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Learn about the history of blind Iowans

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      woman with long white cane crossing locust street bridge in Des Moines Iowa circa 1980Iowans who are blind represent a cross-section of Iowa's population. There are blind Iowans who have a PhD and those who did not finish high school. Blind Iowans are farmers, banking executives, teachers, janitors, computer programmers, and more. Some come from wealth and privilege; others from poverty. All ethnic groups are represented; blindness does not discriminate. Some Iowans were born blind or became blind as teenagers or adults. Their blindness could have been caused by genetic condition, disease, or injury. Every blind Iowan's experience is unique.Yet, cultural beliefs and attitudes about blindness have shaped how we have viewed all Iowans who are blind.

      The lives of blind Iowans have been impacted by legislation, social attitudes, educational approaches, and employment opportunities that were shaped by questions such as:

      How does blindness impact a person's ability to learn and work?
      What is the best approach in educating blind individuals and who can teach them?
      Is blindness a disability?
      What does it mean to be independent?
      Who decides?

      The answers to those questions have varied over time and, in some instances, have caused great controversy. The goal of this web site is to share the experiences of blind Iowans and highlight the beliefs, events, and people that impacted their lives. These experiences and the history of blindness in Iowa are recounted through the framework of these themes: Advocacy, Community and Domestic Life, Education, Employment, and Tools & Technology. More than fifty blind Iowans have shared their stories and remembrances. All of the collected oral histories can be found on the Oral History page.

      When is Someone Blind?

      The answer to this question may seem easy. Most people believe that all blind people have no vision - that all a blind person perceives is total darkness. Yet, most people who are considered to be blind have some vision or light perception. About 80 percent of individuals who are blind have some remaining vision. Understanding that blind people often have some vision is important when learning about how different philosophical, educational, and training approaches developed over time.

      So, how does someone know when they are "blind"?

      Legal Definition

      One way to define blindness is by a medical definition encoded in law. The federal Social Security Act provides a legal definition of blindness, which is:

      "Central visual acuity of 20/200 or less in the better eye with the use of a correcting lens. An eye which has a limitation in the field of vision such that the widest diameter of the visual field subtends an angle no greater than 20 degrees shall be considered as having a central visual acuity of 20/200 or less."

      Legal blindness occurs when a person has central visual acuity (vision that allows a person to see straight ahead of them) of 20/200 or less in his or her better eye with correction, such as with glasses or contact lenses. With 20/200 visual acuity, a person can see at 20 feet, what a person with 20/20 vision sees at 200 feet. A person's visual field (the part of a person's vision that enables them to see what is happening to the side of them) is also considered in this definition. A person whose visual field is 20 degrees or less is considered to be legally blind.

      Functional Definition

      The legal definition of blindness has very little impact on the day to day lives of those who have vision loss. Vision loss occurs on a continuum. For instance, a person's vision can vary according to levels of light in a room or in the outdoors. It can be better one day and then worse the next, depending on the cause of their vision loss. Therefore, a functional definition may also be helpful in defining someone as blind.

      A person may be considered functionally blind when he or she has to use so many alternative techniques to perform tasks that are ordinarily performed with sight that his/her pattern of daily living is substantially altered. For instance, a person's vision may not be 20/200 or worse when wearing eye glasses, yet reading print is difficult so she reads books and magazines by listening to them on a digital player or reading them in Braille. Or, a person's field loss might not meet the legal definition, but he relies on a cane to find curbs and stairs because the cane is more reliable than his vision. Smell, taste, and touch may become more important when making a meal.

      It may be difficult to understand how an individual with a certain eye condition can see some things while not seeing others. While some people lose a lot of vision in a short period of time, others lose vision slowly. Many diseases that cause blindness begin to affect a certain part of one's vision and then progress to take away more vision. For example, Macular Degeneration initially affects a person's central vision (the vision that lets us see straight ahead).  For visual examples of what individuals might see if they have diseases, such as Macular Degeneration, Glaucoma, Cataracts, Diabetic Retinopathy, and Retinitis Pigmentosa go to the National Eye Institute's website at: