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Challenges faced by visually impaired brought into focus

For people who have just lost their vision, getting from one point to another can be disorienting and intimidating.

That is where Jane Charlton steps in. As a vision rehabilitation therapist and a specialist in orientation and mobility, she teaches the visually impaired how to lead more independent lives.

Ms Charlton is helping the Bermuda Society for the Blind develop programmes and services to meet the needs of its clients. The Madison, Wisconsin resident is currently surveying people with visual impairments here and assessing the community’s needs.

“Sixteen or 17 years ago I took a job with the Wisconsin State of Health,” she said. “At that time I was looking for a position that didn’t necessarily have to do with the blind, but I wanted to work in the healthcare field. Both my parents are legally blind and my brother is quadriplegic.”

Her parents suffered macular degeneration in their later years, a common vision issue for older people.

“My parents had low vision,” she said. “Folks lose vision related to a lot of age-related eye conditions. Often, we take for granted being able to do certain things independently. Then all of the sudden when you do lose some vision, it is frustrating. That loss of independence can be devastating for people.

“I did have the benefit of watching my parents adapt and learn new ways of doing things and dealing with everyday situations. Cooking was a challenge for my mom. She lived to cook and entertain. For my dad, in addition to the macular degeneration he also had some hearing loss. You had to speak right into his ear for him to hear. My dad got to the point where he didn’t want to have company over because it was hard for him to follow conversations. He didn’t really know who was speaking. That was hard on my mom as she loved to have people over. It can be very isolating and somewhat depressing. You get really stuck. They did adjust, though, incredibly well.”

Today there are many types of adaptive technologies that can make life easier for people with visual impairments. There are telephones that will read out a text message, talking microwaves and stoves that have Braille timers on them.

Many people have told Ms Charlton that accessing these technologies in Bermuda can be frustrating and expensive.

“In the future, the Bermuda Society for the Blind might order some of that stuff from overseas,” she said. “There are mail order catalogues that can ship things here. A lot of folks weren’t aware of that. With high-tech things, the Bermuda Society of the Blind could maybe serve as a place to display some of this equipment or provide demonstrations and workshops about it. That way people could learn about it, and then decide if it would benefit them, rather than buying it and then deciding if it is useful.”

She’s also helping the Bermuda Society for the Blind with a new mission statement as it looks to establish new programmes and services.

“I think it is more difficult here because there have never been services in place before,” said Ms Charlton. “The Society, up until this point, has been primarily a workshop. This is the first time they are exploring the idea of offering programmes and services direct to people, and programming works and training to reach a wider group of people who are visually impaired. They also want to educate the general public about vision loss. The reason that it is more difficult here is that we are starting from scratch. The positive thing about this though, is that we can create the kind of programme that best meets the needs of the people.”

A 2009 Bermuda Society for the Blind survey found 107 people here who were blind or visually impaired. They expressed high need for recreational outlets, help getting around in the community, employment opportunities and education.

Said Society president Amanda Marshall of Ms Charlton’s work: “She is doing that individualised needs assessment that, in combination with the survey results, will help us get the full picture that we need to decide what goods and services to develop here that will actually be utilised.”

Dr Marshall hoped to have new programmes running by this time next year. However, they still have to get through a period of fundraising to achieve their goals, which may involve the hiring of trained staff, and possibly additions or adjustments to their building on Beacon Street in Hamilton. One idea that is being considered is having a centre with a living room, kitchen, bedroom and bathroom inside. The rooms would have different types of adaptive technology in them. For example, the kitchen might have a talking microwave. The rooms would be used to teach people with visual impairments how to use the new technology in their day-to-day lives.

“The alternative is that a staff person would go to people’s homes and do the training there,” said Dr Marshall. “So those are the kinds of decisions we have to make over the next three to six months.”

For more information about the Bermuda Society for the Blind telephone 292-3231.

Useful websites: www3.sympatico.ca/tamru/; adaptivetech.tcnj.edu/resheet/blind.htm.

Jane Charlton vision rehabilitation specialist and orientation and mobility expert. ( Photo by Glenn Tucker )

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Published December 11, 2012 at 8:00 am (Updated December 10, 2012 at 4:18 pm)

Challenges faced by visually impaired brought into focus

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