Open Forum in The Villages, Florida

Life Beyond Sight Loss with Janet Underwood and a Community's Embrace

February 02, 2024 Mike Roth & Howard & Janet Underwood Season 5 Episode 6
Open Forum in The Villages, Florida
Life Beyond Sight Loss with Janet Underwood and a Community's Embrace
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Embark on an inspirational journey with Janet and Howard Underwood, who graciously open up about their transformative life experiences and the power of community in The Villages of Florida. Janet's narrative begins with the challenges she faced after losing her sight at 15, and how this profound change led her to conquer Braille and build an impressive 32-year career with the IRS. Howard, a former litigation attorney, shares anecdotes from his own professional path, reflecting on the intriguing cases that colored his career. Together, they illustrate the resilience of the spirit in the wake of adversity, offering a heartfelt conversation that is bound to engage and inspire.

As we delve further into the lives of those in The Villages, we uncover the breadth of support available for the visually impaired—highlighting groups like the Visually Impaired Persons Support Group and New Vision, and their vital role in fostering integration and independence. Then, we switch gears to explore the vibrant art of improvisational storytelling, where characters like young Billy bring a touch of whimsy to our discussion. Additionally, we examine the evolving landscape of resources for the visually impaired, from innovations in Braille and audiobook technology to the crucial support provided by the Library of Congress. Join us for this enriching episode that intertwines personal triumphs, the latest in Alzheimer's research, transportation insights, and the joy of literary exploration.

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Open Forum in The Villages, Florida is Produced & Directed by Mike Roth
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Emily:

Welcome to the Open Forum in the Villages Florida podcast. In this show we talk to leaders in the community, leaders of clubs and interesting folks who live here in the villages to give perspectives of what is happening here in the villages Florida. We hope to add a new episode most Fridays at 9am. We are a listener supported podcast. There will be shout outs for supporters in episodes. As a supporter you will get a direct email link to Mike. In season 5 we are making significant improvements and changes on an ongoing basis.

Mike Roth:

Now you can help me afford to keep making this podcast by becoming a supporter. First, a quick note about the podcast. It's available because I absolutely love doing it, despite the fact that it cost me probably more time than I can actually afford. Now I can't buy back my time, but there is one thing that you can do that would be really helpful, and that is help me to afford making this podcast. You can do that by going to the website OpenForumInTheVillagesFlorida. com and clicking on the box. We are making a small donation of $3 to $10 a month and you can cancel at any time. Really, a small donation of $3 will still make a difference and I'd really appreciate it, but you can't afford to do that. I completely understand it's economically tough times for a lot of people, but there is something that you can do for free that can really help. If you want to. You can rate the podcast. You can give it 5 stars or maybe even give it a review on whatever podcast application you are using. That will make a huge difference because we will be discovered by more people. If you are able to do that, we would massively appreciate it and it would help keep this podcast going in 2024.

Emily:

If you have a book that you would like to turn into an audio book, let us know via email to mike at rothvoice. com. Hope you enjoy today's show.

Mike Roth:

This is Mike Roth here on Open Forum in The Villages, Florida Today. I'm joined by Janet Underwood and Howard Underwood. Thanks for joining us folks. Thanks for having us. Hi, mike, I wanted to tell us first of all what village you live in the villages in and how long you've been here.

Janet Underwood:

I live in the Village of Amelia and we have been here some September of 2012.

Mike Roth:

Okay, and you came here from, from California Big state. Where did you? What part of California?

Janet Underwood:

The San Francisco Bay area, a little town called Fremont, between Oakland and San Jose.

Mike Roth:

Good, good. What did you do for a living before you came to the villages?

Howard Underwood sometimes as Billy:

I was an attorney in litigation.

Mike Roth:

Okay.

Howard Underwood sometimes as Billy:

Independent practice no, I worked for a gentleman who was in his 80s and had more clients than he knew what to do with, and all the cases were unique and I had a great time.

