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Blind man is a light in the darkness for his peers

April 23, 2000|By ANDREA ROWLAND

Tom Rothrock's briefcase isn't filled with folders, pens and a day planner.

It's packed with the miniature plastic vegetables, elongated fire-resistant oven gloves, liquid level indicators, signature guides, plug ejectors, "20/20 pens," bold-lined paper, talking clocks and other gadgets that he uses to teach blind people independent living and coping skills.

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It's all about the blind helping the blind.

"Things go better with cope," said Rothrock, 54, a blind person since birth who has served for 30 years as a rehabilitation specialist with the Division of Rehabilitation Services for the state Department of Education.

His office is on the fourth floor of the Professional Arts building in downtown Hagerstown.

Rothrock taps his "eyeball" side to side on the pavement leading from busy Washington Street to the building's entrance. The metal walking stick is "bent like a pretzel" from being run over by a car exiting the alley which Rothrock was preparing to cross, he said.

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He forgoes the stairs for the elevator. Experience guides Rothrock's fingers to the raised floor numbers on the panel. He pushes "4."

The Hagerstown resident hooks his walking stick over his office door and grabs his briefcase.

Its contents and its owner's patient ear and willingness to share his own experiences with blindness have over the years helped countless other blind people gain the skills they need to lead productive lives.

"I think the only difference between people with disabilities and people without disabilities is the disability," Rothrock said.

He now serves 30 to 40 clients, all of whom have joined or are preparing to join the work force, he said.

"Tom brings (to the agency) a great deal of wit and humor and that helps tremendously at creating a comfortable environment," said Administrative Supervisor Mary Dudderar.

"He's a dedicated person who really cares about the people who he works with."

The state Division of Rehabilitation Services, which has been in place since 1929, helps people with disabilities find and maintain employment, Dudderar said.

The agency works with and supports other state and local programs, including the county Board of Education, to ensure that the transition of people with disabilities into the work force is as smooth as possible, she added.

Rothrock serves blind and partially blind clients in Washington, Garrett, Allegany and Carroll counties. He also provides disabilities awareness training to employers.

He teaches Braille reading and writing and gives hints that make everyday living easier. Enter the briefcase.

The plastic veggies looped to elastic strings help identify canned goods. Broad black lines on sheets of paper and 20/20 pens with wide tips enable partially blind people to write with more ease.

Metal prongs on a liquid level indicator activate a buzzer when a cup is nearly full, and adhesive "Bump-Dots" can be applied as indicators on such surfaces as oven temperature controls.

Rothrock pulls a dollar bill from his wallet. He folds it four different ways - a different fold for $1, $5, $10 and $20 bills.

It's a method he's devised to distinguish between denominations, after a "person you trust" tells which bill is which, he said.

Rothrock has been known to describe himself as "S.O.B.," he said, laughing. He means "sort of brilliant."

He earned his master's degree in vocational rehabilitation from Indiana University and decided to help other blind people to "make a contribution," he said.

Rothrock rarely meets clients in his office, which contains a computer equipped to scan written documents and convert the print to audio. A switch allows Rothrock to choose between regular and Braille printers. Raised notches on three computer keys orient Rothrock when typing.

With the help of a volunteer driver, Rothrock almost always offers his services to clients in their own homes.

"Transportation, as you know, is a big problem for blind people," he said.

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