September 2001


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Written by
David R. Eltz

Photography by D.J. Case

An Obsession with Culture |

 To make it in Pitt’s challenging vision studies program, the sighted have to learn to see.

The blind man about to step into traffic on his own has not always been so bold. In his late 30s and blind for most of his life, he once moved about with sighted guides, human and canine. Now, he is learning to travel more freely—his goal to depend only on himself.

The man, whose name is Chris, has just navigated a block and a half over cracked and sagging sidewalks, crossing Station Street, the entrance to a public parking lot, and an alley to reach this intersection, one of the busiest in the southern Pittsburgh suburb of Bridgeville. He seemed to walk without care, his aluminum cane criss-crossing his body, back and forth, a sliver of air between its scarred rubber tip and the concrete. Less familiar with this area than he is with the sidewalks of Mt. Washington, where he lives, Chris has walked these streets around Pittsburgh Vision Services (PVS), a residential rehabilitation facility, for just the past three months. He will leave them, as a client, in a week or so, to continue on his own.

Truth be told, though, particular streets and their locations have little importance in these lessons. What matters is the means of crossing intersections and riding escalators and climbing stairways that Chris has learned. For he will use those procedures as maps to go just about anywhere. Today, as usual, his steps are quick and confident, and this is why his mobility instructors call Chris an “experienced traveler.”

Experience, however, does not preclude room for further practice. Standing beside Chris at the curb is Glenn Toney, a Pitt graduate student and Chris’ mobility and orientation instructor. Thin and tall and bundled in a hooded parka, Toney looks at the placement of the blind man’s feet near curb and crosswalk, and he seems to hesitate, opening and closing his mouth, as if about to tell Chris that he is not quite lined up with the white crosswalk lines on the street. But Toney remains silent, and Chris lifts a foot and plunges into the intersection and, just as quickly, Toney trots up beside him.

Once off the curb the blind man almost immediately veers to the left, awkwardly straying from the crosswalk. Chris is heading smack into the center of moving traffic. Toney gently grabs Chris’ elbow and guides him back within the crossing lines. They continue together. Safely reaching the other side of Washington Avenue, they review the passage.

The incident is what Toney, who has almost finished the student-teaching phase of Pitt’s 15-month-long graduate program in orientation and mobility, has been advised to look for—a teachable moment. Traffic booms through the narrow business district, drowning out their conversation. Pupil and teacher huddle close. Around them low-slung brick and concrete buildings and cozy storefronts hunker and lean in like eavesdroppers.

His face inches from the blind man’s ear, Toney runs over Chris’ approach to the curb: how he sensed the light had changed because his ears told him the direction of traffic had changed, how he entered the crosswalk at an angle, why he was not lined up properly. Chris stands frustrated, the wind whipping at his New York Yankees cap, and then it hits him: He knows better. He did not trust his senses—specifically the sound of traffic to his left. “I wanted to line up on the other side of the crosswalk,” Chris says.

Toney nods, satisfied with the lesson. For months now, he has been trying to master mobility instruction. The road has been hard, often painfully frustrating. More than once Toney has picked the wrong moment to stop and teach a client about to make a mistake, if he stops the client at all. Tomorrow might bring even more false steps. Still he stays the course, learning from each misstep.

Glenn Toney has lived his entire life in Pittsburgh. He is 47 years old and a lifelong bachelor and a Roman Catholic and a compassionate man, and he cannot separate those attributes from what he does in life. It just so happens, then, at this moment in his life, that Toney is taking a giant leap of blind faith, not a bit of pun intended, perhaps for the first time.

The pressure of corporate profit margins set Toney on this journey. In his youth his parents pushed him to “be somebody.” They planted ideas in his head. Do you want to be a doctor? A lawyer? Upon receiving his bachelor’s in industrial engineering from Pitt in 1975, Toney settled instead into a business that was reassuring and in demand—fire protection insurance. For 24 years, he traveled and consulted with clients, touring hospitals and plants and mills, reviewing sprinkler systems (or lack thereof), looking for ways to keep buildings—and the people who worked in them—safe. He enjoyed his career, and from time to time encountered new scenery and new people. Toney took pride in his work; he was saving people from harm.

