Empowering the visually impaired
The aim for Bermuda young visually impaired population should be to get them out of the nest and flying independently, as it is with all children.
This came from a visiting orientation and mobility specialist, Mickey Damelio, who runs Ability Beyond the Horizon, an organisation that seeks to empower the blind and visually impaired around the world, particularly in developing countries. Mr Damelio is also a professor at Florida State University (FSU).
In 2008 he was working with children with visual impairments when he received an e-mail from someone asking if he could help in a school for the blind in Vietnam. He spent a month there working with students and staff.
“I started doing some research and found that 90 percent of people with visual impairments in the world are in a developing country,” he said. “This is because there is a lot of preventable blindness in developing countries due to various health issues. In contrast, more than 90 percent of people trained to work with visual impairments are not in developing countries.”
And he said for a developing country, the government often had seemingly more pressing issues than dealing with its disabled population.
That is why he decided to form Ability Beyond the Horizon four years ago. He was getting ready to spend a summer helping the visually impaired in Sierra Leone when his wife became pregnant.
“She is due in July and we didn’t really want the long flight out there,” he said.
He contacted one of his former students from FSU, Daneika Bean, who is a vision teacher at Prospect Primary.
“She said it would be great for us to come to Bermuda because the Island didn’t really have anything for people who are visually impaired, especially adults,” he said. “The Bermuda Society of the Blind had someone on contract from the United States but that contract had expired and they were looking again for someone. That meant there were lots of people with visual impairments on the Island who were not getting services.”
So Mr Damelio agreed to come to Bermuda for the month of May along with several of his orientation and mobility college students, and train those who were giving services to the visually impaired to become orientation and mobility instructors.
“They can teach cane travel and all of that,” he said. “Then I take the other six para professionals who work with visually impaired students in the schools. I meet with them and teach them basically how to teach their students to become independent. We talk about what blindness and what that means and the problems that arise from visual impairment. We meet every morning five days a week.”
His aim is to improve service delivery for children with visual impairment.
“The main reason that blindness is a problem with kids is incidental learning,” he said. “You don’t have that visual learning that happens so you have these big holes in concepts. You have social skill issues and career skill issues. They don’t know how to get employed. They might have independent living skill issues such as not being able to tie their shoes or brush their own hair.
“Some cultures tend to feel that is just part of being blind,” he said. “So they perpetuate the disability by not ever attempting to teach those skills. In Vietnam and India I found kids who were 12 or 13 years old who were still being bathed every day by someone. There was nothing wrong with them, they just couldn’t see. Most of them weren’t even totally blind, but somewhat visually impaired.”
He said the community should be aiming for visually impaired children to become fully functioning, independent adults.
“If we want these kids to be functioning members of society that is not going to happen with an adult hovering over them all the time,” he said.
He became interested in the profession as a college student. He was working part time in a mattress store and didn’t really know what to do with his life. He questioned many customers who came through the store about their careers. Then one day a lady came in who said she worked with visually impaired children.
“I thought that was different,” he said. “She said have you ever thought about doing that as a career. I said no, I never thought about blind kids needing teachers. It sounded interesting so I set up a job shadowing kind of thing and fell in love with it. I taught for seven years in the school system.”
Later he was hired to the faculty at FSU. He now coordinates their orientation and mobility programme and spends his summers helping the visually impaired in countries such as India and Vietnam.
“I like travelling,” he said. “I don’t like knowing that I have a skill set that could be really valuable to 90 percent of the people in developing countries. I feel some sort of obligation to help out with that.”
For more information, see his website at www.abilitybeyondthehorizon.org .