Dezman Jackson and Blind Industries help people adjust to sightlessness

Jan 6 2015 Baltimore City Paper

Dezman Jackson is sitting at a table in a boardroom typing on a device. “You can use speech on your phone, and it will speak the messages to you,” he says. “I have it speaking so fast that most people can’t understand it. But 80 percent of the time, I mute speech and use this.” He pulls out a leather pouch that is just a little smaller than a standard keyboard. The rows of differently shaped buttons look complicated, like something only Robert Moog could design. “It’s called a refreshable braille display. Basically it just transmits what’s on your screen to these pins that pop up and down, so you can read the messages from your phone in Braille. I connect to this device via Bluetooth.” People, especially on the bus, are curious and ask him, “What is that thing? Are you playing music?”

The machines cost a lot—between $3,500 and $15,000 each—but there are government programs which financially assist those who can’t afford one on their own. By assisting employers or employees in getting accessible technology, the Department of Rehabilitative Services allows disabled people to remain, or get, on even footing with those who don’t have a disability.

Jackson offers a cane in one hand, and a plastic blindfold in the other. The blinding process is called immersion, and usually lasts three weeks for new students. The goal of immersion is to teach people with low vision how to live independently without relying on their diminishing sight. It’s always bustling at the building off Washington Boulevard that houses Blind Industries and Services of Maryland (BISM), where all students are legally blind, dealing with a progressive blindness disease, or are fully blind. And most of the employees are blind too. Framed photos of blindfolded groups white-water rafting and working with power tools in the on-premise wood shop line the walls.

“It’s only been recent that blind people have been able to be certified in teaching other people travel because for years it was viewed as a profession that only sighted people could assure safety,” he says. “So we were kind of locked out of the profession.”

Many blind adolescents are pushed into professions such as music or massage therapy early on because it seems those jobs don’t really require sight. “History has kind of shown the progression,” Jackson says. “At one point, blind people were walking around on the streets as beggars. Eventually people worked into what we call blind trades, which is good because it showed that blind people have something to contribute, and can be productive in society. But we are constantly trying to push forward and raise expectations even higher.”

When Jackson grew up in Mobile, Alabama, he was one of the very few blind students integrated into the public school system. “I was fortunate that I was able to get a lot more training than some,” he says. “But the component that I didn’t have access to was that I didn’t see a lot of successful blind people, adults. Teachers, as great as they were, were sighted.”

In high school, Jackson began to question his own future and what was available to him. “Around the time I was turning 16, you know what happens at that age—you get your driver’s license,” he recalls. “I didn’t have the confidence to get around my neighborhood and nobody really expected me to, anyway. And at that point I just started wondering, ‘what is life gonna be like for me?’”

It was also difficult to find a job. “I know I didn’t get to work a summer job like all my friends did,” Jackson says. “It wasn’t as easy for me to convince somebody I could go to McDonald’s and work behind the counter.”

But on the night of his homecoming dance, something very small happened that helped him gain more confidence. “I took a girl to the homecoming dance. I was able to look up directions from my house to my high school, and that was huge for me because I felt like I had some sense of control,” he recalls. “I wasn’t driving, but I was giving directions.”

He doesn’t think twice about finding directions now, but at the time it was a big movement toward his future independence.

Jackson completed his undergraduate and master’s degrees in psychology, but he says he still struggled at times. “Ninety percent of what we teach here is confidence,” he says. “A problem-solving approach to things, and I really didn’t have that at the time.”

As the Lead Rehabilitation Instructor and Mobility Specialist, Jackson embodies that problem-solving approach to life. “Go ahead and put your blindfold on,” he says. “We start off on this hard floor on the first day when we’re teaching people how to hold and use the cane” and listen to the sound the cane makes. Jackson goes on to explain that, with practice, a blind person can even tell where an opening in a hallway is just by feeling how the cane cuts through the air flow.

“We’re basically about helping people get their life back after they lose their sight,” he says. With the help of government funding, BISM aims to be the center point for blindness in the state of Maryland and across the East Coast. With programs and classes focusing on life skills such as taking care of a house, cooking, traveling with a cane, reading Braille, and using technology, the goal is for students to gain optimal independence whether they are blind or losing their eyesight.

“I think we give way more credit to our eyes or our ears, or sense organs, than is necessary,” he says. “Vision happens in the brain, you know? Your eyes are really just a vehicle. The brain will actually take what might be used for vision for a blind person and remaps it to visualize the way we learn to see things. Seeing doesn’t have to happen with the eyes. You just have to be more inquisitive to get a sense of the world around you.”

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