According to VisionServe Alliance, a forum of U.S. and Canadian organizations working to build a better world for people with vision loss, at least 12 million people in the U.S. age 60 and older report significant difficulty seeing. In addition, at least half of Americans aged 65 and older are at high risk of developing eye diseases such as glaucoma, macular degeneration, and diabetic retinopathy, which can lead to vision loss and blindness.
For many people, vision loss is accompanied by a loss of independence. What were once routine daily activities – grocery shopping, preparing a meal, making a bed, or paying bills – become anything but routine, and frequently require assistance from loved ones or caregivers.
People who are blind or low vision can regain their independence through training and rehabilitation services. In addition to providing employment opportunities, many NIB associated nonprofit agencies offer these services to the wider community at little to no cost.
Visionary Solutions at Bosma Enterprises
The Bosma Center for Visionary Solutions in Indianapolis, Indiana, – the state’s largest and most comprehensive provider of rehabilitation and training for people who are blind or visually impaired – is a division within NIB associated agency Bosma Enterprises that serves more than 800 clients each year. The center is a 15,000-square-foot building where clients receive personalized, hands-on training.
“We take a multidisciplinary approach based on the client’s needs,” Bosma Vice President of Program Services James Michaels explains. “First, we teach people how to travel safely using a white cane. We start indoors to build confidence. Then we move to stairs, then outside to residential areas. Eventually, clients learn how to safely navigate busy city streets and use public transportation.”
Training components include household management, assistive technology, keyboarding and computer training, braille instruction, job readiness, and more. The center-based program provides personalized instruction over a 3-to-4-month period, with up to six classes per day. Bosma’s training is offered to any Indiana resident who is visually impaired or blind at little or no cost.
The center offers a community-based service program designed specifically for people aged 55 and older. Staff travel to clients’ homes to provide training and tools to help them live independently with confidence.
Services are personalized for each client, but run the gamut from vision assessments to introduction to low-vision aids, in-home custom training, and in-home orientation, allowing clients to navigate safely in their homes. Clients receive up to six hours of training at no cost thanks to a federal grant that funds the service.
To help people who are blind or visually impaired feel less isolated, the center created Bosma Connections, a call-in telephone program where senior clients can join in educational sessions, discussions with peers, and other activities.
“It helps people stay connected,” Michaels says. “Participants can do crossword puzzles together or play trivia games. One group started a book club, and we host guest speakers on a number of topics.”
Teaming Up to Focus On Prevention
“Many eye diseases are preventable. The key is to catch them early,” says Jennifer Boutte, vice president of community engagement for NIB associated agency Goodwill Vision Enterprises (GVE) in Rochester, New York. She explains that unfortunately, regular eye screenings are out of reach for many Americans, either due to poor or no insurance or a lack of accessibility.
To address this issue in the Rochester community, GVE, formerly the Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired, partnered with the University of Rochester’s Flaum Eye Institute to open a 5,300-square-foot suite in the Sterns Center for Low Vision in the city’s downtown. The suite offers comprehensive care, including low vision exams; screening for diabetes, cataracts, and glaucoma; and opportunities to obtain glasses and contact lenses at low or no cost. The center’s location on a city bus route makes it accessible to residents from neighborhoods with limited access to regular eye care, as well as low vision clients referred by GVE.
The suite boasts six exam rooms, two of which are dedicated to providing low vision exams on a daily basis, along with procedure rooms and an optical shop. Through its partnership with the Flaum Eye Institute, the two dedicated low vision exam rooms have helped GVE reduce the wait time for a low vision appointment from more than six weeks to just two weeks.
Irenesa Olmo has only visited the new facility, but she knows firsthand how vital access to vision care is. Olmo’s previous employer told her about the agency’s low vision center nearly a decade ago, after she admitted having difficulties with reading a computer screen. “Until I contacted the low vision center, I didn’t realize there was adaptive technology that could assist with the issues I was experiencing,” says Olmo. Through the low vision center, Olmo received items that help her with day-to-day activities around the house, as well as adaptive technology that helps her carry out daily work responsibilities.
“The partnership between Goodwill Vision Enterprises and the Flaum Eye Institute is important because it brings the best of both worlds together,” says Olmo. “The experience and the expertise are now under one roof, allowing the two organizations to continue providing much needed services to our community.”
“This is a joint effort that makes sense for both organizations,” explains David DiLoreto, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Flaum Eye Institute and chair of ophthalmology at the University of Rochester Medical Center. “It advances our shared mission of delivering eye care to our community and working to preserve sight.”
Resources for Independent Living at Austin Lighthouse
In Texas, the Travis Association for the Blind, more commonly known as the Austin Lighthouse, recently put the finishing touches on an onsite independent living training center specifically designed for individuals age 55 and older who have experienced vision loss or blindness. The center, a model efficiency-style apartment, will offer individualized training on basic housekeeping and living skills, such as making a bed, setting a dinner table, and sorting and identifying items like clothing and canned goods, as well as tips and tools for marking appliances.
As part of the agency’s independent living services, individuals will also receive orientation and mobility training from certified staff members. Group training will be offered in the center’s kitchen area.
“There’s definitely a need for this center,” says Austin Lighthouse Vice President of Mission Services Vince Boyd. He noted that more than 200 people in the Austin region are on the Texas Workforce Commission’s (TWC) referral list to receive such training.
Individuals referred to the Lighthouse through the TWC are authorized to receive up to six hours of independent living training at no cost. The training can be broken up over the course of a month based on clients’ needs and, if necessary, extended for an additional six hours. The Lighthouse also employs two staff members who can provide independent living training in peoples’ homes.
Lighthouse staff work one-on-one with clients to assess their initial skill levels, then offer individualized assistive technology courses to enhance those skills. Courses include training in popular software programs such JAWS (job access with speech) and ZoomText, in addition to keyboarding.
Boyd says the demand for all types of training, whether independent living, orientation and mobility, or assistive technology skills, will only increase as Americans age. In many communities, NIB associated agencies will be there to help people who are blind live as independently as possible.