Mike Roth:

Okay, and Janet, did you work before you came to the villages?

Janet Underwood:

Yes, I did. I worked with the Internal Revenue Service for 32 years.

Mike Roth:

Most people don't know you, janet, but I will tell you, audience, that you are blind. You've been legally blind since you were.

Janet Underwood:

I've been totally blind since I was 15 years old.

Mike Roth:

Okay, and why don't you tell our listeners your story about how you became blind and how you got to work with your IRS? Because that would be a job that a lot of people would think. Well, only someone with a site could do that job. She had to read a computer screen or the books of regulations.

Janet Underwood:

Okay, I'd be happy to. Well, I grew up on a 40-acre farm in northern Virginia. It was about 50 miles out of DC, and Helen Keller was always my hero. I read her story to the point where the pages were falling out of the book and it was funny because my sister and the older of my two brothers learned the sign alphabet. They would spell fingerspell words to each other in messages, but I was never interested in doing that. I said one of these days I'll learn how to read Braille. Little did I know. It was Labor Day weekend of 1965. And my family was on our way to church. We were Catholic and we were going to confession. It was a Saturday afternoon and we were in an automobile accident. In that accident I had the misfortune of having both my parents killed and my optic nerve was severed. So I went from 2020 vision to no vision at all. I was in the hospital for about a month and after I got out of the hospital I went to stay with an aunt and uncle who lived in Alexandria, virginia. I had a home teacher from the Virginia Commission for the Blind come to my aunt's house two to three times a week to teach me how to be a blind person. She taught me how to read Braille and how to write it, and learning to read at 15 is very different than learning how to read when you're five or six. I very quickly learned how to recognize the patterns of the Braille dots, but putting those patterns, those letters, into words was a bit difficult. For example, I was reading along and reading the letters and I read DOG. She says yes, that's good, janet. Now what is that? It's the letters, dog. Ms Hartford, yes, but what is it? It's just a bunch of letters, random letters, but it's something else. It's not. Yes, it is, it's a word. I look at it, dog. I couldn't see anything there but those letters. She said she didn't laugh at me, but I could hear the smile in her voice. Would you like me to tell you what it is? Yes, please, it's dog. I swear. I felt a physical connection in my brain plug in and all of a sudden I was able to see that that, yes, that was the word DOG. The letters made sense. So from there I was able to see words and then I was just reading words and then from reading words it came to putting the words together, to making sentences, etc. But learning to read, and that connection was pretty critical. I had to make that connection in my mind, whereas when you're five or six years old you don't even think about it, it just happens. And when you're 15, it's a little more difficult. I was in the hospital for a month. I got out of the hospital in August and we're in October. I went in in September, got out in October. I started the school at the School for the Blind in after Thanksgiving in November of 1965. And I had to repeat the 10th grade because that first year when I was there I was basically learning blind skills. I was continuing with Braille lessons. I did take some regular classes, but I was learning mobility, how to get around with a cane, how to orient myself to places, and so I went through the 10th grade twice. So my sister and I both graduated in the same year. Darn it, I was older than her by a year, but she and I graduated in the same year. And from high school I went to college. I was accepted at William Mary and that's where I met Howard. He read textbooks to me in college.

Howard Underwood sometimes as Billy:

I read social statistics as the first book. I read all kinds of books after that, but talk about something dry to read to a blind girl that I didn't know. It was quite interesting.

