Blindfolds teach empathy for visually impaired
Close your eyes for a minute.
Now imagine trying to cross the street at a busy downtown Lawrence intersection, the only thing to guide you being the sound of the cars whizzing by.
A group of four graduate students from Missouri State University were in town Thursday, trying to navigate downtown Lawrence — blindfolded.
Rebecca Munjak, 33, her vision completely obscured, walked cautiously to the edge of Eighth and Massachusetts streets, her white cane encountering a number of obstacles: a concrete planter, a garbage can — or is it a mailbox? she asks.
“It’s really intimidating at first because all of a sudden your vision is just cut off completely,” Munjak said. “You’ve got to rely more on your hearing and your sense of touch.”
The students are all working toward dual certification as teachers of the visually impaired and orientation and mobility specialists, who help blind people learn to navigate their community.
In 2005, Missouri State University received a federal grant to teach 32 students as part of a program called Project Diverse.
“Our goal is to teach our students just how difficult it is, so when you do work with students who are visually impaired, you understand the difficulty,” Missouri State faculty member Craig Phillips said. “It engenders a real sense of respect and admiration for our travelers.”
Phillips, who previously worked as a vision specialist for the Lawrence school district, now teaches a course at Missouri State called “the blindfold class.”
Students must complete 160 hours in the blindfold.
“The blindfold class is a rite of passage for every orientation and mobility specialist,” Phillips said. “You have to learn to eat lunch, to travel streets, to cross streets. You have to do everything that we as sighted individuals do, only they do it without sight.”
The training is not always easy, even for the student who is not wearing the blindfold.
“It’s tough to know when to say something and when to let her learn on her own,” graduate student Erin Meyer, of Bethany, Mo., said, as her classmate nearly took a tumble down an open stairway on the south side of Teller’s on Eighth Street.
“Blind people get a lot of bruises,” Meyer said.
Meyer, who lives in a rural area near the Iowa border, said she decided to pursue the certification after her town was without a vision specialist for several years. She said many smaller school districts can’t afford to keep a vision specialist on staff.
Munjak, who received her master’s degree in deaf education from KU and now works for the Department of Veteran Affairs, said she’s completing the certification to give something back to the veterans who served our country.
“It definitely gives you appreciation,” she said after removing the blindfold. “Don’t take your vision for granted. It’s definitely a different world out there if you don’t have it.”