My Story: Fred Olver
Early in his life, Fred knew that he wanted to teach people who are blind or have low vision and encourage their pursuit of rehabilitation and the full use of available resources and adapted equipment. That’s precisely what he did, and on the way he wrote a book that holds the potential to affect anyone dealing with vision loss – from family members to the individual losing their vision. He’s a true master of the backyard barbecue too!
“There’s still so much I want to do”
Interrupting a man preparing to barbecue steaks for his new fiancée is not a good way to start an interview. According to Fred, it was a beautiful early evening in St. Louis, Missouri; the wine and beer were chilling; the steaks were ready for cooking; and he was looking forward to a romantic interlude. This was definitely not the right time for our chat – so we rescheduled!
Retinopathy of Prematurity (ROP)
Fred, now aged 56, was born two months prematurely. During the 1950s, premature babies were placed in incubators and given high levels of oxygen in order to survive. The downside of this treatment was that these elevated oxygen levels often damaged delicate blood vessels in the premature infants’ underdeveloped retinas, leading to severe vision impairment and blindness. This condition is known as Retinopathy of Prematurity, or ROP. (Editor’s note: Today, with advances in neonatal care, the incidence of ROP is much less common. According to the National Eye Institute, approximately 400 to 600 United States infants become legally blind from ROP each year.)
Fred’s School Years
“My parents did for me what they thought was the best thing. I went to a nursery school for kids who were blind, right from the start; in fact, it was one of the first nursery schools for blind kids in the United States. I was a day student until I was three and then I was a residential student until I started going to the school for the blind at the age of five. I would go to the nursery school on Sunday night, see my folks on Wednesday, and return home on Friday afternoon.”
“At that time (the late 1950s and early 1960s), most blind kids were sent to special residential schools for the blind, so I joined them when I finished nursery school. When I got older, I stayed away for months at a time because it was easier to stay at school with many activities to get into – like roller skating, bowling, swimming, and girls – than it was to come home for a weekend and then have to leave on Sunday!”
“The thing that kept me going was my feeling that if I did well in school I would be able to go home and attend public school. So I asked for extra homework. I did homework every night of the week! I was a typical kid – I swam, ran track, was part of the wrestling team, wrote for the school yearbook, bicycled, and, I’m proud to say, bowled a 188 game when I was in 5th grade! What was the main difference for me, growing up as a kid? I couldn’t live at home with my family; instead, I lived with a couple of hundred people, most of whom were also blind.”
“I learned braille before I even started kindergarten. I’d convinced myself that if I did well with braille, I’d be okay. I was a good listener. I tried to figure out what was going on around me. I thought these skills would get me into public school, but it never happened. So when I was 17, I made my own decision to go to public school, started the ball rolling, and then contacted my parents to let them know what I had done.”
“I just felt, and many of my friends at the school for the blind felt the same way, that there was a perceived stigma if we graduated from a school for the blind. We all thought it would be more difficult to get a job or function as an equal in the ‘sighted world.’ I personally felt I’d be better off in other ways, like learning how to socialize with sighted guys and girls my own age.”
“I moved back home after my junior year in high school. I completed a college prep program, which included learning how to better use a cane to get around. I was the first blind student to attend and graduate from Wayne Memorial High School near Detroit. When I went there, the principal asked me if I was concerned about all the kids in the hall. I said I’d be okay; I’d have my cane with me.”
“Most of the kids were fine to me. I was allowed to do pretty much what they did. I wrote for the school newspaper, took a bus two miles to school, and, at my high school graduation, received a standing ovation from 6,000 people because I was the first blind student to attend and graduate from that high school. That was quite something. Things were changing for me, and I wanted change. I wanted to function in a world where most people could see. I wish I’d gone to a public school much earlier.”
“I applied to and was accepted at Western Michigan University where I got a BS degree in Communications and Secondary Education. I’d thought about teaching high school kids. But I wasn’t all that comfortable going into education. For a while, I worked at a library for the blind, but I felt there were lots of inequities there, so I thought I’d go back to school and study journalism. I’d always loved writing. But I guess I still wanted to be a teacher. So I returned to Western Michigan University.”
Born to Teach!
“I felt I was meant to be a teacher – that I was more than capable of doing this. I had a positive attitude, and I’m a strong believer in making things better or easier for those who will follow me. I was accepted into the Master’s program to study Rehabilitation Teaching for the Blind, which is now called Vision Rehabilitation Therapy. I graduated a year later.”
“I got a job at a rehabilitation agency, serving people who were blind and had low vision. I spent much of my time teaching groups of blind and low vision people at a rehabilitation center. When the agency’s program focus changed and they wanted an itinerant teacher, I stayed on. I loved being out in the community. I covered six counties.”
