When Bishop Kyle Anderson of the Ruston (Louisiana) Ward calls on one of his leaders in a ward council meeting, he does not point or nod. Some of them would not be able to see him. They are blind.
But when the bishop makes a spiritual point, they can see it very well. Spiritual insight, they say, comes for them through faith and obedience, as it does for any member of the Church. And that is what they would like other members to understand about them: they have no special spiritual gifts just because they are blind, but given the same opportunities as other members, they can develop spiritual abilities in the same ways.
Ruston is the home of the Louisiana Center for the Blind, operated by the National Federation of the Blind. Members employed or studying at the center often serve in the ward. In mid-2004, for example, these included Jeff Pearcy, high priests group leader; Zena Pearcy, ward birthday secretary; Wayne Pearcy, son of Jeff and Zena and an assistant in the presidency of the priests quorum; Brian Dulude, elders quorum president; Brook Sexton, first counselor in the Young Women presidency; Rebekah Jakeman, second counselor in the Young Women presidency; and Mary Jo Thorpe, teacher improvement coordinator.
This group prefers the term blind to the widely used visually impaired. They recognize that there may be varying degrees of vision loss, but in practical terms, blind is the daily reality they live with.
“I consider blindness an inconvenience,” says Jeff Pearcy. He stresses that if you have the tools of the task, you can do the job. For example, he teaches cooking at the center for the blind. His students learn to use ordinary ingredients in ordinary packages and the same kitchen appliances used by any other cook. The only concession to blindness is the braille labels on some cans and packages.
Likewise, Brian Dulude says, a blind member who seeks the companionship of the Holy Ghost can do everything in the Church that anyone else can do. “The Holy Ghost will help you accomplish whatever you are called to do.”
In that spirit, Brother Dulude teaches the students at the center for the blind how to maneuver around obstacles as they travel through life. He teaches “Orientation and Mobility”—cane travel—by literally taking to the streets, coaching students to find ways to get past physical obstacles they meet. “I teach students to solve problems. When they get through,” he says, “they’ll know Ruston pretty well, but they’ll also be able to go back home and learn their way around there.”
Rebekah Jakeman, who was Brother Dulude’s pupil, describes some of the techniques a blind person using a long cane masters to get around obstacles. She points out that in crossing a street it is possible to feel the crown of the roadway and know when you have passed the center. It is possible to feel water or other kinds of surfaces and know what you are approaching. The cane becomes an extension of the physical senses.
It is the same in spiritual endeavors, she says. Blind people who receive callings in the Church learn to magnify them by using alternative techniques. She draws a comparison in terms of a common cultural difference. In western society, people eat certain foods and use a fork. They may never consider other alternatives. But in Asian societies, people are accustomed to other foods, eat them with chopsticks, and get along very well. “Sometimes in the Church I think we need to realize that blind people can use ‘chopsticks’ and get along fine.”
Zena Pearcy offers a simple example. Some years ago she served as Primary president in the ward where her family lived. During sharing time, she could not call on children simply to raise their hands. So she asked them to raise their hands and then asked teachers by name to choose someone from their class to respond.
The Pearcys’ son Wayne uses alternative techniques to solve problems both in and out of the Church. A skilled trumpet player who has learned by ear, he marches in his high school marching band. He has to listen to the people on either side of him in order to be able to stay in line. Sometimes it is difficult. But he says it is no more difficult than learning a new route of travel off the football field; there, too, he has to memorize certain routines to go places.
At the sacrament table, he reads the prayers in braille. He prefers not to rely solely on memory. “Sometimes the Spirit is really strong up there, so I feel it is better to read it.” That way he won’t make an error in a prayer.
Brook Sexton, now working in Hawaii, says there is nothing wrong with priesthood leaders asking blind members where they feel they could serve. But the answer from the members may be that they will serve anywhere they are called. Do other people accept blind members as teachers and leaders? Sister Sexton’s answer is that they do if the teacher is prepared. The young women in Ruston accepted her well. “Because I am confident, because I believe in myself, they trusted me to be a leader.”
Mary Jo Thorpe says blind members are sometimes seen as “amazing” simply because they can do things that sighted members do. Instead, they should be expected to do the same things. They need to stretch their spiritual and intellectual capabilities just as any other member does. (She acknowledges, however, that she and others like her are role models for blind children at the summer camp where she worked in Ruston. The children need to know blind people who have been successful in school and who hold productive jobs.)
Rebekah Jakeman offers an example of growth that can come through a calling. While she and her husband were at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, in 2003–4, Sister Jakeman served in the Relief Society presidency of a student ward where all of the presidency were pregnant. The president and second counselor both had their babies shortly after Sister Jakeman, leaving her to carry out the presidency’s assignments almost on her own. She developed ways to fulfill her assignments and learned to rely on the help of other sisters. “I just had to figure out ways to get things done,” she recalls. “I think I found at that moment that blindness wasn’t the issue but that as members of the Church we need each other.”
Some people with partial or total vision loss may try to hide their blindness, not wanting to be thought of as different from or less capable than others. Several members of the Ruston group say that finally acknowledging their blindness was liberating, allowing them to move toward adapting to their own challenges in life.
Unlike the other blind members in the ward, Sister Jakeman was not born blind. She lost her sight over time, the last of it fading away not long before she married her husband. The experience was very difficult; for a time, she harbored much anger. She recalls seeing the Church film The Testaments: Of One Fold and One Shepherd before her vision was gone and being angry at the final scene, in which the Savior heals a blind man. She had long prayed for such a healing in her own life, and it did not come. But Sister Jakeman says she has since learned to reconcile her feelings with the gospel and to experience the Savior’s love in her life. “The Spirit sees our inner hearts. As an individual I have started to realize that everyone needs Christ. In our society, we put way too much emphasis on physical perfection.”
Sister Sexton points out that the confidence she feels in being able to function in life comes not from any particular kind of training or from her own intelligence but from her faith in Jesus Christ and His Atonement. It is comforting to know that when she accepts a calling given by inspiration, the Holy Ghost will help her magnify it if she prepares properly.
Jeff Pearcy says, “I would like people to observe what blind members can do and trust their abilities rather than automatically looking for a deficit.”
Bishop Anderson learned quickly to overlook any possible deficit and see these members of his ward as great assets. “They have testimonies of the gospel,” he says. “They are well educated. They have all the needed skills. All the qualities that are needed in a good teacher and leader are there.” The only help they may require is with transportation.
Zena Pearcy says, “I’m so happy that the Church stresses over and over that we are all equally loved by Heavenly Father.” When leaders think in terms of finding opportunities for individuals to serve, she adds, no one has to miss out on the growth that comes with a calling.
How Others Can Help
Here are some things we can do to help those who have lost their sight:
As an Individual
Identify yourself when greeting someone who is blind.
•Know the individual’s needs and abilities. She may not want assistance. But when not using a cane, she may appreciate your offering an arm or an elbow to help.
Talk directly to the individual who is blind; do not ask questions through someone else.
Offer to read aloud visual aids or information written on the chalkboard.
As a Teacher or Leader
Remember, the blind cannot read printed agendas, bulletins, and classroom handouts. Offer to read aloud or record special materials for them.
Be sure that your members have access to materials for the blind listed in the Church Materials Catalog. These materials are available in various formats (half- and standard-speed recordings, compact discs, braille) and in electronic form at www.lds.org. Be sure a braille hymnbook is available.
Preview videos used in teaching. Portions may need verbal description.
Arrange to accommodate a guide dog as necessary. Guide dogs must remain beside their masters.