Dialogue Magazine


by Karl Arnold Belser 

(Dialogue Magazine Spring 2003)

I was 24 when I started loosing my vision.  I was terrified, and at one point almost committed suicide, because I believed that engineers had to see.

It started when I was driving back to school with my wife and baby when I noticed a small dark spot against the sky when I blinked.  The spot was like the after image from a photoflash.  It turned out that I had a fungus infection similar to ocular histoplasmosis.  The doctor could not kill the fungus.  So I lost the vision in my right eye, and the fungus remained as a latent threat in my blood.  I continued with my education, hoping that I would not lose the vision in both eyes.

I joined IBM after graduation and I worked for a time with a blind engineer named Noel.  I recorded textbooks for him on tape and discussed circuit diagrams using magnetic squares, circles and lines stuck to a smooth white board.  Noel even invented a language by which circuit diagrams could be read to him.  He used a sighted technician to be his eyes when he could not do the job himself.

I told Noel about my eye disease and how afraid I was of loosing my vision.  I also confess my fears that I could not be an engineer if I were blind.

Noel told me the following story:  A young fellow went into the boss’s office to discuss a new idea.  He stated the problem, and the boss said that he had looked at this problem and a solution was impossible.  But the young man had prepared a demonstration, so he got a few more minutes of the busy bosses time.  The boss raised his eyebrows and said, “I guess if you do it that way, it is possible.”

Noel emphasized that serious disability of any kind can break the strongest person when he thinks an alternate way of functioning is impossible.  He told me that he was living proof that it is possible to successfully cope with blindness.

I started loosing the vision in my good eye when I was 44, and I was treated with the newly invented laser eye surgery.  The treatment left me with central vision loss in both eyes, which meant that I couldn’t see a person’s head if I looked directly at him from 4 feet away.

I lost my vision and within six months my mother died, my brother died, and even my little Pekinese dog died.  I was divorced and estranged from my children.  My doctor even told me that I was permanently disabled and that I should start collecting Social Security Disability benefits.  I was depressed, thought my life had come to an end, and considered suicide.  But IBM did not fire me, and I remembered how well my friend Noel functioned.  If he could cope with vision loss, so could I.

My only support was a woman from human resources at IBM.  With her guidance I consulted with a low vision specialist, and in the next year I experimented with many types of visual aids.  These included TV magnifiers and scanners with text-to-speech converters, many of which were expensive and not portable.  I ended up choosing a telescope and a special pair of glasses containing a bifocal magnifier.  With these two visual aids I adapted myself to almost every situation.

I could not use my special glasses to read a computer screen because I needed to twist my head too much.  A text-to-speech conversion program solved this computer usage problem.  The program allowed me to highlight any text using the cursor and click “copy” to tell the program to speak.  The program I use now is ReadPlease2003, which is free on the Internet.

Even with these visual aids there were things that I could not do well enough in competition with the other workers at IBM.  Pay and promotion were at stake.  I realized that I had to find a job that I could do well with low vision.

I was a disk drive engineer, and I started looking at the “big picture”.  I collected papers on the technical aspects of the disk drive business.  When I could not find papers that were appropriate I wrote them.  I became a disk drive expert.

Armed with my knowledge I retired from IBM at 56 and joined a disk drive start-up company.  I invented and patented new technology for this company, which was soon purchased by another big disk drive company like IBM.  I retired a second time a few years later after the technology transfer was completed.

New technology can be measure by the number patents issued, and 38 of my 43 patents were written after I lost my vision.  My vision loss turned out to be a blessing in disguise because I was forced to become more valuable to the companies that I worked for.

My personal life also turned out better than I could have expected.  I focused on activities that I could do with low vision.  I learned to square dance, speak Spanish, play the piano, and garden.  I met people who accepted me as I am, and after a few failed relationships I met Jackie, the woman who I have happily lived with for the last 15 years.

I consider myself an example, like that of my friend Noel, of what can be done despite disability.  The tricks are to creatively compensate for the disability, figure out what can be done with the limitations, and never give up.

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Last updated November 11, 2005

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