LUMBERTON — On the second Thursday of each month, a lively group of blind and visually-impaired people gather in Community Education Room I of Southeastern Regional Medical Center to offer support and advice on how to navigate a sighted world.
With a few exceptions, their disability doesn’t hold this bunch back from living their lives independently.
Sixty-seven-year-old Ethel Bullard lost her vision in 1980 due to a tumor that damaged her optic nerve. Her initial reaction of disbelief to the “catastrophic loss” of her sight gave way to the realization that there is life after blindness.
While learning to live her life as if she could see, which includes daily trips to Southeastern Lifestyle Fitness Center, Bullard sought to network with others.
“I thought there had to be a way to reach out to other blind people and see what they are doing,” she said.
Bullard said she organized BVI Support Group Inc. to “get out, get together, get involved.”
Bullard said people of all ages from throughout Robeson County talk about life — its challenges and how they overcome them — and plan activities and excursions that including fishing, bowling and Bingo, and trips to North Carolina Lions Camp Dogwood and White Lake Water Park.
Legally-blind, Henry “Butch” Mallett bristles at having restrictions imposed on him by others.
“They were starting to make rules where you could do this and you couldn’t do that,” he said.
Bullard was quick to share Mallett’s lament about restrictions placed on the blind and visually-impaired by groups that are supposed to encourage independence.
“Your vision’s already been taken,” Bullard said. “Why are you gonna limit somebody and take something else away? That don’t make sense.”
Jerry Nichols said that sighted people mean well, but don’t realize that a person “without sight can feel and hear what they’re doing.”
A graduate of Robeson Community College, where he earned an associate’s degree in Math, Nichols has no eyesight but can do some mechanical work and cuts his own grass, using his feet to navigate.
“My brother will say, ‘I can tell you cut the yard, you missed a big spot,’” Nichols said. “I actually do pretty good with it.”
Newcomer Karol Mishue said she’s a little shy about groups, but it is important to her to make friends with people who are also visually impaired.
“You have an understanding of one another that even your own family and friends really don’t understand 100 percent,” she said.
“That’s one reason I’m with this group,” said Robin King, who was also frustrated by limitations placed on her by others.
Not all who attend the support group meetings are visually impaired or blind. Ann Stephens, Kimberly Hall and Peggy Jacobs attend as sighted guides for BVI members and, more importantly, as friends. Another sighted attendee is Faye, a 13-year-old guide dog, who sits patiently by King’s feet.
The most common obstacle visually-impaired people face in navigating the sighted world is transportation.
“We depend on family and friends, and sometimes they can’t go when we need to go,” Bullard said.
She said members can utilize the Southeast Area Transit System, but “then you are stuck here all day, and the meeting is only two hours. Eventually, I want a bus on the road with BVI on it, so we can go.”
Other wish list items include a building or designated space for group meetings and recreational activities, within city limits, and a scanning and reading appliance called SARA.
Group members keep these goals in mind when they hold fundraisers, which include a raffle for a sweetheart basket in January, and a collection of Dimes for the Blind from July to December, during which members and their families collect loose change in 16-ounce bottles. Bullard said she has collected as much as $96 in a bottle. She also hopes to find someone to help with grant writing, too.
Bullard hopes to see the group get a van, though she knows it will be a long time before that goal is realized. For now, she said, “It’s just a dream.”
Reach Juanita Lagrone at [email protected] or call 910-416-5865.