Learn Geoffrey Dilger's techniques for walking with his cane.
Everyday tasks can be challenging for people with visual impairments.
The morning sun shone through the windows and flooded the room with light. Anxious family members sat around the bed waiting for Geoffrey Dilger to wake up. He stirred. Blinking, straining to open his eyes, Geoffrey made his first request. "Could somebody turn on the light?"
"Geoffrey, the light is on," responded the nurse.
Geoff and his family had been visiting relatives in California. In the pre–dawn hours of Mother's Day, Geoff got an excruciating headache that caused an intensifying pressure behind his eyes. His parents rushed him to the hospital. By the time they arrived, he was in tears, kicking uncontrollably and vomiting. An emergency MRI revealed a massive ruptured tumor on the sixteen year old's pituitary gland. The tumor and the gland were both removed immediately in an emergency surgery. The hemorrhaging kinked his optic nerve and left him without sight.
Geoff was no stranger to trauma. A car accident when he was five had crushed his skull. The injuries sustained also put him in a body cast for two months. Two large scars across his head serve as a reminder of what happened.
Yet this time, the trauma brought an immense new challenge.
His parents returned home to Springfield, Oregon, unsure of the needs of their blind son. Geoff slept constantly while recovering. Without a sense of light and dark, his circadian rhythms were skewed.
HE ENDURED VIVID DREAMS
OF LIVING WITH SIGHT,
ONLY TO WAKE AND
FACE REALITY OVER AND OVER.
He endured vivid dreams of living with sight, only to wake and face reality over and over. Finally he started telling himself within his dreams: You're blind. Remember?
With the help of mobility instructors, Geoff had to learn how to get around using a cane. Even the smallest details of daily life became significant. He woke up on the couch one afternoon and realized he did not know the time. There was no one around to ask. The previously independent teenager had to rely on his mother to pick out his clothing.
His mother, however, often found herself forgetting the reality of her son's situation. Once, Geoffrey walked in through the front door to hear his mother ask him, "Geoffrey, did you see the cat out front?"
"Mom, I can't see," he reminded her.
Despite all of his struggles, Geoff's family and friends marveled at his positive demeanor. His mother believed his strength stemmed from the accident he lived through as a child. Always known for a quick wit, he used humor to show people he would be okay. His mom looked up blind jokes for him on the Internet; he had an arsenal prepared to put visiting friends at ease.
"Hey Charles, what did the blind person say after he picked up the cheese grater?" he asked his high school friend.
"I don't know, Geoff. What?"
"That was the most violent story I've ever read."
Charles was amazed. If Geoff could see the positive in this situation, he thought, then why couldn't he?
Geoff's outward disposition, however, masked a growing uncertainty about his future. A career in graphic arts had been his dream.
Ron Turner always wanted to make the pros in baseball. On that warm Oregon spring day, the freshman sports scholarship recipient wound up and delivered a pitch.
He heard the crack of the bat. He did not see the ball, but felt the gust of wind as it flew past his head. Another pitch, another crack, another drive close to his head. Still he could not see the ball.
Ron Turner left the pitcher's mound, asking for a replacement. He turned and walked off the field and headed to the locker room.
During his first year at Linfield College in McMinnville, doctors discovered the cause of Ron's deteriorating eyesight — hemorrhaging in both eyes. The condition developed from a couple of hardballs that knocked him unconscious in previous seasons.
The hemorrhaging looked like a red–orange curtain floating down over Ron's eyesight. The sporadic bleeding would come at varying degrees, keeping portions of his vision blurry until the blood dissipated.
After learning of Ron's condition, his coach did not tell him he could not play. It had to be Ron's decision. Walking away from the pitcher's mound that day, Ron did not look back. He knew the time had come.
Doctors advised Ron to be extremely careful. He began to sleep with his head elevated, and he avoided most physical activities.
A year later, while home for the summer in Eugene, he awoke one morning to find the murky veil completely blocking his vision. A sinking feeling overwhelmed the twenty–one year old, making him nauseated. At first he hoped the veil would go away if he kept still. For two days, he could not bring himself to share the news with his family, instead lying in the sun and fumbling his way around the house. Ron's family had become accustomed to this behavior on days when the hemorrhaging was bad. After those two days of enduring the darkness, he knew he had to tell his mom. Together they wept.
After Geoffrey Dilger spent the summer adapting to his new world of darkness, he wanted to start his junior year. Authorities at Springfield Public Schools suggested he "mainstream" back into regular classrooms.
The rhythmic beat of Geoff's new white cane echoed among the student shuffle. He wore rectangular, tinted glasses. During his first days back, students were not sure what were rumors and what were truths regarding Geoff's condition. He welcomed the inquiries of curious classmates.
One well–meaning girl asked, "Do blind people do stuff?"
"No, absolutely not. I mean, stuff? Oh no," he replied lightheartedly. "After I went blind, I cut back on the stuff. Now I'm up to things. I do things now."
Geoff relied on memory and touch to make his way to the Language Arts room. His heart remained just a few doors down in the Art room.
The process of mainstreaming into the regular classes proved frustrating. Teachers did not seem to have the time or training to accommodate a blind student. He tried to learn Braille, but found it archaic and cumbersome. One of his textbooks was delivered on a dolly in seven boxes.
Geoff's counselors encouraged him to go to the Oregon School for the Blind for an assessment that December. Most of the other students at the school, however, were born blind. They could not relate to Geoff, nor could he relate to them. Students were largely responsible for meeting their own needs. Twice he got lost on the small campus for several minutes before a staff member found him.