Then the universe shifted. The practice of slashing costs crept into the insurance field. The endgame was profit margins; pressure to finish the job quickly, so as to move on to the next, was intense. Toney began to feel as though he worked on an assembly line. The size of the staff in his office declined, but the pressure to increase profits did not. Around mid-1999, the universe collapsed: Toney’s division was sold, his job eliminated. There would be severance, reflection, uncertainty. It was high time to move on anyway. “The whole industry had kind of gotten cold,” he says, in his characteristic circumspect fashion.

Toney, in fact, had found his own way to become “somebody” years earlier. In 1993, he had answered an advertisement for sighted guides in his church bulletin by the Greater Pittsburgh Guild for the Blind. The guild, which later became PVS, was looking for volunteer sighted guides to take the blind and visually impaired to church, but Toney was soon helping in other areas, especially the facility’s summer program for teens. There he would help kids learn to socialize, move about independently, eat more neatly. He found the experience soothing: He liked to work one-on-one. After he left his insurance office for the final time, in November 1999, Toney, reviewing his options, considered freelance consulting, even culinary school. They were fleeting thoughts. Toney had made his choice the day he answered the bulletin ad; he just had not known it.

In early 2000, Toney acknowledged what he calls “the signs”—the loss of his job and the circumstances that led him to PVS and to remain there as a volunteer—and he made his move. He met with George Zimmerman, director of Pitt’s Vision Studies program and chairman of the School of Education’s Department of Instruction and Learning. Toney liked what Zimmerman had to say. Helping the blind sounded, to Toney, as if it were a ministry. (Toney once pondered entering the priesthood and decided he was not interested in tending a flock of thousands.) Not long after the meeting Toney enrolled in Pitt’s program.

“I just look at this as maybe the direction God wants me to go,” he says, his voice fatherly, comforting. By accepting that direction Toney challenged himself, his abilities, Pitt’s program, the future, and with little more than peace in his heart, trust in his faith, and a wide grin, he stepped off the cliff.

Pitt began to train teachers of the blind and visually impaired in 1963, just three years after the first such program began at Boston College. By 1969, Pitt had become the first US institution to prepare students as not only teachers of the blind but also mobility and orientation instructors. Even today Pitt’s program is among only a handful east of the Mississippi to offer dual certification. Perhaps only 30 institutions in America prepare people to be mobility instructors. What’s more, while some western and southern schools offer teaching certification with master’s degrees in vision studies, Pitt provides doctoral training. Says Zimmerman: “We’re the only show in this region.”

That lack of competition doesn’t make it any easier for Pitt students. Each year seven to 10 students enter the program in May as novices, some with education experience, some without. They come away 15 rigorous months later as experts, ready to teach any one of America’s 55,000 blind children and 1 million blind adults. Students can earn a master’s in education and dual certification in teaching the visually impaired as well as specializing in orientation and mobility. The Pitt program prepares its students to work in public schools, in schools for the blind, in adult training centers. They can work one-on-one with students, helping them, say, learn lines for a role in the school play. Or they can work in tandem with math instructors, helping bridge the barriers between sighted teacher and blind student. (Most blind and visually impaired students attending public schools receive this supplemental instruction outside of their regular classes.) Some graduate students will help a blind child with severe muscular dystrophy learn basic tasks, such as teeth brushing, at a school for the blind. Others will find work as mobility instructors at places such as Pittsburgh Vision Services.

The training is intense—for good reason. Most “blind” people still have some residual vision. A person is considered legally blind when his or her best-corrected visual acuity is 20/200. That qualifier speaks only of “reading” vision. A person also is legally blind if his or her visual field is 20 degrees or narrower—the size of a dinner plate held at arm’s length. By contrast, most people see in a 180-degree arc. To be able to teach someone with such vision loss, one has to experience it oneself. And so Pitt students are tossed immediately into that world.

