"How blind is he, really? Hmmmm..."

It was about 6 months ago. I love to teach one on one and have done it quite a bit. I tell people, especially new turners, that if you really want to learn to turn, teach it. I don't mean promote yourself from absolute beginner to self declared expert. I mean once you have some decent skills, try teaching your skills. If you take it seriously and work to get the answers you will be asked, take the time to organize what you know in the right format for passing on the knowledge, you'll be amazed both at what you know, and at what you still need to learn!

So, like I said, it was about 6 months ago when I received an email from a chap who makes cabinets as a hobby. I'm not sure what his full time job is other than that he works in an office. I'm also not sure where he got my name from other than it was probably passed around from some other student I've helped in the past. Here was a request from a hobby cabinet maker, tired of having to buy store made legs for some of his pieces, desiring to learn how to make his own. What intrigued me most was that this lad mentioned he is blind. Well, how blind is he, really?.....

In this day and age, we are bombarded with "the right way" to address people without offending anyone, "the right way" to assist or offer to assist someone in a wheelchair, how to show respect for others in "politically correct" words and deeds. I personally suffer from chronic pain. Years ago, I was "handicapped", then for a few years, I became "disabled", now I am correctly identified as "mobility impaired". What a crock o' crap! I broke my back, plain and simple, twice (I tend to repeat things when I'm not sure if I really liked it the first time or not!). I'm sore, some days are better than others and I'm more grouchy than smily. But how do you ask someone "How blind are you , really?" For some reason, I felt ill at ease asking. I just assumed that if Guy (my new friend) was also a part-time cabinet maker, used a table saw, hand planes, sanders, and such, he had to have some vision. So I didn't pursue it at first contact.

We finally had the leasure to set a time that was convenient to both of us. In Guy's case, his annual holidays. We set a time and I went to his shop to meet him. I rang the door bell, a child came to the door and informed me that Guy was in the back and would meet me at the shop. I walked around to the back, went to the shop, nobody there. The I hear someone call "Hi Mike, I'm Guy" walking across the yard with his hand stretched out and he promptly trips over his garbage cans, in broad daylight, makes it to the shop and smacks right into the door jamb face first. I had my answer! I also realized I wasn't ready for this.

I always begin my sessions with identifying the tools. For this I bring some papers which I will leave behind at the end, that show the proper names of the tools, their suggested shape and sharpening angles. They are a great help. Not this time they weren't! I also bring with me a few more tools than the basic stuff to show the difference between standard grinds, wings, and all that. Usually, the student looks at these and can easily see the difference. Now I had to hand each tool over and guide guy's hands over the edges. It took a lot longer.

My next bit is always on safety. I am big on safety (which makes my wife really wonder why I am always maiming myself!). Guy got into the habit years ago to not wear goggles, nor a shield nor a dust mask. We tend to see the goggles or shield (you should wear both) to protect our eyes mostly. To Guy, this was not a major thing, so it became "to prevent having large pieces of wood or big slivers burying themselves in your noggin'". He didn't own a shield or goggles anyway, so I asked him to get some.

When the time came to get familiar with the lathe, I realized that the thing was just sitting on the table, not mounted to anything. So the first hour was spent making a temporary lathe bench with a miter saw roll-away stand, using Guy's tools which were all contained in one small tool box with no order whatsoever. No drill bits, a ratchet with the mechanism that kept falling out, assorted SAE and metric sockets (all the wrong size), one set of spade bits thrown in a little pouch. We finally got it done and the lathe was mounted on the stand safely. (I'll explain why all this information is here later)

The first thing we did was go over, by feel, all the parts of the lathe. An important stop was made to adjust the drive belt from "speed-of-sound-giddy-up-go" to a more managable "as slow as this sucker will go". I had brought a couple of appropriate pieces of lumber to get things going. And to edge things in my favour a bit, I had picked a couple of pieces that had already been rounded, just in case (smart move). To make the exercise more realistic however, I had sawn through the ends to remove the centre marks (dumb move!). We found the centres (by feel) and mounted our first piece on the lathe. I'm not sure if it is possible to get the exact centre marks again when the originals are gone, probably not. Our new centres were a smidgeon off.