He was still adjusting to his blindness and not ready to attend a school that seemed to assume he had a high level of comfort with his condition. His frustration culminated when his physical education instructor expected Geoff to get into a pool.
"I'm not even comfortable on land," said Geoff, "and you expect me to get into the water?" The terrified student would not budge.
Geoffrey lasted a week at the School for the Blind and left it determined to stay away from programs for blind people.
Ron Turner relied on family and friends to help him adjust to the loss of his eyesight. Returning to Linfield for his junior year, he quickly learned to navigate his surroundings on the small campus without his cane. Other students were happy to help him get around town. The Oregon Commission for the Blind paid for his tuition and provided the funding to hire him a reader. He took his exams orally.
Though he avoided people who felt sorry for him, Ron masked his own feelings of self–pity. His blindness had forced him to abandon his dream of playing professional baseball. He missed playing sports and doing outdoor activities like hunting and fishing.
That year, another blind student happened to live in the same dorm as Ron. He had to listen to the student repeatedly grumble that no one would help him. Hearing the negative attitude out loud, Ron faced his own inner battle. Ultimately he resolved not to feel sorry for himself any more. He decided to pursue a teaching career, despite the initial hesitation of Linfield's Department of Education.
Geoff's parents believed the public school did not have the proper resources for their son. Geoff could not quite keep up with schoolwork or meet credit requirements. After a year and a half as a blind student at a public school, he felt he was going nowhere. He did not want to return to the blind school either. He seemed lost between two worlds.
One day, while tapping his way down the school hallway, Geoff heard a boisterous and unfamiliar voice address him. "Oh, we've got a cane user here!" said the man, catching Geoff by surprise. He knew that sighted people never use the term "cane user."
"Yeah?" answered Geoff.
"I've had to use one of those. I hated it," the man said, explaining that he was legally blind, although he had minimal sight.
Geoff was intrigued. He hadn't met another blind person who hated his cane. "Yeah, I hate it too." As Geoff walked away, he felt sorry that the conversation had to end. He wanted to know more about that man.
Two years after the hemorrhaging took his sight, Ron welcomed new hope. The University of Oregon Medical School had instituted a new photo coagulator — a machine that cauterizes bleeding capillaries. He became the second candidate for the new medical procedure. If the treatment proved successful, he could regain some of his vision.
After the surgery, the hemorrhaging stopped. Slowly the veil that completely darkened Ron's world partially cleared. Doctors removed scar tissue, creating an opening at the center of his right eye and an area of peripheral vision in the left. He technically remained legally blind, yet his world opened up to him at about 20/100.
Ron finished the student teaching segment of his degree and would go on to teach for more than thirty years. He would read and grade papers wearing strong prescription glasses and using a magnifying glass. He even coached sports with the help of field glasses.
A long–standing request by Geoff's parents for a one–on–one tutor finally came through during his senior year. The man who would be his tutor was a retired teacher and was legally blind.
Geoff felt somewhat concerned as he made his way to class. They are finally giving me a tutor, he thought, but he's blind? When he entered the room and heard the man's voice, he felt a flood of relief. He recognized the voice as that of the man he had met in the hallway a few days earlier.
It was Ron Turner.
Ron attended class with Geoff, then went with him to a separate room to go over the assignments. In the tiny classroom office, the seasoned tutor and his new student finished their lesson early and had time to talk. They shared their life stories and talked of dreams discarded.
"Being an artist was my only plan," Geoff soberly confided. "I didn't have a back–up plan."
"I know what you mean," responded his tutor. Poignant memories, some forty years old, of his own dreams of baseball and his own experience with blindness rushed to the surface as Ron listened to Geoff. They truly grasped each other's pain.
During the next few months, the two worked together as if they had known each other for a long time. Geoff found somebody he could identify with. They always finished their daily sessions early and Geoff looked forward to their talks. He shared frustrations with Ron about not being able to drive, disliking Braille, disliking the cane. Ron had been there himself.
Geoff admired everything about his tutor — the way he spoke, the way he acted, his energy. Because of Ron, Geoff's reluctance to be among other blind people began to dissolve. And for the upcoming summer he decided to enroll in a Summer Work Experience Program in Portland. The program teaches independent living skills to blind people — skills like cooking and doing laundry. In the program, Geoff met and became friends with other blind people.
Geoffrey now lives in Portland with his girlfriend, who he met in that summer program. She also lost her sight at age sixteen. With help from various resources available to blind people, he is working to pass his General Equivalency Degree test.
"If I ever got my sight back, I know what I'd do," he says. "I think I'd draw for three days straight." With a career in graphic arts no longer feasible, though, he now hopes to attend college to possibly study music or psychology. "Ron made it seem to me like there's still opportunity," says Geoff of his friend and former tutor.
"RON MADE IT SEEM TO ME LIKE THERE'S STILL OPPORTUNITY," SAYS GEOFF.
"I have a hard time saying it," Geoff confides, "but I think I'm becoming comfortable with being blind. There are things that will always bother me about not being able to see — little things, like being outside and hearing something buzzing around and not being able to see what's buzzing, or not being able to run for cover when a cloudburst happens."
Nevertheless, Geoffrey Dilger embraces a sense of purpose. He hopes that his own experience can inspire other people in his life to overcome adversity. To him, things could have been much worse. After all, he says, "at least I only went blind."