Janet Underwood:

I was a sociology major because I thought this would be a fun major to do. And it was. It was a lot of fun and it was a wonderful background for working with people. Nobody told me it's next to impossible to get a job with a degree in sociology in any kind of a field relating to sociology. So after I got out of college, my counselor with the commission for the blind says would you be interested in working with the internal revenue service? Well, numbers? Well, I'll give it a try. So I went to Little Rock, Arkansas, in December of 1973. I graduated from college in 73. I went to Little Rock, Arkansas, for a one month orientation period to get into their IRS training class and I was accepted in the class. So I went through their training class. It met five days a week, eight hours a day. It was like a job starting in January and going through April and I learned all about tax law. And it was basically tax law because I was training for a job to work on the telephones with the internal revenue service. And when I got out of the training in Little Rock I sent out applications to various offices around the country that I would enjoy working for and I got married right after getting out of Little Rock Howard and I got married in May of 1974. And I sent out job applications to all around the country. In California was one of the places that I had applied for. I went out for a job interview and got hired. A little much to my surprise. I was to start work shortly after I was hired for the job.

Mike Roth:

So what was your job capacity at the IRS?

Janet Underwood:

I started on the telephones. I was in an interim training period. I started as a GS4. I answered telephones in the local Oakland area at that time. It was local phone calls. I answered tax law questions. I had my publications in Braille and I didn't do any accounts work or anything. I answered tax law questions.

Mike Roth:

So the IRS had their law books translated into Braille and you could access those.

Janet Underwood:

The publications, not the code and the regs. Ok, but I didn't use the code and the regs at that time, so I was just using the Braille publications.

Mike Roth:

And how many years did you stay with the IRS?

Janet Underwood:

The IRS for 32 years Now I did quit in the middle there in 1980. In December of 1980, my first son was born and I was going to take a six-month maternity leave, but that turned into six years. I couldn't leave my baby when he was growing and I didn't have to leave him. So I quit, I absolutely quit the IRS and then I came back in December of 1986. At that point my oldest son was six years old. My youngest son was four. I had two boys in that interim. I was a full-time mom and I went back as a GS6 because they didn't have an. When I retired I was a GS9. And when I went back I went as a GS6. But they took me back at the same salary that I left at. But by April of the next year of 87, I was back to being a GS9, back doing the things that I had done before I left. At that point we were answering calls from all over the country. I got training at the accounts area of the IRS. So I was doing installment agreements and releasing levies and giving people back penalties that had been denied because they made a mistake on their tax return when they filled it out. And I also did a lot of teaching. I was in the instructor cadre.

Mike Roth:

OK, so it sounds like you enjoyed working for the IRS I loved it.

Janet Underwood:

I started out on the phones and then in my last what? 10, 12 years, I was working in the walk-in office in downtown Oakland, california.

Mike Roth:

Wow, this is a microthor, dr Craig Curtis, for today's Alzheimer's Tip. Dr Curtis, what is the biggest limitation for Alzheimer's?

Dr Craig Curtis:

research in America, the biggest limitation for Alzheimer's research is our shortage of patients that get involved in clinical research trials. For example, a couple of years ago a report came out that showed there were approximately 25,000 open positions for patients with Alzheimer's disease to get involved in research. Yet only about 7,000 to 8,000 of those positions went filled for the year. So every year we run a deficit in the United States in filling these clinical trials, which in turn slows our overall ability to complete the clinical trials.

Warrren:

With over 20 years of experience studying brain health, Dr Curtis's goal is to educate the village's community on how to live a longer, healthier life. To learn more, visit his website craigcurtismd. com, or call 352-500-5252 to attend a free seminar. How did you get to work every day?

Janet Underwood:

Well, when I first started, we lived in Oakland and so I would take the bus to work. But then the buses went on strike within two weeks of my starting work. So fortunately we were within walking distance of the office where I worked, and so Howard would walk me to work in the morning and then he would walk in and pick me up at night. We didn't have a car, we were just fresh out of college and we used buses, but we were within walking distance of where I worked. And then, after I'd been working with the IRS for a while, we moved from Oakland to Fremont, California, so I would take the BART train, bay Area Rapid Transit, I would take that from home to work. And at first, when we moved into Fremont, California, we were within walking distance of the BART station. So Howard would walk with me to the BART station, and then I learned how to catch the bus. When he was away on a bus trip or some business trip, I would have to take the bus to the BART station, and then, when we bought our house, it was definitely taking the bus to the BART station and then the BART train into work. And then at first I had to take when I would get off the BART train. I would have to take a bus into the office and then when I moved after a while it was the BART station that I got off at was within walking distance of the new BART office when they built the federal building in Oakland. So I was bus and BART and then at the very end, Howard, who was going right past Oakland on his way to work. He would drop me off at the Starbucks. I would get my coffee and I'll walk across the street to my office building.