“Whenever my driver and I went into a new community, I’d find out if there were radio stations or newspapers. Most of the clients I worked with had lost their sight in adulthood, and knew very little about vision rehabilitation services. We needed to let local people know we existed – the radio and newspapers were a big help to us in doing that.”
“At first, some of my clients were wary of me because I’d been born blind, and felt I didn’t understand what they had gone through in losing their sight in their later years. I asked them to try and imagine how I felt when I graduated and realized that my peers were getting their driving licenses, which was something I would never experience. But, because I was blind – and had been all my life – and because I’d received professional teacher training, I knew about solving problems of everyday living and producing a wide range of solutions! Gradually, my clients learned to trust me.”
In the early 1980s, I got an offer from Computer Aids Corporation to work with them on sales of talking computers and the development of a program to translate text files into braille. Great! I knew that computers would be the future for people who were blind and had low vision and I thought it would be challenging to be on the cutting edge of technology – especially if we got into talking computers. This meant that people who were blind would have the same access to materials as those who were sighted.”
“I was sales manager for a while, but sales were small, since there were just a few hundred computer users in the country at that time. We knew the numbers would increase, but in the mid-1980s, IBM came on the scene with their PCs, then Microsoft produced Windows, and developers of talking software fell way behind. It took a year or two for developers of talking software to catch up with the Windows environment.”
“As a result, I found employment doing telemarketing for a couple different insurance-related companies. My passion for both the computer and writing were – and remain – strong. I also felt I had a book in me! Based on my experiences in teaching adapted daily living skills to recently blind adults, I felt I should share effective and safe ways of doing things – the way I’d been taught at Western Michigan University – in adapting everyday living for someone living with vision loss.”
“So I wrote Dealing with Vision Loss. The book has been accepted as required reading in the Department of Blindness and Low Vision Studies at Western Michigan University and the Department of Special Education at the University of Louisville. It’s available on my web site at www.dealingwithvisionloss.com I’ve discovered I love marketing and radio interviews, so I’m now full time into distributing the book. Consulting also fills my days and includes encouraging churches and restaurants to provide information in braille.”
A Family Man
And Fred has other passions! He’s a single parent of 13 years to Maggie, his 17-year-old daughter. And yes, there have been challenges:
“The biggest thing was to get Maggie to trust me because I was blind. It was difficult, because often people who see me with my daughter want to talk to her rather than to to me. This sends a message to my daughter: ‘If you can see, then you’re the person in charge.’ I’m just the guy standing there holding her hand.”
“But I remember a situation that occurred many years ago when we were out together: I wanted to go in a certain direction, but Maggie told me, ‘Daddy don’t go that way, you’ll get us lost.’ ‘No,’ I said. ‘We won’t get lost. Just trust me.’ We got where we wanted to go with no problem. But Maggie needed to realize that I could take care of her; that she’d be safe with me; that – most of the time – I knew what I was doing and could get her where we wanted to go.”
“My luck with women has varied! In my younger years, dating was kind of interesting. My fiancé tells me I should have had no trouble getting dates. But I did, and the main reason was that I didn’t drive. I’ve dated both blind and sighted women. Often, it’s easier to go out with women who are blind because you don’t have to explain things, but sometimes these women were not as independent as me … and I wanted to find someone who was an equal.”
“I’ve been married more than once and I’m going to marry in the fall. She’s a biochemist and has two daughters aged 12 and 16, and my daughter Maggie is 17. She and I met when I was in college, doing my student teaching at Wayne Memorial High School. She was more taken with my dog guide than with me! At the time, she was thinking about becoming a veterinarian and she told me my dog was very handsome (not a word about me, though!).”
“She made the mistake of trying to pet him while we were out walking, but it was an opportunity I took to get to know her better. Then we lost touch for more than 30 years, but we finally reconnected on the Internet. In 2007, we met and went out to lunch. I told her I was writing a book and she offered to edit it. She thinks I’m one of the smartest people she’s ever known (that’s not all bad!), and I would have to say the same thing about her. There’s definitely nothing average about her!”
“Our kids are sometimes a little skittish about us being together, which is understandable. We feel that how we both act and react toward the idea of a blended family will help the kids adjust. Yes, there are some hesitations and fears, but it will work – we’ll make it work out!”
“Life is busy. I enjoy gardening, collecting movies, and building an Internet business. I’m also a ham radio operator. I got my first ham operator’s license when I was 11 and I can now copy Morse code at about 30-40 words per minute. We love bowling, too. I’ve lived in Indiana, Michigan, and now Missouri. We both love St. Louis, especially University City. And I still enjoy writing, but I don’t think there’s another book on the horizon. I’m just enjoying the promotional opportunities for Dealing with Vision Loss.”
