Metro-East Living

Collinsville woman adapts to life after blindness

Dee Norenberg with Sierra, one of her three dogs. She and husband David live in Collinsville. Dee, who is blind, credits classes through Hadley School for the Blind with helping her become more independent.
Dee Norenberg with Sierra, one of her three dogs. She and husband David live in Collinsville. Dee, who is blind, credits classes through Hadley School for the Blind with helping her become more independent. mhouston@bnd.com

Dee Norenberg has a husband who adores her, three dogs that keep her busy and a big challenge every day of her life.

“I am totally blind,” said the 50-year-old petite Collinsville woman who has short salt-and-pepper hair and a chatty personality. “I was born totally blind. I had cataracts removed. I had limited vision till age 30 or so, then my glaucoma got out of control. ... My vision lasted a lot longer than they said it was going to. I was pleased with that.”

About 15 years ago, she started having problems with mobility.

“I wasn’t able to walk along safely. My sight was going really bad. I started college. I starting losing a lot more vision. I was in business school at the time, Heartland Business School in Jacksonville. I thought, ‘I will take time off and get my skills worked on. Someone in the blind community brought up Hadley (School for the Blind) courses. I took a couple back then and went back to college. I started taking classes again in 2002-2003. I was an empty-nester. I was interested in exercising my mind.”

She pulls out certificates from an envelope. Each one represents a class she completed:

Old Testament (“I just got materials for the New Testament. Audio. The Bible is quite a challenge to read in Braille. Trust me.”)

Nemeth Code (“the Braille version of how you write out math”)

Chess (“That one was for my husband. I really tried hard, but I didn’t like it at all. I did it once. I said, ‘You know what? Let’s put this away. Now.’”)

Personality psychology (“I loved it. It was a wonderful course. I hope they get some more.”)

Great thing about the classes? They’re free.

The Hadley School for the Blind has been around since 1920. Its mission: Promote independent living through lifelong, distance education programs for people who are blind or visually impaired, their families and blindness service providers. The world’s largest educator of Braille, Hadley serves nearly 10,000 students in all 50 states and 100 countries each year.

Dee is happy to be one of them.

“Hadley has given me the ability to use Braille. I started learning Braille seven years ago at age 43. That was hard. They have a way to position your hands. Eventually, you kind of make your own. I am right-handed, but sometimes I will read with my left hand.”

The courses give Dee more independence.

“They gave me the ability to label food. I can write out recipes now. ... I can pull out Braille cards I put them on. Banking, I do that now. I don’t have to have someone read my bank statements for me. I read it, keep track.”

Another bonus?

“By taking the courses kind of close together, I get a service called Bookshare. You download textbooks and any books for free as long as you show you are a student. They range from Obama’s books to mystery books. You download them to your iPhone where you have an app, Voicedream. ... It was a one-time payment of $20.”

From the start

Dee grew up the youngest of five children in Dewey, a small community north of Champaign.

“You will never find it,” she said. “It’s smaller than (the community where she lives). It’s a little farming community. There are maybe 30 houses, about three streets.”

She attended grade school in Champaign, junior high and part of the first year of high school in Fisher, 3 miles from Dewey.

“When I was teased, I would walk home. It was three miles. Nobody at school noticed I was gone.”

Dee finished high school at Illinois School for Visually Impaired in Jacksonville where she met her husband.

We were high school sweethearts. If I hadn’t gone to Illinois School for Visually Impaired, I wouldn’t have met David. It would have been a great loss in my life. We’ve been married 30 1/2 years.

Dee Norenberg talking about her husband

“We were high school sweethearts. If I hadn’t gone to Illinois School for Visually Impaired, I wouldn’t have met David. It would have been a great loss in my life. We’ve been married 30  1/2 years.”

David, also visually impaired, worked for the school until being put on medical disability. They moved to Glen Carbon in 1996. They bought a home in Collinsville 17 years ago.

“In Glen Carbon, the city bus went every hour in each direction,” said Dee. “We could coordinate grocery time. We could get through Schnucks in 20 minutes and get back home on the next bus.”

