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BLIND AMBITION from page 39
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sibly inherit it from him. The disease also
Leber's is similar to the far more com-
mon visual disease of macular degenera-
tion in that central vision is lost, but
peripheral (side) vision remains. Macular
degeneration, however, almost exclusively
afflicts the elderly. In fact, it is the most
common cause of visual loss among sen-
Dr. Skarf compares the disease to bald-
ing: The bald spot is in the middle, with
hair remaining around the edges. With
macular degeneration, the hair loss is
gradual; with Leber's, "it's like being hit
with chemo — the hair falls out sudden-
ly and rapidly."
The Boardwalk • Orchard Lake Rd. • West Bloomfield
In March 1999, Bell began losing vision
in his right eye. He remembers his
despair when, by Pesach, he could barely
read the Haggadah. Within five weeks,
the vision was lost.
Lisa talks about the difficulty the fami-
ly had adjusting the first year. "We just
didn't know what to expect," she says. "I
overreacted, like freaking out when the
kids left toys on the floor that Jeff could
There were frustrating practical diffi-
culties, like Lisa suddenly becoming the
sole driver and "having to do every-
thing." And there was the frustration of
Bell no longer being able to work.
Harder yet were the emotional zings,
the "panic of the unknown," as Lisa calls
it. "It hurt to think that he'd never see
our kids walk down the aisle, that he'd
never see my face again. I couldn't find a
support system; nobody understood. The
[Orthodox] community pitched in to
help, but they were as much stumped as
Little things got to her: "When a wife
has to help her husband with simple
things, it's very emotionally trying. Like
I'd have to sneak back to the kitchen to
rewash the dishes he'd help me with. On
Chanukah, Jeff couldn't light the candles.
Everyone started to cry," she says.
"It doesn't help to be in denial," Bell
says. "You can't assume family members
won't be affected, because they will."
Bell was assigned a counselor at the
Michigan Commission for the Blind and
was taught daily living skills through the
Commission's Vision Handicapped
Services. He tried to learn Braille, but
says it's very difficult to learn as an adult.
Instead, he is learning to use a speech
screen-reading program on the computer.
Although he can no longer read or
drive, Bell maintains his peripheral
vision, so he isn't totally blind. He can
get by in many ways, and can even ride a
bicycle, albeit slowly. He's trained himself
to look directly at people when he speaks
to them, which puts-them at ease. His
blue eyes look focused and "normal" —
it's hard to believe he's not really looking
The most important thing Bell says he
was taught was how to function psycho-
logically. "I was told to realize that I have
two lives: pre-blindness and post-blind-
ness. The thing is to not mix expecta-
dons — we're not frustrated that we can't
fly like a bird, for instance. My life is dif-
ferent now You adapt."
Move To Israel
Nevertheless, Bell's life without sight was
hard in Detroit, especially in the winter-
time with Midwest snow, ice and slip-
In March of 2000, the Bells went to
Israel for a 13-day visit. Both had been
Lisa says she's always wanted to move
to Israel, but this trip clinched it. "I saw
Jeff get off a bus and suddenly realized
— we can live here! He can be inde-
pendent and a mentsch! I felt like a
weight was lifted off my shoulders," she
The Bells made the big move in
"HaShem [God] kept putting things
into our hands," she continues. The
couple found an apartment "right away'
in Ramat Bet Shemesh, a popular new
neighborhood mid-way between
Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The rapidly
growing community of about 1,800
families is about two-thirds Anglo
(immigrants from English-speaking
"It was a wonderfully positive decision
for them to make aliyah," says Dr. Skarf.
"Detroit is the worst possible city for
vision loss; we're completely dependent
on automobiles here."
Besides the availability of public trans-
portation and the improvement in
weather, the Bells point to the Israeli dif-
ference in attitude toward the disabled as
a major factor in their decision to make
"People seem to know instinctively
what to do for each other," says Lisa. "If
you need anything, they're there in a
"It's because Jews feel an obligation to
take care of one another," her husband
Jeff mentions some small accommoda-
tions that make a difference for him:
"Bus drivers announce the bus number
when they open the door for you, and
there is free local busing for the blind."
He laughs: "I have to push old people