“I’d love it if the book could be used for short-term training by state agencies, since waiting lists for people who want services can be quite lengthy. I have the idea that if you took my book and broke it down by section, you could actually teach the entire thing in an intense weekend course. That’s what I’m hoping to do next year.”
A New Life Chapter
“In the meantime, we’re preparing to move into a new house and we’ve just bought ourselves a new Weber grill. We both love to cook and I learned to cook on a charcoal grill about 15 years ago. I’m pretty good at barbecuing chicken, steak, and chops, and my future wife is an excellent chef. Before I met her, I thought eating out was a trip to McDonald’s or Burger King, but now we’re wining and dining at romantic and elegant restaurants. Life is good! But of course there’s still so much I want to do, which I guess is the story of my whole life!
An Excerpt from Dealing with Vision Loss
Dealing with a Blind Person for the First Time
The following are suggestions to keep in mind when dealing for the first time with a person who is blind. We are not super-human. We would like to be thought of as being just like you with the exception that we have a significant vision loss. We are not helpless, but we may not be able to do everything you do in the same way. Our limitations may be more evident, but we all have limitations, don’t we?
- I am not deaf. It is not necessary to raise your voice when speaking to me.
- If we are in a restaurant together and the waiter or waitress asks you a question about me, or what I want, please tell them to speak to me. A response such as “I don’t know, why not ask him?” would be in order.
- Do not assume I cannot do something simply because I am blind. If you want to know you can always ask.
- Do not pay any attention to my dog guide. Do not talk to him/her. My dog may be lovely, wag its tail, look directly at you, however it is working. When it is in harness, it is working. If you feel you must pet my dog guide, please ask if it is okay first, and if I say no, please respect my wishes. If you talk to my dog, you are distracting it from its job.
- Blindness does not automatically ensure that my other senses will be improved. Any sensory development on my part took lots of time and awareness to develop. It doesn’t happen because I can’t see; I have taught myself to rely on my other senses instead of my vision.
- I probably will not want to touch your face to determine what you look like, but feel free to tell me if there’s something on the floor that needs to be cleaned up, or my shirt’s a mess and needs to be changed.
- Do not avoid the words watch or see; I use them all the time.
- Yes, I do watch TV and I do go to movies. If we go to a movie do not feel compelled to tell me what is going on. If I need to know, I will ask you.
- Just because I may be blind doesn’t mean I can’t afford to buy my meal at the restaurant.
- Do not feed my dog, it is fed daily and does not need table scraps.
- If my dog is doing something it ought not to be doing, please let me know so I can discipline it myself.
- If you see someone petting my dog, please let me know so I can inform them as to whether or not it is okay for them to do so.
- There is no such thing as a dumb question except the one you don’t ask.
- I may be glad to give you some information about being blind, however if you take the time to get to know me, you will find that I have many interests, hobbies and other activities that I pursue.
- Because I have not ever been able to see, I do not see pictures of anything at any time, not even when I dream. However if I had been able to see at one time, I would retain those visual memories, and although they might at some point become out-of-date, they would be invaluable to me because having been able to see, I would retain the ability to visualize.
- Blindness is not contagious. In most cases it is not hereditary and is not passed down through the generations.
- Every single person who is blind is different. Each blind person you will meet probably has a different type of vision loss and probably sees things differently. Some are more capable than others. Some will be able to travel independently and some will ask for assistance. We do not all learn to play musical instruments at an early age and some of us can only play the radio. Please treat us with the respect we deserve and be sure to treat us as the individuals we are.
If you’re sharing your life with a person who is blind, you’re in for a world of discoveries and growth. You’ll learn that “treat me like everyone else” means that “yes, I’ll need some adaptations but don’t do one more thing for me than what I absolutely need.” You’ll learn to be more descriptive in your language; you won’t say “over there”; you’ll say “on the dresser” or “six inches to your left” and you’ll learn to do it in a way that is casual and natural and no big deal.
You should keep your expectations high, because people who are blind can cook and make your coffee and take good care of you, too. You’ll learn to describe anything and everything you notice that is interesting or unusual or helpful. You’ll find ways to show all the beauty that you encounter through touch or sound or smell.
On the other hand, you could well be treated to a unique perspective: the difference between a mother and baby robin’s call, the first cricket of the season, or a dove just taking off. You’ll learn to pay close attention to the wonders of all your senses. You’ll learn that being fully human doesn’t depend upon the possession of sight. Expect to enjoy the learning process because it can go on forever.