Helping the blind like he once was

When he was an orphaned schoolboy, adults refused to believe he was going blind and he struggled through school barely able to read.

HELPFUL HANDS: Rehab employees Thandeka Saleni, left, and Phumza Selwadda are training to become mobility and orientation practitioners for the blind. Rehab director Rueben Puchert, who is himself blind, says there is an urgent need to help the region’s blind and partially-sighted people Picture: BARBARA HOLLANDS

But now Rueben Puchert is ensuring the Eastern Cape’s blind people will get the help they need.

As director of the Association for the Rehabilitation of Persons with Disability (Rehab) in East London – a position for which he volunteers and receives no salary – Puchert has first-hand knowledge of what it means to exist in a world designed for people who can see.

“I had juvenile macular degeneration which came into effect a few months after my mother died when I was 10 years old, but adults thought I was looking for attention and so I left school after Standard 8 because of my poor eyesight,” said Puchert.

He was eventually helped by the Society for the Blind, which trained him as a switchboard operator.

It was not until he was in his late 20s that he was able to acquire a “reading machine”, which scanned written material onto a TV screen.

It changed his life.

Puchert has not forgotten how the East London Society for the Blind bought him a less cumbersome reading machine. It was this that, after getting his matric, enabled him to obtain a BA degree at the (then) University of Port Elizabeth (Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University).

He went on to become an “IT guru” and served as the director of IT with the provincial department of health in Bhisho, until his dwindling eyesight forced him to retire in February last year.

His connection to Rehab was triggered when he approached the NPO to ask for mobility training since he now has just 5% of his eyesight.

“I was becoming an embarrassment to myself and those with me because I would bump into people at the mall, so I thought I should get a white cane so people could immediately tell I am blind.”

When he was told the financially beleaguered organisation no longer had the funds to fulfil this function, Puchert knew he had to help.

“I could not just walk away. I had had a very successful career thanks to help from Society for the Blind, so I became a board member for Rehab and when the director was retrenched a year ago I volunteered to do the job at no cost,” he said.

Puchert wasted no time in ensuring that two Rehab community developers – Thandeka Saleni and Phumza Selwadda – attend a two-year diploma course at the South African Guide Dogs for the Blind in Johannesburg.

“At the moment there is no-one rendering that service here, even though there are about 16500 blind people in the Amathole district, so the need is huge.

“They will be able to teach blind people to be mobile and also to dress themselves, make coffee and shave.”

Saleni and Selwadda, who have already completed part of the training and are fulfilling a practical component of their course at Rehab, said much of their training consisted of being blindfolded and performing daily tasks so that they could understand their patients’ struggles.

They enthusiastically showed the blindfolded Dispatch reporter how to pour a glass of water and distinguish between bank notes.

“It feels very good to put ourselves in the shoes of a blind person and makes us want to help them even more,” said Saleni.

“I have told them: ‘I will be your first student’,” said Puchert. —