Mike Roth:

Okay, okay. And what motivated you folks to move to the villages? Where to retire magazine here in the villages Janet, there are villages support group for blind people.

Janet Underwood:

Yes, there's a visually impaired persons support group. They meet. Now they're meeting twice a week, is there? Attendance has grown so much. They meet on the first Thursday of every month at Bridgeport, starting at one o'clock in the afternoon, and now the new group is meeting on the third Monday of every month at EZELL Recreation Center and anyone can attend and if you wish, you can sign up to be a member of their group. They have speakers come in and talk about different things. They've had speakers come in and talk about applications and equipment that's available to help persons with visual issues better to live their lives and I think the last meeting they had someone come in and talk about safety and for the elderly in the villages.

Mike Roth:

How many people are in the villages? Visual of their group.

Janet Underwood:

I don't know how many it is, but I know it's grown big enough so that they now can can easily support two meetings a month.

Howard Underwood sometimes as Billy:

Probably 40 or 50 people at each meeting.

Janet Underwood:

Okay, at least yeah, that much yeah.

Howard Underwood sometimes as Billy:

And they do other things besides the meetings too. They have a group that goes out and plays golf once a month, I believe.

Janet Underwood:

With the Lions Club.

Howard Underwood sometimes as Billy:

And another one that bowls once a month. So they have activities besides just the meetings.

Janet Underwood:

And they have game meetings where they get together and they play games.

Mike Roth:

So they must have a spotter if you're going to play golf.

Howard Underwood sometimes as Billy:

I don't know how they do it. We haven't tried it.

Janet Underwood:

Yeah, they take. They're working with the Lions Club and they have a sighted person with the blind people and I imagine they would set them up like Howard used to do when we would play. I've played golf before. I didn't before I came to the villages, but then Howard took lessons and started playing golf and I said well, he asked me one day would you like to try and hit a ball? We were at the driving range. I said, sure, let me try it, and I hit the ball and I was hooked and that's good.

Mike Roth:

I understand you're involved with a group called New Vision.

Janet Underwood:

Yes, there's an organization. It's a 501c3 organization called New Vision. It may be New Vision for Independence. They have a lot of classes and services you can sign up. You can sign up with them to take lessons. They to teach life skills and teach you how to use equipment. They also have a number of support groups. We have conference calls four days a week, Tuesday through Friday, where you don't even have to be a client of them. Anyone who has a visual impairment can call in. You can call in and we get together. We talk on Tuesdays. It's an hour and a half support group and they generally have a speaker come. In fact, I was one of the speakers one time telling them my life story. Some of the members tell their stories. They also have people come in and talk about guide dog services and different things.

Howard Underwood sometimes as Billy:

There's a different theme for each of the days of the week, each of the days.

Janet Underwood:

On Wednesdays, it's emotional support and we're reading a book about people who have gone through blindness and giving tips on how to deal with certain issues. On Thursdays, it's called Mobility Matters. We talk about mobility issues getting around using various applications that help you to find your way around using your phone. Also, on Fridays, it's Tech Talk, where we talk about various technical applications and equipment. We get together, we talk, we ask questions, we help each other. We're one big family. It's wonderful Good. Why don't you tell?

Mike Roth:

our listeners a little bit about your experience as part of the improvisational theater club or the religious improv club.

Howard Underwood sometimes as Billy:

Before we do that, could you give them the phone number for new visions, because those meetings are all different times? Oh yeah, that would be very important.

