Blind Students See Life in Their Own Way

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UC Berkeley junior Osmond Kwan has never seen that strange, interpretive dance known as body language.

During a conversation, he cannot see legs crossing and uncrossing in uncomfortable succession. And even the most extreme facial expressions go unnoticed.

Yet Kwan, who was born blind, can feel exactly where the conversation is going.

Right leg over left-he picks up the vibrations. A person is smiling-the tone of the voice changes as the lips pull apart.

As one of the eight blind students on campus, Kwan understands how different his world may seem to those who can see. But in his own quiet way, he says he hopes to bridge two very different ways of interpreting the world, simply by not conforming to others' assumptions.

"I've never wanted pity," Kwan says. "Understanding, yes. But pity, no. I am able to do what a lot of people think I'm not 'supposed' to do."

Kwan says he believes in colors although he has no proof. He says he trusts in the sunset because he has traced his fingers over the dimpled pages of its Braille description.

And like most English majors, Kwan says he believes in the words of Shakespeare.

"When I read Shakespeare, I can't create images in my mind," he says. "But I hear the voices. I hear the emotion."

Junior Lisamaria Martinez, UC Berkeley's own visually impaired tour guide, understands what it means to be misjudged at first glance.

According to a 1988 Gallup poll, blindness is one of the disabilities that Americans fear the most, ranking fourth, after AIDS, cancer and Alzheimer's disease.

At the age of 5, Martinez lost her vision because of a severe allergic reaction. After undergoing two operations when she was 12 years old, she gradually regained the ability to detect shapes, light and dark, and some color.

"On my tours, I walk backwards with my cane tapping behind me," she explains in her distinctively perky voice. "I always hear horror stories about tour guides tripping as they were walking backwards, or running smack into a parked car, so it's pretty funny that I've never even come close to falling."

Martinez, who is the Education Outreach Coordinator of the Disabled Students' Union of UC Berkeley, says she believes education is the key to promoting both tolerance and sensitivity.

"It might sound strange, but because I'm blind, I have had the opportunity to do so many things," she says about her role as an educator on campus.

In addition to being the vice president of the San Francisco chapter of the National Federation of the Blind, Martinez speaks to classes regarding misconceptions people may have about the visually impaired.

"People have stereotypical images of blind people, but if you have the right skills, you can overcome those stereotypes," she says.

Martinez, a member of the Blind Women's Judo Team, is currently training for the 2002 World Championships for the Blind in Rome.

Like Martinez, Kwan says his blindness does not necessarily limit him, but rather, allows him to take full advantage of his other senses.

"I miss out on the experiential part of sight, but I don't miss out on the experience itself," Kwan says. "I have hearing, touching, smelling."

Kwan says he sometimes wonders what life would be like if he were able to see.

"If I could see one thing, I would want it to be the face of a newborn child," he said. "I once held a baby-I remember it feeling warm. But it was one of those experiences that isn't dependent on touch. It's more just the idea of a human life, that I was holding this child in my arms in a moment of protection."

To Kwan, the fact that he is able to find his way around the tangled halls of Dwinelle or catch BART on his own is not amazing. It is simply about repetition.

Jim Gammon, who for 20 years has worked as a Disability Specialist for UC Berkeley's Disabled Students' Program, is well-versed in peoples' misconceptions about the limitations of the blind.

Also blind since birth, 53-year-old Gammon has a master's degree in special education from San Francisco State University.

"A sighted person cannot understand what it means to be blind by just closing his eyes," Gammon says. "Of course he will think, 'I can't see, therefore I can't do.' But people are amazingly resilient and adaptive."

Martinez, while equally frustrated by the quick judgments that are often made when she enters a room with her cane, says her low vision provides an interesting twist. Some of her most memorable experiences are truly unique because of her disability.

She giggles about the time she poured grape Kool-Aid in her cereal, or the one-sided conversation she once had with a sculpture.

"Sometimes my low vision can be misleading," she says. "But by logically deducing what is around an object, I can usually figure out what it is."

Like Martinez, Gammon does not define himself by his blindness.

"Blindness is just a part of who I am," Gammon says. "But it's not who I am."

Still, there are some things about the sighted world that he will never understand, he says, no matter how much he reads. For example, the concept of beauty often leaves him puzzled.

"When I meet you, what I am reacting to is your personality," he says.

"Sometimes I hear college kids saying, 'Did you see her legs?' or 'He's so cute.' Beauty, for me, is about sensitivity and compassion," he says. "Whatever is good in a person is beautiful."

As Gammon is in mid-thought, the power suddenly goes out. He hears the sounds of disoriented people wading through the dark halls outside his office.

A co-worker leans into the office to tell him the lights are out.

"Oh," Gammon says, grinning like a man with a secret. "Of course."


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