When she's navigating city sidewalks at night, Tina Coffield sometimes bumps into people. Sometimes they think she's rude. They'd realize otherwise if they knew that she suffers from night blindness and tunnel vision due to retinitis pigmentosa, an eye disease she was diagnosed with while attending Oakland Technical High School at age sixteen.
"I could benefit tremendously by using a white cane, but I'm too self-conscious to use it because I don't want people to think I'm blind," Coffield said. "As a result, I don't go out at night alone. The irony, of course, is that if I used the cane, I would not have to rely on my boyfriend or family to help guide me around and I would have more independence."
Vision loss is relative, as she knows from her job as program manager at the Lions Center for the Blind (3834 Opal St., Oakland), where experts from the center and the Foundation Fighting Blindness will present a workshop on Saturday, August 28 detailing the numerous services available to visually impaired residents of Alameda, Contra Costa, and Solano counties. From Braille instruction to foreign-language classes to job training, many of these services are free, especially for people over age 55. Some of these activities take place at the Lions Center itself, where orientation and mobility instructors — many of them blind themselves — conduct one-on-one tutorials in independent-living skills.
Most of us take our abilities so much for granted that we seldom think about how we'd cope if, for instance, we wanted to dress up for a party but couldn't see our clothes. One means by which Lions Center clients learn to choose color-coordinated outfits is by the use of tiny markers affixed to each garment. These markers bear no words, but are distinguished by unique textures and shapes, Coffield said. Tiny fuzzy triangles might identify black pants, for example, while slippery stars might indicate blue shirts.
Lions Center trainers also teach their clients to use public transit. Even if someone has a seeing-eye dog, "the dog doesn't know how to get to the bus stop," Coffield said. "Our instructors teach you the routes you'll be taking, using the cane to feel for obstacles and orient yourself, then counting the steps and listening for sounds that tell you where you are. Then they teach you how the bus is laid out and how to count stops."
Popular social activities at the center include sewing classes and Bingo games. "For people who can read large print, we have large-print Bingo boards," Coffield explained. "For others, we have Braille cards." Also augmenting the games are sighted people who read letters and numbers aloud for blind players.
Do the blind like it when sighted strangers on the street seize their arms to help them off curbs or up stairs? "We want to be treated like everyone else, like capable individuals," Coffield said. "We appreciate help, but don't like it thrust upon us." 10 a.m., free. LBCenter.org