Ernest Williams begins to walk east of Fillmore Street, comes up to a rocky alley and bumps into the curb. He points his toes to straighten his body and regains his direction back onto the sidewalk. He keeps walking until the sidewalk begins to slant down. He stops. He hears the roar of car engines from blocks away. He’s not crossing the street just yet. Once it’s quiet again, he turns north onto Beloit Avenue with his cane and keeps walking.
“I am totally can’t-see-a-thing blind,” says Williams, a Navy veteran who’s learning to get around independently with the neighborhoods of Forest Park as his classroom. Williams, 58, is in Forest Park five days a week with a class from the Edward Hines Jr. Veterans Affairs Hospital. Veterans in this VA hospital’s Blind Rehabilitation Center go out with their guides and white canes almost daily for a class called Orientation Mobility.
The VA hospital is in Hines, a tiny community between Forest Park and Maywood that doesn’t have the defined neighborhoods needed for good lessons about listening to traffic. Forest Park does, according to Sudhakar “Sam” Pisipoti, Williams’ Orientation Mobility instructor. “They have a business section,” says Pisipoti.
“The ultimate goal is to teach public transportation skills to legal veterans so they can travel independently however they choose,” says Scott Smith, supervisor of the program for the blind at Hines. Orientation Mobility is just one of six classes that veterans at the center participate in each day.
Hines’ Blind Rehabilitation Center was opened by the Department of Veteran Affairs back in 1948 as a safe place for veterans to develop skills to deal with their vision loss. It was the first VA resource facility for vision-impaired vets. Since then, others have opened, but Hines’ center continues to serve veterans from more than a dozen states.
Williams lost his sight as a complication of his diabetes. He’s still in what’s called the residential stage of training, meaning his lessons take him all around the village’s residential blocks. Blind veterans with more training, and those who aren’t fully blind, can learn on walks in such commercial districts as Madison Street and can use public transportation.
All the Orientation Mobility lessons are taught in Forest Park.
“We can do some lessons in their hometown towards the end of their stay, if they live in the Chicagoland area,” says Pisipoti.
You won’t only see these classes happening during just the mild weather of this spring season.
“We will still go out during 25-degree weather,” Pisipoti says. “Anything colder, we will probably use the center.”
Though Williams and Pisipoti are out and about in the morning, classes can run anytime during the day. There are even some night classes.
“He lets me bump my head and hit walls, so I can gain my confidence and direction,” says Williams, referring to his coach, Sam.
Every veteran who is legally blind is eligible for the services at the Blind Rehabilitation Center.
“All veterans are eligible. A lot of veterans don’t know that they do not need to have an injury from the war that caused their blindness,” said Gerald Schutter, chief of the Blind Rehabilitation Center at Hines.
Nearly 45 percent of the center’s patients have macular degeneration, which is damage to the center of the eye and can distort vision or result in complete loss of sight. For example, someone’s vision with macular degeneration would be like looking through a straw or constant blurriness.
“Just because you have a disability doesn’t mean you have to shut yourself off,” says Williams.
The center strives to help veterans and their families to have a healthy attitude about blindness. On the weekends, veterans get the chance to use the skills they’re learning. Activities range from Bingo to golf outings.
“This program is going to help me with my life. My blindness isn’t going to stop me. I have to do this to survive. It teaches me to do this with no fear,” Williams says. When he returns home to Youngstown, Ohio, Williams wants to find a job as a telemarketer.
“When I go home, I’m not keeping what I’ve learned to myself. I’m showing everybody,” he says.