My Story by Joe Schissler

I am Joe Schissler, and this is my story about becoming blind and learning to live with it.

Throughout the first 65 years of my life, I had near perfect vision. I did start wearing corrective lenses at age 12 or 13 to correct for near-sightedness in both eyes. Then, at age 65, I had an accident while riding my bicycle. This accident left me totally blind with no light perception at all, due to damage to both optic nerves. (Now I no longer wear glasses.) I am now 70 and I admit that I did a lot of soul-searching for a while. “Why me?” “What if?” and “If only?” were frequent thoughts at the beginning and still occur occasionally but not very often these days.

As I was starting to deal with other health issues resulting from the accident, I was also thinking about how to get on with the rest of my life. I was near to retirement from my technical career of some 41 years at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, and the accident sealed the deal. Since I was nearing retirement, I had plans to continue several of my hobbies: bike riding, golfing, woodworking, drawing, reading both fiction and non-fiction, and photography, along with the usual tasks required to maintain a home. Not to mention watching two granddaughters grow up. It was quickly apparent to me that some of these may not come to pass as I had expected.

Soon after becoming blind, my daughter called the NFB and got me my first long white cane, my son bought me my first talking watch, and Sharon Maneki talked me into joining the Central Maryland chapter of the NFB. I also soon got hooked up with the Maryland DORS (Department of Rehabilitative Services) program and they gave me software to teach myself how to touch type and JAWS and Kersweil software to use the computer. They also provided some travel training.

During my career, I had used a computer on a daily basis, which made some of the computer stuff easier than it might have been. Although I used the two-finger, hunt and peck method before the accident, so learning my way around the keyboard was interesting. (Lesson learned: learn to touch type if it is offered in school.)

At this point, I was convinced that I needed more training in several areas, and, after I learned about the SAIL (Seniors Achieving Independent Living) program at BISM (Blind Industries and Services of Maryland), I eventually joined that program. In the SAIL program, I attended school two days a week for 6 hours a day. I received training in a number of areas: activities of daily living—including using a kitchen safely, travel, Braille, and computers. These classes lasted for about a year. While SAIL is a part-time program for seniors, it turned out that BISM has another, full-time, live-in program for non-seniors and that program includes woodworking classes, and I was able to get in those classes for the next 5 months or so. Their woodworking shop has all the power tools that one could ask for, some I had used before and a few I had not. Referring back to my old woodworking hobby, I had built a fairly complete shop in my basement, but, for four and a half years, it had sat unused, and I had thought of getting rid of all the tools. Quickly upon starting BISM’s woodworking class, I was thrilled to discover that I could continue with that hobby. All that was required was a means of measuring without seeing, so I quickly bought a Click Rule, which is a tactile ruler that measures to one-sixteenth of an inch, accurate enough for most projects.

Each student in that class has to complete a project, and mine was a small, decorative table. It is about 25 inches tall, and the top is about 11 inches deep by 20 inches wide. The legs are cherry and are tapered on two sides, the aprons are hard maple left over from installing maple floors in my home, and the table top is soft maple and appears to float above the base due to the support mechanism. While I had tapered table legs before, in this case, since I couldn’t see where I was cutting, I had to design and build a tapering jig, which allowed me to cut accurately without seeing what I was doing. The table was treated with Tung oil, and three coats of wax were applied. That table was recently entered in the woodworking competition at the Howard County Fair and won a first place ribbon in its category.

The bottom line of all this is that, while I haven’t figured out how to do what I used to with a bike or an artist’s pencil or a camera, and I haven’t played any golf since the accident, I do have one of my old hobbies back.

I also enjoy reading digital talking books from the Library for the Blind. I am also fairly proficient at using the computer and am currently working on a couple of family history projects. Some of these require original research from libraries and the National Archives. The first project is nearly complete and tells the story of my father’s 20-year career in the U.S. Navy. At present, this narrative runs to about 50 pages including photos of my father and the numerous ships that he served on, including four during World War II. Next will be the story of my time in the Navy.

So this story will continue.