When Blind and Vision Rehabilitation Services (BVRS) of Pittsburgh opened its doors as a manufacturer in 1910, no one could have imagined the opportunities it would present to people who are blind or visually impaired in 2022.

Over the years, the NIB associated nonprofit agency has pursued cutting-edge employment opportunities and training while never forgetting to “honor our past and how it’s brought us to the present,” says Vice President of External Affairs Leslie Montgomery. Although BVRS has evolved with the times, its mission remains unchanged: To provide rehabilitation, training, and jobs to enable people with vision loss to lead independent lives.

In recent years, the BVRS access technology center has built a reputation for helping people with vision loss gain proficiency in the use of computers, software, and other electronic devices. Beyond basic proficiency, the center also provides advanced assistive technology training through the Professional Mastery of Office Technology for Employment (ProMOTE) program.

women who are visually impaired doing yoga

Putting Health and Fitness First

BVRS’ latest endeavor — Blue Awning Yoga and Wellness Studio — is the first yoga studio in the country to focus on the fitness needs of people who are blind or visually impaired while also offering them jobs. The idea came about when BVRS President Erika Petach recalled speaking with an employee who said she couldn’t join a gym because her visual impairment was perceived as a liability risk.

Petach, an enthusiastic fitness proponent, realized yoga could be a perfect activity for people who are blind, because it relies on verbal cues from an instructor, with participants determining what feels best for their body. Petach spoke with studio owners, developed a business plan, and obtained grant money to train instructors.

Blue Awning launched in March 2020 — just in time to be shut down by COVID-19. Undeterred, the studio offered virtual programs throughout the pandemic, holding a grand reopening celebration in April 2022, complete with a complimentary yoga class and rooftop reception.

Blue Awning offers 15 yoga classes weekly, virtually and in-person, for a small fee. The studio also offers other NIB agencies private virtual yoga classes. “I love that NIB agencies can support their people and each other in this way,” Petach says.

“What Blue Awning is doing is really revolutionary. It’s saying, ‘yes, people who are blind can do this,’ both as an instructor and as a student,” says Annie Lapidus, the center’s first certified yoga instructor. “We’re showing that people who are blind can find their niche and follow their passion.”

An advocate for inclusion and accessibility, Lapidus, who lost her eyesight a few years after she completed college, has served as a consultant for the Carnegie museums and an immersive theater group, identifying existing barriers and finding ways to make people feel welcome. “People with disabilities are often overlooked, and that’s very isolating,” she explains. “I don’t want blindness to ever be a barrier to people reaching their goals.”

In her yoga classes, Lapidus describes poses and offers suggestions for modifying positions. She focuses on poses that are easily adaptable, such as gentle yoga and chair yoga. “I get lots of feedback on how calming our class is,” she says. “I’m happy we’re giving access to individuals who generally don’t have it.”

Vivian Bowser, Blue Awning’s first personal trainer, received rehabilitation training at BVRS as a high school student before attending college. Now certified as a personal trainer, she returned to BVRS to start her career.

Bowser encourages people with disabilities to pursue their personal goals, noting that “following another’s path isn’t always the right thing – you have to find your own way and go after your dreams.”

exterior shot of the Blind and Vision Rehabilitation Services building

Employing People With Vision Loss

BVRS also employs 88 people in manufacturing, sewing, and contracting operations, producing quality products for commercial, state, and federal customers while providing training and good jobs for people who are blind.

The agency’s manufacturing and assembly division produces a wide variety of products, from air filters for nuclear submarines to surgical kits. Lance Ayers, who came to BVRS for training in accessible technology while in high school, returned as a utility worker after college.

Over the next five years, he was promoted to shipping and receiving coordinator and was named the agency’s employee of the year in 2018.

Ayers enjoys the variety of opportunities available. This summer, he is attending the Business Essentials program offered by NIB’s talent management enterprise NSITE. Designed for employees interested in learning about business strategies and operations, the program teaches participants about decision-making, finance, and budgeting in business.

Joanne Johnson began work in the BVRS sewing program four years ago, even though she had no sewing experience. Now she is a textiles team leader who fills in for the unit supervisor when needed, guiding coworkers and ensuring timely shipments. Named the agency’s employee of the year in 2020, Johnson says “I really like the people I work

with, everyone’s very supportive of one another. I love my work and the organization and what it stands for.”

After taking a break to raise children, reentering the workforce was difficult for Cathy Martina, who developed vision problems as an adult. She came to BVRS for rehabilitation training and ended up working on a contract with the IRS. The training and assistive technology provided by BVRS helped her overcome employment barriers and not only succeed in the workplace, but be named the agency’s 2022 employee of the year.

“Learning I was losing my sight was a shock, but BVRS opened my eyes to the possibilities of what I could do,” she says. “It’s gratifying to be able to get out there and contribute.”

“Renewal of hope is what we work toward,” Petach says. “For an individual who is blind to interact with other people who are blind and know they are succeeding at what they really want to do, is more impactful than anything I, as a sighted person, can say.”