Magazine article The Exceptional Parent

Abraham Nemeth

Magazine article The Exceptional Parent

Abraham Nemeth

Article excerpt

Dr. Abraham Nemeth has led a long and interesting life--one that is difficult to condense to a few magazine pages. Nemeth, who was born blind, became a renowned scholar of mathematics--a field once considered too difficult for people without usable vision. Creator of the Nemeth code for Braille mathematics, he was a professor of mathematics for 30 years at the University of Detroit. He retired in 1985.

"Retired" is a relative term, however, and Nemeth has remained very active. He serves on the Research and Development Committee of the National Federation of the Blind, through which he has developed a talking scientific calculator. Currently, he is working to upgrade this calculator by making it programmable. He recently completed a two-year term as chairman of the Michigan Commission for the Blind.

I was born in 1918 on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. I grew up in a very close and loving family. My parents were immigrants and lacked formal education. They knew nothing about blindness, but had an innate understanding of what was necessary to raise a blind child.

Without realizing it, my father taught me what today would be called mobility and orientation. Whenever we were out walking, he would describe the landmarks we were passing and say things like "Now, we are walking west, and when we make a left turn, we will be walking south. Listen to the traffic. All of it is going in the same direction on this street. But when we get to the next street, you will notice that all the traffic starts traveling in the opposite direction."

My father encouraged me to touch the raised letters on mailboxes, fire hydrants and police and fire call boxes. That's how I learned the letters of the alphabet.

My mother was equally perceptive in dealing with my blindness. When I was very young, she would send me on a trip to the grocery store. She would give me five or six items to memorize, and tell me exactly what to buy and in what quantity. Of course, the grocery store was just around the corner and my grandfather was the grocer. But, I was very diligent in remembering every single item and would bring back everything she had asked for.

My parents also bought me a tricycle. Now remember, I had no sight at all. My father told me that I could ride the tricycle around the block, but that I must remember to make a right turn every time I came to a corner. "Ride slowly," he told me. "Don't bump into anybody, and come back here." That's what I did. I rode my tricycle around the block, and I came back home. One time, my brother, Aaron, and I went on some kind of an expedition. We got separated, and my brother, who had normal vision, got lost; I came home.

A curious little fellow

One of my uncles was a handyman. He taught me to thread electrical wire through walls and replace light bulbs. I was fascinated by the way things went together.

This mechanical sense got me in trouble one day, however. In my grandfather's grocery store, he had an icebox which was mounted over a sink. As the ice melted, the water would drain into the sink through a rubber hose. I was a curious little fellow, and one day I went around to the back of the store and discovered this hose trailing to the sink. My mechanical sense told me the end of that hose should be connected to something. So, I felt around and happened upon the faucet. "Aha," I thought, "this hose must belong on the faucet!" I connected the hose to the faucet and left the store, proud of having corrected my grandfather's obvious oversight. A few hours later, I was confronted by my grandfather. I will end the story here.

Learning to fend for myself

My father did not overprotect me. You know, kids will tease a blind kid. They would get after me, and I would yell, "Pa, he hit me."

My father would ask, "So, why didn't he hit me?"

He was trying to teach me to fend for myself. One time, in the park, a sighted kid was teasing me. …

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