Janet Underwood:

Yeah, I've got two phone numbers. I've got one for their office and that number is 352-607-7607. That's to actually call into the office and talk to one of their people, one of their instructors or counselors or organizers. Now the one for the support groups is area code 352-247-7838. And that's to call in to listen to and participate in the support groups, the conference calls.

Mike Roth:

Okay, and let's go on to talk about your experience in the improv club. I remember the night that you and Howard came for the first time. I think we were in the larger auditorium practicing for a show.

Janet Underwood:

Yes, you were, and I didn't know how this was going to work for me. I was there just to watch and see how it worked. Howard actually got a chance to go up and take part in your sound effects skit and I just sat there and watched. But the next week, when we came back, after the show was over and we were back to doing regular meetings, I actually got a chance to get up there and do a little skit and I was just absolutely flying when I left. I was so turned on by the experience. But right at first I was a little nervous and I didn't know exactly what to do. Since then I've relaxed. I've been apart, taking part in a number of shows. I can think pretty quickly on my feet, I think, and I've learned to move around. I don't just stand there and talk. I'm not a talking head any longer. I move around and show a lot of expression and I have a ball.

Mike Roth:

Yeah, as the director, I like what you do on stage because you're one of the best listeners in the group.

Janet Underwood:

That's one of the key things about improv You've got to listen to the people that you're on stage with and respond to what they're saying, go along with what they're saying, even if what they decide they want to talk about didn't fit to what you originally thought the way the skit was going to go, and so you got to be flexible.

Mike Roth:

It rarely goes the way you think it's going to go Absolutely. We just finished two shows on February 3rd and 4th and we'll probably have an additional show coming up at the Joke Joint sometime in late February or late March. Howard, what about your experience in improv?

Howard Underwood sometimes as Billy:

Well, I was first up, but I'm not nearly as good as Janet is. I do enjoy it, though. We have a good time up there. I've gotten a lot better over the years. When I first started, I was tongue-tied a lot and I've gotten somewhat over that.

Mike Roth:

It's not unusual for people to take a while to get used to the improv experience.

Howard Underwood sometimes as Billy:

Well, it took me a fairly long time. Janet, on the other hand, just got up and did it. She didn't have any nervousness, any problems, she just did it.

Mike Roth:

You know, what I like especially is the fact that you created another character, Billy. Can I talk to Billy for a minute? Sure you can talk to me if you want to. Billy, why don't you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Howard Underwood sometimes as Billy:

Oh, all right, I'm a varying age, normally around 12, depends on the circumstances. I enjoy doing improv because my dad lets me do it. He lets me do all kinds of things, like we have one thing where we're in a store and he's one of the managers and he goes off to lingerie I don't know why, but he does and he leaves me in charge of the department. I take all the phone calls and part of the game that we're playing is involved in taking calls, and the first time I did it I completely surprised the guy who's calling in because he had no idea that I existed.

Mike Roth:

Yeah, it worked out very much it did. Using secondary character voices makes improv a lot more interesting, because you never know who that other player is.

Janet Underwood:

Yeah, sometimes Susie shows up, Susie's my little sister.

Mike Roth:

Okay, we've got to get Susie into a show in front of a live audience. I didn't know Susie existed today.

Janet Underwood:

Well, Susie's been practicing at home.

Mike Roth:

Okay, We'll be looking forward to see Susie in a future show. Now I also understand that you get free books from the Library of Congress. How does that work, Janet?

Janet Underwood:

Yes, the Library of Congress has wonderful programs. I love to read, so that was one of the first things that I thought about when I lost my sight was how am I going to be able to read? Well, I learned Braille, but they also have books that you can get. They started out they were on records and then they went to cassette tapes and then to digital cartridges and now they actually have a download program too, and to be a member of this you have to apply through the Library of Congress. I got signed up with it through my counselor, with the Commission for the Blind in Virginia, but anyone who has a visual impairment or has a reading disorder, has a print disorder, is able to get signed up so that you can get free books on digital cartridges or in large print or Braille, depending on your reading circumstances. And they also have a download program where you can get signed up for and they're constantly adding to the download books. I don't have to go anywhere else to get books and I am constantly reading.