Now, they rely on rides from Collinsville’s Faith in Action, a volunteer organization that provides services to seniors and the disabled.

“We use them for transportation to doctors appointments and shopping,” said Dee. “They just can’t be beat. They go out of their way to be kind. Volunteers are what makes it.”

Her husband helps her every step of the way.

“David taught me everything, how to cook, get around by myself. David is a very caring and honest person. He got me my first Papillon, and said, ‘This is something to cuddle.’ It was a little bitty 2-pound puppy. Its name was Treasure. It lived up to its name. It helped me a lot.”

Now, the Norenbergs have three dogs, Sierra Rose, a minature Papillon, Patches, a standard Papillon and Trigger, a German shepherd.

“I keep busy, as busy as I want to be,” said Dee. “I have a very relaxed life. I have my husband, my puppies. It’s actually kind of a dream come true. My puppies are like my kids. We take them out in the front yard on a long leash and let them run back and forth.”

She enjoys cooking. So does David.

“In fact, when Thanksgiving comes around, we cook it together,” said Dee. “Everything is in a certain place in the kitchen. I know where it is.”

“I let her set up the kitchen,” said David, who carved notches in the oven nobs.

“He used a dental tool and put notches every 50 degrees,” said Dee.

Raised tactile markers help her use the microwave.

“There are different-size puffy dots for each number, start and stop, clear and a few settings I use frequently. On number 5, I have a square. It’s a tactile thing. I do all kinds of things like that throughout the house.”

What about when something goes missing?

“We look all around for it like anyone else,” said Dee.

“Just because you are blind doesn’t mean life is over. You work around it and life moves on. ... There are limits. Darn it, I can’t drive the garden tractor to mow the lawn, but David will let me on when he’s mowing.”

Three questions for Dee

  • Hardest part of being blind? “I miss seeing Christmas lights. I know that sounds silly, but I miss that. It’s a small thing. People will ask, ‘Don’t you want to see pictures of people?’ People are up here (in my head). It’s better than what I could see.”
  • Memorable once-in-a-lifetime experience? “My husband gave me my only experience driving. We had a truck. He took me out on this back country road that split the corn fields. On each side was a ditch. Of course, there were potholes in the road. I went down that road and missed every pothole. I never landed in the ditch. I had very limited vision. I was freaking out at first. It was scary, but I got the hang of it. As I got confident, I raised the speed. But I wasn’t putting the pedal to the metal. The more limited your vision is, the harder it is to process things that are coming at you fast. I went home and was so excited. It was my one and only driving experience.”
  • Favorite picture in her head? “I wouldn’t say this is the last thing I saw, but when I think of a happy thing, I was very blessed to see my daughter when she was born. We are estranged now. But the sight of my newborn daughter will always be up here, the first time I saw her and held her. The last person I saw was David and that was great, too.”

Holiday cards and note cards

  • Benefit: The Hadley School for the Blind (www.hadley.edu), based in Winnetka
  • About the school: Founded in 1920, the school’s mission is to promote independent living through lifelong, distance education programs for people who are blind or visually impaired, their families and blindness service providers. The world’s largest educator of Braille, Hadley serves nearly 10,000 students in all 50 states and 100 countries each year and thousands more through Seminars@Hadley, free “just in time” webinars on a variety of vision-related topics.
  • Holiday card design: An old-fashioned embossed sled resting against a snowy fence adorned with garland and winter berries. The cards carry the greeting, “Wishing you peace, happiness and the spirit of the season” in both print and Braille.
  • Designer: Artist Jennifer Beacom, of Wilmette
  • Cost: A box of 25 is $35. Coordinating gift tags are also available. These folded 3x3 inch gift tags come festively packaged in cellophane and tied with ribbon. The gift tags are $20 for a pack of 20, including shipping.
  • New this year: A 4-by-6-inch notecard set of 12 cards and envelopes. The original watercolor artwork for the stationery was inspired by two nature scenes (six cards per scene) taking place in the Marylou Hayford Sensory Garden at The Hadley School for the Blind.
  • Information: Call 800-323-4238 or visit www.hadley.edu/holidaycard. Cards are available through Dec. 16.
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