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As She Slowly Goes Blind, Her Eyes are Opened to a Different World
From the Huntsville Times

Times Staff Writer

Sarah Robinson is looking at blindness through a narrowing field of 20-30 vision, down long rows of office supplies. And smiling.

Her smile and her greeting - ''Base Supply Store, Sarah; may I help you?'' - are well-known to federal employees and contract workers who shop tax-free in a warehouse on Redstone Arsenal.

The store, run by Alabama Industries for the Blind, is one of 75 on military bases in America that stock their aisles mostly with products made by the blind. As head of customer service, Robinson takes and fills customers' orders, accepts their payments, answers their questions and calls most of them congenially by their first names.

''Anything that's necessary to get the job done,'' she says brightly, gesturing across her domain like a game-show hostess across a prize package. ''This is the best job I've ever had. You couldn't ask for a better job.''

But it isn't the job that Robinson envisioned for herself 35 years ago when she began a career as a licensed practical nurse. That career ended five years ago when Robinson, while double-checking a medication chart at Hartselle Medical Center, got her first clear warning she was losing her sight.

''I had left out like five or six medications for a person,'' she recalls. ''I was not seeing the whole page.''

The patient suffered no harm, Robinson says, and Robinson's supervisors had no complaints with her work, but she knew it was time to resign.

Her diagnosis was retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic disorder that causes pigment to close in over the retinas, eliminating peripheral vision and eventually causing total blindness. A person whose field of vision has narrowed to 20 degrees is considered legally blind; Robinson, who's down to five degrees in one eye and seven in the other, says it's like looking at the world through a straw.

She also needs bifocals to read, she can't distinguish some colors, and her eyes don't adjust well to bright light or darkness - the last two problems are other symptoms of her disease. But what she can see is in focus, and for that, she says, she's grateful.

''What I can see, I can see real well,'' she says. ''But now there was a time when I could see my feet. I can't see my feet now.''

And yet the story Robinson tells includes few moments of fear or unsettling uncertainty.

''No, no, I wasn't upset,'' she says, ''because I knew everything happens for a reason. And since I got saved, I knew the Lord was going to take care of me, and I knew that he does not close one door without opening another one.''

So leaving her nursing career, Robinson says with a grin, was just an opportunity to start helping people with their clothes on for a change. And the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind in Talladega, the parent organization for Alabama Industries for the Blind, was there to help her find her way.

The institute runs on state and federal money. Like all blind and deaf children and adults in the state who are referred there, Robinson was eligible for its help at no charge.

''I'm just so glad I had the opportunity to be rehabilitated at 49 years old,'' Robinson says. ''That is just too early in life to just sit down and take a rest.''

There is little rest in rehabilitation. Learning to compensate for what the eyes can no longer do is a full-time job. Robinson spent 14 months at the institute's campus, specifically in the E.H. Gentry Technical Facility.

''They teach you how to walk in the city,'' she says. ''They teach you how to walk, period.''

For example, Robinson had to learn targeted listening skills to help her cross streets so she could tell not only when cars were coming, but also in which lane. She had to learn to climb up and descend stairs with a cane, because her depth perception is impaired, and to walk down aisles and through doorways in the middle, which requires finding the middle while she's still far enough away to see the sides. Otherwise, her lack of peripheral vision is liable to leave her bruised from bumping into things.

Also at the institute, Robinson relearned how to run her home life safely and efficiently. For example, she acquired a gadget that tells her when to stop pouring a hot cup of coffee, so it doesn't spill over, and she learned to arrange her pantry so that her peas, corn and flour are always in the same places. And there are tricks for organizing a wallet so that she can always know when she's presenting or receiving a $5 bill and when it's a 20.

''It's amazing,'' she says. ''The world of blindness is just amazing.''

After Robinson graduated, it took some time to find just the right job. She left her first, preparing tax returns, after only a few days, deciding that although she had been trained in office work, she didn't like being stuck behind a desk.

On a whim, she next applied for a clerk's job at a Family Dollar Store in Priceville. ''I wanted that job,'' she recalls with emphasis, but why was a mystery to her at the time. It required that she work 7 a.m. till 7 p.m. each day for minimum wage, learning to work a cash register, scan bar codes and stock shelves - skills that prepared her perfectly for her next career opportunity. Robinson laughs. ''All those 30 years of nursing didn't help a bit, but those three months at the Dollar Store got me my job.''

Robinson has been at the Base Supply Store more than three years now. The store also employs two legally blind clerks, and less directly it employs blind people across the country by stocking items with the blind-made brand name, Skilcraft.

Post-its, fancy pens, mops and brooms, notebooks and folders - ''the blind can make anything,'' Robinson says. ''And you don't realize how much it gives people to have that chance - it saved my life, this place did.''

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Date last modified January 30, 2000