Crossville Chronicle, Crossville, TN

June 6, 2013

Normal living in a sightless world

Sandra Richmond sets a ‘wonderful example’ while living with blindness

By Bill Piecuch
Special to the Chronicle

CROSSVILLE — The business meeting was about to begin. Forty-two attendees quieted as the vice president, Joyce Lignar, called the meeting to order. A few preliminary announcements were read.

“And now,” Joyce said, “let’s have a reading of the minutes from last month.”

A speaker approached the microphone and began to read the minutes. Suddenly, one of the meeting participants unexpectedly stood and said, “Hang-on! These are the board’s minutes from last month… not from our regular meeting.”

After a chaotic scuttling with papers rustling and mumbled exchanges, there were no records found of the prior month’s proceedings. What to do? The secretary hesitated, gave a slightly confused, nervous look and said, “These are the only minutes available.” 

Then something remarkable happened.

“I have a copy. I’ll read the minutes,” said the recording secretary.

The audience grew quieter with good reason: the recording secretary is completely blind. Sandra Richmond, the Visually Impaired Support (VIS) Group's recording secretary for more than two years, began feeling the dimple braille bumps recorded from the previous meeting. Then, looking unblinkingly straight ahead, with another person holding the microphone, she began speaking. With an unwavering voice, Sandra, unable to see since two years of age, “read” the braille minutes of the last meeting. This was followed by appreciative applause by the VIS Group members.

Braille is a writing system used by those without sight to write and read. Braille-users, like Sandra, “read” braille materials with its encoded message. About the size of a man’s wallet, the tool is called a braille slate. Characters in small rectangular blocks contain raised dots called cells. Using her computer, Sandra transcribes the braille minutes into the typewritten form to be read at each meeting.

Those who know her marvel at Sandra’s undaunted efforts. Her associates, children and perhaps her pet dog, Bunny, accept her as an exceptional friend. She is a mother and grandmother who often cares of her Crossville grandchildren.

She enjoys playing the piano for churches, nursing homes and assisted-living facilities and often entertains with Share the Joy Singers. Incidental issues such as the ability to sign her name, use a computer, read mail, wash clothes or cook meals are characterized “normal.” With quiet gracefulness, she dismisses and ignores any notion of daily struggles.

Sandy remembers her childhood and can best describe her blindness with smells, sounds, textures, even specific street addresses — no colors, descriptions of the surrounding countryside from a sighted perspective or descriptions of what people wore. As she recalls, mostly happy memories are the subject of this mother of three grown daughters.

She was born with retinitis pigmentosa, a disease that usually affects one in 4,000 people in the U.S. Retinitis pigmentosa is an eye disease with damage to the retina. She was diagnosed “visually impaired” at 15 months of age. She remembers with a bit of humor that her parents couldn’t understand her condition.

“I used to trip over everything,” she mused.

When she began public school, teachers were puzzled by her difficulty in learning. She was unduly penalized with poor marks and stereotyped as “slow.” But a school official noted her condition and devised a simple test: using a typed sheet with two sets of words in vertical columns, her only task was to draw a line to a word with opposite meaning. She failed.

“I couldn’t see it,” she said. “It just added to my frustration.”

But her life changed dramatically when she was admitted to the Tennessee School for the Blind located in Nashville. For eleven years Sandy lived with others in darkness. Students are cared for by experienced cottage parents who cooperate with teachers, parents, clinic staff and therapists to ensure continuity of the education program.

The cottages have a family atmosphere that meets the impaired vision needs. Students are encouraged to personalize their bedroom with pictures, posters, photographs, personal items and stuffed animals. Many of the students have stereos, CD players or tape recorders and enjoy listening to their favorite music on tapes. After graduating, Sandra worked eight years for the federal government in Nashville before becoming a full-time homemaker and mother.

Sandra’s home in Crossville for the past 12 years reflects this comfortable background. To guests and friends alike, it feels like home. Because her Christian faith is so important to her, she reads braille Bible and also listens to various books of the Bible on tape. Sandra enjoys "whodunit" mystery novels.

“While my kids grew up and lived at home, sometimes they forgot I was blind. At that time I had to pick up and hang-up clothes,” she said smiling. “I don’t think it was any different than most families I’ve known.”

She is the first blind person in the area to raise three daughters, one being adopted. She remains the first Tennessee blind person to care for foster children, one of whom she adopted.

This comes at a time when the American Council of the Blind (and other blind agencies) is trying to pass legislation to stop government agencies from taking away children born to blind couples. Sight people assume, incorrectly, that children are in danger because of the parent’s blindness.

Margie DeMars, chairperson of the Cumberland County VIS Group, knows her well and describes Sandra as a quiet and unassuming person and a “wonderful example” for those who still have remaining vision.

"She is my mentor,” DeMars said. “Sandra has great faith in God

despite her physical limitations. I am sure that she could make Helen Keller’s statement her own: ‘I thank God for my limitations, for through them I have found myself, my work and my God.'”

The VIS Group meets the second Thursday of the month at Sonshine Soup Kitchen, 69 Neecham St. in Crossville from 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. with tea, coffee and pastry provided. Following the June 13 meeting, state Rep. Cameron Sexton will discuss new laws providing safer public access for the visually impaired.

Thursday, July 11 is the date of the annual VIS Group picnic at Obed River Park in Crossville. It is open to VIS members and their families. For more information, call Chairman Danny Keough at 788-1736.