Mike Roth:

That's good. That's good. I advocate for audio books. In fact, one of my side hustles is to convert a book that an author has written from text to spoken word using AI. In fact, when I was in college, one of my first jobs was working for recordings for the blind in Manhattan. I don't remember exactly what I did, but I remember being there in the stacks finding stuff and putting stuff away.

Janet Underwood:

Well, with the books that we get, I get through the Library of Congress it's one person doing. Generally it's one person, unless it's a group that's gotten together to do some recorded books for their particular agency. It's generally one person, but they do change their voice and their tone quality and so you do get the impression of multiple people talking. When it's a different person, the conversation goes from one person to another. You pick up on it and you're drawn into the story.

Mike Roth:

I listen to it all the time. When I'm taking distant strides or even just taking a walk around the neighborhood for a half hour, it's easy to put one of those books on and listen to it.

Janet Underwood:

I do my 10,000 or more steps a day walking around the island in my kitchen listening to a book.

Mike Roth:

Janet Howard, is there anything else you want to tell our listeners?

Janet Underwood:

I think we've pretty much covered it. I've enjoyed talking with you and I look forward to seeing people at the visually impaired person's meetings, if they care to come. You don't have to be blind to come, you can come and see what's going on, and they do have volunteers. The Lions Club is very, very active with this group, Howard.

Howard Underwood sometimes as Billy:

Not really, just thank you for having us.

Mike Roth:

Good, I want to ask Janet one last question. Sure, when you I can understand reading Braille, tell our listeners how you write Braille.

Janet Underwood:

Well, and this is a funny story too, because when you're reading Braille, you're running your finger along the Braille dots from left to right, because you read the words in a sentence from left to right, but when you're writing with a Slayton stylus you have to write from right to left, so the letters that you're writing are all backwards. And when I first went to the school for the blind in Stanton, Virginia, and saw a thing called a Perkins Brailler, where you just push keys instead of having to use a stylus to punch the holes in the paper and you didn't have to do it from right to left and do everything backwards, I turned to Ms Hartford, my instructor from the commission, and said why didn't you tell me about this? And she laughed and she said because you never would have learned to do it the other way and you can't put that Perkins Brailler in your pocket.

Mike Roth:

Okay, I guess Apple will have an accessory that you plug into your iPhone to turn audio into text.

Janet Underwood:

Well, Apple doesn't, but I do have a Victor reader, a Victor stream, and I can download a Braille file on there and it turns it to text, so it will read it to me. The only problem with that is if there's punctuation like parentheses or italics or something from within a sentence, it tells you what the punctuation is as well as it's reading oh okay, A little distracting. A little distracting.

Mike Roth:

It's kind of like when I look at a book to see if we can convert it to an audio book. If it's got tables in it like Excel, spreadsheets and that kind of stuff, I turn that job down because it's not something that's suitable to turn into an audio book. Good Thanks, folks, for being with us today.

Howard Underwood sometimes as Billy:

You're quite welcome.

Emily:

Thank you.

Howard Underwood sometimes as Billy:

Thank you for having us.

Emily:

Remember our next episode will be released next Friday at 9 am. Should you want to become a major supporter of the show or have questions, please contact us at mikeatrothvoice. com. This is a shout out for supporters Tweet Coleman, Dan Kappellan, ed Williams and major supporter Dr Craig Curtis at K2 in the villages. We will be hearing more from Dr Curtis with short Alzheimer's tips each week. If you know someone who should be on the show, contact us at mikeatrothvoice. com. We thank everyone for listening to the show. The content of the show is copyrighted by Rothvoice 2024. All rights reserved.

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