During the first three months of the program, for at least three hours a day, Pitt students wear vision simulation glasses—a pair of hybrid welder goggles Zimmerman developed in 1979 to mimic any kind of vision impairment. Using Zimmerman’s glasses, or a blindfold to simulate total blindness, students learn to walk with a sighted guide, to find and climb a flight of stairs. They learn to travel outdoors, walking residential areas, crossing busy intersections. For the final exam, a student is dropped off at a place determined by his instructor, say, downtown Pittsburgh. To pass, the student finds his way back to Oakland by bus—using only his training and wits. “That tells us that they’ve acquired the knowledge to teach people how to be independent, because they themselves have become independent,” says Zimmerman.

Later in the program, graduate students travel to local school districts and vision service providers to become student teachers for 15 weeks—all while taking night classes, writing papers, and trying to live real lives. Take, for instance, Megan Meseck. At 26, Meseck came to Pitt after reconsidering her chosen field, advertising. Actually, the move was a natural choice. Her father lost his sight at age 7, when firecrackers blew chunks of glass into both eyes; Meseck’s mother works for a company that makes technology for the blind and visually impaired.

After preparing class presentations and writing papers and drawing up lesson plans for as many as seven blind and visually impaired students in the Mt. Lebanon School District, in Pittsburgh’s South Hills, Meseck rarely finds time to enjoy her marriage of two years or the house she bought with her husband a year ago.

“This is definitely the toughest semester,” she says, rushing to another school to meet her next teaching appointment, her lips pursed, her work boots thudding on the polished floor of Stephen C. Foster Elementary School. She has spent the past few months working with an itinerant teacher who drives from school to school on a hectic schedule, popping in for a half-hour here, an hour there, to provide supplemental instruction to visually impaired students.

In a few weeks the semester will get tougher. Meseck will leave Pittsburgh and her husband for a three-month internship at the Eastern Blind Rehabilitation Center at the VA Hospital in West Haven, Connecticut. Meseck has kept in mind all along this one thing, however: Headhunters begin to track Pitt’s grads before they make it two-thirds through the program. Says Meseck: “There's such a high demand for this field, you could probably get a job anywhere.”

Long before Toney taught anyone how to cross a street, he first had to cross one himself—blindfolded. One day early in his training, Toney thought he was standing at a “T” intersection in the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Shadyside. He had been under the blindfold, working on mobility, each day for four weeks, and on this occasion he felt certain he was finally feeling comfortable. His instructor, Pitt doctoral student and teaching fellow Laurel Leigh, explained the intersection as it really was. She described the scene as an offset cross, where traffic from the street to Toney’s left had to bear right for a second upon entering the intersection before straightening out again to continue across. Toney was not following. It was as if he were not at the same intersection as Leigh. A car rumbled past. The instructor took him through it again.

“Did you hear the car that went by?”

“Yeah,” he replied, as if he were asking a question rather than answering one.

“Well, what direction do you think it’s coming from?”

Toney listened. The sun was bright. No clouds or rain or background noise distorted sound. This should not be so hard, Toney thought. What he did not know was that vehicles parked on the street to his left masked the sounds of traffic. Toney’s ears could not fix the sound of approaching cars until they entered the intersection. To him, Leigh’s description made no sense. Or it was not getting through. Or he was in a daze. That latest car could have been flying overhead for all he knew. “I’m shutting down,” he told her and tore off the blindfold and looked around. “Darn, if it isn’t an offset intersection, just like you were describing.”

Reliving the experience, Toney looks serene. “I’m glad that happened,” he says, his lanky frame folded into an armchair in the Pittsburgh Vision Services lobby. Toney is waiting for a client. It is midmorning. The sun is high and bright, its light beginning to reach toward him. Wire-rimmed glasses ride high on his long, narrow face. His chestnut hair is clipped tightly. He is dressed simply, in blue slacks, a white button-down shirt, a blue-and-white repp tie.

For Toney the lessons he learned on the street are guides for his teaching. Just as he fights an inner battle under the blindfold, Toney wrestles with two questions each time a client approaches a curb or crosses a street: Should I give him a mental picture of the crossing, a cinematic view of the landscape? Is he safe enough to go on alone if I don’t? The problem is not easy: Toney respects what being blind must be like, a heartfelt sympathy that makes his work even more difficult. His instructors, Toney says, have pushed him to analyze himself better, to think on his feet quickly, to catch the teachable moments. One, Karen Allison, the sharp-witted and blunt intern supervisor at PVS who earned dual certification through Pitt’s program in 1993, believes Toney’s compassion gets the better of him—especially when he deals with clients who will never be able to travel on their own.