"Present the tool, rubbing the bevel, and raise your right hand just until it starts to cut, turn the gouge a tiny bit in the direction of the cut and go for it. Listen to the tool as it slices the wood". Yeah! Sure! You can hear the difference on a nice rounded piece of wood, how about on an out-of-round piece going tic-tic-tic-tic-tic? Guy can sharpen a plane chisel. He is familiar with what a bevel is but how do you "feel" the bevel on an out-of-round piece? That was a tough one. It was at this point that I thought political correctness be damned. By then, the lathe had been on for about 15 seconds, and Guy had made one attempt at finding the bevel. "I don't want to offend, but how blind are you, really?"

"Blind as blind can be" he says, "I can tell the difference between night and day but that's all". I actually felt releaved. The ice was broken and we could get down to business. I asked if it was okay for me to touch his hands and arms to guide him and things took off from there. I basically didn't do much different than I would have for a sighted person. I often "move" someone around or manipulate their hands and arms to achieve the optimum position or to demonstrate moves like "the turner's shuffle". The only difference was that when I teach someone a move to get a better cut, I end up saying something like "See the difference?". In this case, we would stop the lathe so Guy could feel the difference (Though I must admit I did say "See the difference" a few times. Guy would stop and laugh. He was a real good sport about it!)

I had arrived there at about 1:00 pm and by 4:00 pm, Guy was turning on his own. We had one cylinder. A 10 inch cylinder. By my standards as instructor, a complete failure. I normally have someone turning in one hour, and in most cases something useful like a candlestick or a pen. But in this case, I really believe this was a win. I left Guy with a roughing gouge and a bowl gouge and encouraged him to practice. We would meet again in a few days, time permitting.

A personal exercise I conduct after any session is to think back and try to determine if I managed to get everything across the way I wanted to. Did the student understand? Did he/she get their money's worth? What could I have done better? I will often send an email asking for their particular thoughts and ask them how they felt about the session in general. Did they feel short changed in any way? Was there something specific they wanted to learn that was not demonstrated or talked about? I can't grow as an instructor or as a turner without feedback so if I don't automatically get it from a student, I ask for it. I need this.

A week or so later, I accompanied Guy to the store to purchase his own set of chisels which I sharpened for him. As I write this, I realize I may have done the job wrong. In fact, I know I did. I had not seen Guy since that first day and had no idea if he had even tried to turn anything else. I had in mind that as a beginner, a "blind" beginner, this was not the place for wings or agressive edges. I will have to contact Guy and ask for his chisels again. I sharpened them way too tame and I'll have to redo them. Do good intentions count? I was trying to prevent him from injury, if they do.

When I did go back for our second session, he presented me with a number of pieces he had turned using only the two gouges I had left! One turning was a long piece full of coves and beads (remember I only left a roughing gouge and a bowl gouge). He had definitely been practicing! He also cleaned up his small shop which was nice...though we still counldn't find anything!

So, what have I learned from the experience? A number of things which I will now try to pass on. These apply specifically to "physically challenged" people, though some are for everyone.

  • Do not assume that someone who claims to have a shop has the proper space for the proposed activity
  • If things need to be set up in advance (such as a lathe loose on a bench...I told you I'd get back to this!), then plan accordingly or ask that it be done before your visit. If you charge for your time, this is all the more important
  • Check the safety equipment and if you don't supply it, make sure your student has what is required on the appointed day
  • If the student is blind or impaired in any way, make an appointment to judge the level of possible restriction for yourself. Don't take their word for it. It's not a matter of trust, it's a matter of knowing in advance what you'll need to do or bring to do your best as teacher
  • Be forthright, ask point blank "What can you do/not do?", "Is it okay to touch you?", "How blind are you?"
  • Ask how long this has been so. It was only during the second session that I found out Guy lost his sight starting in 2000. He really could visualize certain shapes based on memory. Had he been blind from birth, it might have been different. This probably accounts, in part, for how quick he caught on.
  • Make sure the student knows in advance that you will probably blow it at some point (like saying "See this?" to a blind person) and just ask them to bear with you, stop you and remind you when that happens. Get all your apologies out at the beginning!
  • Be prepared to react at lightning speed if you see something which is heading toward a disaster. Save the situation first, apologize later. A 5 inch piece of wood, spinning at 500 rpm, has a speed of about 650 feet per minute at the outer edge. You don't have time for "Excuse me, may I...."