brailler, or felt braille for the first time, it brought back wonderful memories and connections to my grandmother,” she says, nostalgia coloring her voice. “I’ve always loved words. I like math. There was something about solving the puzzle of braille that I found really enthralling. I’m a busy person but I’ve carved out hundreds of hours to learn braille in the last year.”
And it’s true—Ruth is a busy person. She runs her own marketing and communications business, called Wordcraft. She’s a leader at her synagogue, teaches peer counseling, and dedicates her time to vegetarian cooking and bread baking. She’s an avid reader, follows politics and baseball, and raised two daughters who are now in their 20s. She’s done all of this as her vision declined due to a progressive condition over the last 30 years. But two years ago, she felt like she needed to make a change.
“I was feeling more the loss and grief and fear and the feelings of panic were getting more difficult to manage as my central vision was deteriorating more,” she says. “I needed to make some kind of mental breakthrough—but I didn’t know what it was.”
And in fall of 2015, Ruth heard an interview on KQED that piqued her interest. It was LightHouse Executive Director Bryan Bashin speaking about the Donald Sirkin bequest, his philosophies on blindness and his plans for the future of LightHouse.
His bold perspective on blindness lit a fire under Ruth, and without hesitating she signed up for the Immersion Retreat at Enchanted Hills Camp in February 2016. She found the immersion excruciatingly difficult, but she stuck it out. And after a week navigating on her own and hearing stories from other students, she had the change of heart she was searching for.
“The breakthrough was a shift from ‘I’m a sighted person who is slowly and inexorably and tragically losing my eyesight’, to ‘I’m a blind person, just like all these other blind people here, who is living a pretty good life as a blind person’,” she says. “That might sound obvious or not like a big deal, but for me it was very profound. It made me feel like blind people are my people. That was a big thing — and I still think about each of the people there and what their stories were.”
“We were all in it together and there were all these resources that were being offered. I start thinking, ‘What do I need to shift to live my life really understanding that I’m a blind person and there are resources available and I can find my way from A to B, even if I don’t have someone there by my elbow’. So that was kind of the mindset that led me from one LightHouse service to the next.”
CVCL led her on a long path with LightHouse, from orientation and mobility classes with Katt Jones, counseling with Rachel Longan, braille instruction with Divina Carlson, and access tech instruction with Shen Kuan. Ruth also enthusiastically marched in the 1155 Market Street Grand Opening parade in June 2015, bringing her full-circle from her initial introduction to the organization.
“There’s no feeling of tragedy in the air at LightHouse,” she says. “A lot of sighted people say things to a blind person, like oh I can’t imagine. And there’s nobody at LightHouse who can’t imagine. Everyone understands.”
LightHouse helped show her a path forward, but it was Ruth who stayed highly motivated and kept coming back for more. Along with seeking braille instruction at LightHouse, Ruth took three classes at Hadley School for the Blind and practiced consistently on her own. She’s also starting to make the transition from magnification to using a screen reader, which will allow her to extend her work life for several years.
Now, she’s in the midst of reading her very first braille book: Carol by Patricia Highsmith.
“There’s something about holding a book in your hands, something about hearing the words in your head instead of in your ears,” she says. “I don’t have a lot of speed at braille, but I think I will enjoy braille for the rest of my life.”
To sign up for a Changing Vision Changing Life retreat, contact Debbie Bacon, Rehabilitation Counselor at email@example.com or 415-694-7357. The next CVCL sessions take place June 12 through 16 at Enchanted Hills Camp in Napa and July 17 through 21 at LightHouse Headquarters in downtown San Francisco.
To sign up for Braille Instruction, contact Braille Instructor Divina Carlson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 415-694-7367.