“It kills him,” Allison says, of Toney’s reaction to sessions with his more debilitated clients. Working with such people troubles Toney so much he has been known afterward to spend his lunch hour in church.

But, adds Allison, Toney recognizes his weaknesses. He knows that in the days to come he will have to put aside his compassion, that clients want results, not sympathy. Toney knows that if he works at a place such as Pittsburgh Vision Services, he probably will have no more than four months to teach someone to get around on his or her own, because state-funding for rehabilitation training, like unemployment compensation, only lasts so long. Toney knows he will have to decide quickly when to step in and prevent a client from using incorrect techniques, say, approaching an intersection without listening for traffic. Toney knows that at times he will have to let a client walk into a wall because clients must learn on their own in order to believe in themselves. He knows he will be taking people’s trust in his hands. And most of all Toney knows that, in some respects, he is not unlike his clients. He, too, is learning to see in a completely different way. He, too, must ultimately do so alone. “At some point,” Toney says, “my instructors are going to turn me lose; they’re not going to be around to correct me.”

The question is: Will Toney’s compassion let him be tough enough to teach?

Joe shuffles along Station Street, his feet splayed, his cane wobbling, the inner soles of his Nikes worn so badly they form opposite halves of an upside-down “V.” He cannot walk without weaving along the sidewalk, stepping off one edge, stumbling, coming back onto the cement, finding the center, drifting off the other edge. Suffering from diabetic retinopathy and glaucoma, he has almost no vision. His problems only begin there. Just a week ago Joe was too weak to leave bed for class. He has Guillain-Barre syndrome, a progressive inflammatory autoimmune disorder that attacks the nerves outside the brain and spinal cord. The disease weakens—and might eventually paralyze—the muscles in his arms and legs and face. One day he might not even be able to breathe on his own.

A day earlier Toney said, “Somebody like that is not going to get our green light for independent travel,” as if pronouncing Joe barred from walking without assistance ever again. Then he lowered his eyes and was silent. Today, for some reason, Toney has not so much changed his mind as his approach. “We’re doing street ‘hardware’ drills, deliberately running him into stuff,” he says, “so he can identify things.” Joe might never become an “experienced traveler” like some of Toney’s other clients, but Toney has decided that coddling Joe will do him no good at all. Indeed, Toney is finally starting to understand that he can tell Joe only so much. Where Joe goes from here is up to him, just as Toney’s future is his to make or break. Both men have to walk those paths alone.

Joe’s cane slaps into parking meters and parked cars. He bumps trash cans and signposts. He raps on fences and walls. Joe crosses Station Street, meanders into a sloping lot, becomes lost along a stucco wall. Toney redirects him to the sidewalk. Immediately, Joe veers into the street, shuffles, swings right, and slides unknowingly back on track.

“Where’s the sidewalk,” Joe asks haltingly.

“You’re on it already, Joe.” The blind man protests but Toney offers only this reminder: “Listen for the cars and think of where traffic should be relative to your travel direction.” They go on like this, Toney peppering Joe with questions to force Joe to think, to link his mental street map with what his ears tell him.

Where will traffic be? Toney says.

On the left.

Why there?

Because it’s heading down Station Street.

Where is the sound of those cars in the distance?

To the right.

Well, where’s your sidewalk?

To the right.

At the next obstacle, a pockmarked alley, Joe’s foot catches a bad vein in the macadam, and he once again steers right, at an angle, into a wall. He taps with his cane. His hand shoots forward. He feels the bricks. He shuffles. Taps. Feels. Shuffles. Taps. Feels. Toney hovers not far behind, one foot in the alley, the other still on the sidewalk. Toney raises his arms, as if to reach out and yank Joe back. Then he lowers them, slowly. His fists clench and release, clench and release. The muscles in his cheeks tighten. His fingers tremble, then are still. Joe has figured out what has happened. He taps and shuffles along the wall and his cane smacks the lip of the sidewalk and he steps up and turns right and shuffles forward again and Toney follows—the two of them lumbering purposefully in a crooked line toward the rumbling traffic on Washington Avenue.

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