Thursday, March 20, 2008

Visually impaired governor is a source of inspiration!

Today marks a new era for New York state as David Paterson becomes not only the state’s first black governor, but its first legally blind governor.And according to the staff at the Chautauqua Blind Association, the precedent is a source of inspiration.‘‘It’s exciting for visually impaired people everywhere,’’ said Lisa Lane-Gniewecki, the association’s executive director.

‘‘To see him rise to this level, he will probably end up a role model for young people and even the elderly with visual impairments across the nation.’’Contrary to what many believe, a person who is legally blind can usually see more than total darkness. According to Ms. Lane, a person is legally blind when their ‘‘best corrected visual sharpness is 20/200,’’ or need to be as close as 20 feet to identify objects that people with normal vision can spot from 200 feet away.

The Chautauqua Blind Association serves more than 800 clients in Chautauqua and Cattaraugus counties, according to Andrea Hatfield, rehabilitation teaching assistant and certified occupational therapy assistant.She explained that the association’s overall mission is to ‘‘enable visually impaired people to be active members of their community and to provide education and services to prevent vision loss.’’An ear infection which spread to the optic nerve is what left David Paterson legally blind when he was 3 months old.One aspect of the association’s prevention initive includes vision screenings conducted at area day care centers.

Ms. Hatfield said that detecting visual impairments in children is especially hard, due to their age and the variety of conditions which may cause them.‘‘A parent or teacher might not see the signs because they aren’t always obvious,’’ Ms. Hatfield said. ‘‘But you’re always better to catch these things early when there’s more avenues for treatment.’’

Debbie Liddell, also a rehabilitation teaching assistant and certified occupational therapy assistant, said that she has only been working at the association since August, but already finds her work very rewarding.‘‘Anybody who is legally blind or visually impaired can be successful,’’ she said. ‘‘David Paterson is just an example of that.’’

Ms. Hatfield said technology is one of the biggest assets in today’s world for visually impaired and blind people to live an independent life. She demonstrated the use of special, binocular-type glasses, intended to allow people to watch TV, and compared the device to an old TV screen magnifier. The old device was a problem for many people because it wasn’t clearly viewable from even a slight angle, she said.Ms. Hatfield explained that other devices have been improved over the years, including a ‘‘video magnifier TV,’’ which allows the user to zoom in on newspapers, documents, or even their face.

‘‘The thing a lot of people miss (when they begin losing their sight) is the newspaper,’’ the executive director said. ‘‘This unit can zoom in on the print and it also has several color settings to adapt to the persons visual impairment. The newer ones are laptop-sized and portable. I’m sure Mr. Paterson has one of these in the office.’’She did mention that the association provides people a chance in the office to see if the device works for them, but they can not give them away to clients as they typically cost more than $3,000.

Ms. Hatfield said that new computer-based voice recognition technology and web site zooming software have allowed the clients to experience the internet, and in turn, stay more connected with their friends and family.The association gets creative when they adapt common household items such as stoves and microwaves to be more easily used by their clients.Ms. Liddell said that using simple things like velcro or textured-rubber stickers are helpful to the clients, as they are easier to feel than braille.

‘‘We are using braille less and less,’’ Ms. Hatfield said. ‘‘Since many of our clients lose their sight as they get older, their finger tips aren’t sensitive enough to feel it.’’The Chautauqua Blind Association provides a number of services to their clients, according to the executive director. They make house calls and do everything from helping a person find technology to assist them in living independently to providing personal support to ensure the client that they are not alone.‘‘Sometimes they can feel isolated and alone,’’ Ms. Hatfield said.

‘‘And that’s (one area) where we step in.’’As David Paterson steps into N.Y.’s highest office, the executive director said she wants people who may be suffering from vision loss to feel comfortable to step forward and get confidential help from the association.The Chautauqua Blind Association is a United Way-funded agency. Anyone who has questions about visual loss, blindness or the Chautauqua Blind Association’s services is encouraged to call 664-6660.


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