THE HUMAN SIDE OF OPTOMETRY
Leading the Way
A blind physician helps patients see hope.
BY STANLEY WAINAPEL, M.D., M.P.H., BRONX, N.Y.
It's comforting to speak with someone in a similar predicament. As the blind clinical director of rehabilitation medicine at Montefiore Medical Center and professor of Rehabilitation Medicine at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, I find myself counseling patients who not only have rehabilitation needs, but who also have vision problems.
PHOTO BY EASTCOTT MOMATIUK
I've been there
For many, their greatest disabilities are not vision loss, but loss of self esteem and empowerment. Patients can relate to me because I have an imperfection, blindness from
choroideremia, which results in tunnel vision and night blindness. I've been on the other side of the exam table. I know how it feels to be set apart in a negative way. Not only can I serve as a role model, but I can provide strategies to overcome the negative stereotypes they harbor and to live a happier, fuller life.
For instance, a college student I was treating told me her vision impairment wasn't adequately addressed in her classes, which caused her great anguish and difficulty. I told her about methods to improve her vision and about helpful resources, such as talking books. I also made her aware of rights established by the Americans with Disabilities Act. For example, she has the right to request to sit in the front of the class. And if she doesn't have the means to purchase books with enlarged text, then the school may be obligated to provide them.
Her attitude took an about-face and she felt better prepared to address educational challenges.
Help is out there
I also enlighten patients about other ways to improve their quality of life in spite of vision loss. For example, talking books are available for free from the Library of Congress. I also recommend dialing the toll-free number for Newsline for the Blind to hear the latest news from The New York Times. It lets me change the speed and pitch of the voice delivering the news to suit my taste. Computers equipped with synthetic speech software and closed-circuit TV video magnifiers can enhance communication.
Devices such as low vision magnifying glasses, a typoscope (a card with a punched out rectangle to guide signatures for credit cards), polarized glasses to reduce glare and reverse telescope devices that allow patients who have tunnel vision to see expansive art work, also enhance vision. With these devices, I believe you can reduce blindness to a mere inconvenience rather than a tragedy. Blindness becomes less of a handicap when an individual admits he has a disability and seeks help.
The right mix
Both blind and sighted individuals form stereotypes. People are shocked that I can dial a phone without seeing the numbers and that I play the piano. People need role models to escalate their expectations.
I tell patients that blindness doesn't define anyone; it is simply a characteristic. Patience and a sense of humor are essential as I negotiate the daily hurdles that patients encounter and sometimes bump into.
I hope some day my patients will view me as a good doctor who happens to be blind rather than as a blind person who is a good doctor. Being a physician requires as much insight and foresight as it does eyesight.
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Optometric Management, Issue: August 2004