Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (Little Rock, AR).
Tuesday, June 13, 2006.
A one-of-a-kind school for the blind helps students realize their ambitions and gain their freedom
There are two campuses at 28th Street and Fair Park Boulevard in Little Rock.
The University of Arkansas at Little Rock is bigger and more visible.
But also at that intersection, unheralded and practically unseen, except for the white statue of a lion out front, is Lions World Services for the Blind, where visually impaired people from all 50 states and 57 countries are learning how to live independently and develop new careers.
It's the largest adult blindness rehabilitation center in the country, and there's not another place quite like it anywhere in the world.
Some Lions World "graduates" become Microsoft computer systems engineers. Others go on to work for the Internal Revenue Service. All of them leave at least knowing how to better negotiate the world with a white cane and a sense of confidence.
The center started in 1939 as Arkansas Enterprises for the Blind, a program to employ visually impaired people at vending stands, primarily in state office buildings.
Founder Roy Kumpe was a member of a Little Rock Lions Club that he tapped for funding in 1947. Lions of Arkansas and other Lions Clubs across the country provide some funding for the center - about 10 percent of its $3.2 million budget - but, the lion statue notwithstanding, it is not otherwise affiliated with the Lions organization. Every state has an agency that provides services to the blind; in Arkansas, it's a division of the Department of Human Services. In most cases, those state agencies pay the $4,500 a month for tuition, room and board. Personal contributions and bequests make up the rest of the nonprofit's budget.
The center is residential, with a capacity of 93 but usually averaging about 60 trainees at any one time; 70-75 is the maximum comfort level. Minimum age is 16, but the center has had clients in their 90s; among its offerings is teaching independent living skills to the elderly. The center has a staff of 66 teachers and support personnel, including cafeteria staff and part-time dorm monitors.
The two-block campus has seven buildings, the newest of which was built in 1967. In addition to IRS courses and other high-tech vocational training, the center also offers lower-tech options such as horticulture and small-engine and bicycle repair.
All of the trainees at the center are legally blind - that is, they have vision of 20/200 or worse. About 40 percent are totally blind, some since birth; others have lost some or all of their sight due to accident, injury or disease, including glaucoma, diabetic retinopathy, macular degeneration and cataracts.
ENVISIONING A NEW FUTURE
A rare strain of retinitis pigmentosa caused Ramiro Gonzalez, 40, of Deltona, Fla., to start losing his vision at age 27. The same disease completely blinded two of his brothers. However, Gonzalez says, his vision has been stable for the last six years.
He has some frontal peripheral vision but is extremely sensitive to light and wears dark sunglasses to protect his eyes.
"Even out in the sun I should be using a cane," he says.
The loss forced him to give up jobs, first as a corrections officer and later production supervisor for a citrus company, the latter because he could no longer drive. His older brother, an acoustics engineer, convinced him, "'Ain't no reason to quit just because you don't have the vision,'" he says.
An Internet search for training programs for the visually impaired turned up Lions World Services for the Blind. But it took him 10 months to get here. The state of Florida, which ordinarily would have paid his way, at first balked at sending him out of state. "They had already sent me to two programs," he explains.
Gonzalez started at the center April 9. After a onemonth evaluation period, he has enrolled in the center's IRS program, where he is training to be a "contact collection representative." His job, he says, will be answering phones and trying to "find information for taxpayers, how to navigate through the IRS."
"I have the opportunity to have a career again," he says.
He already has a job lined up when he graduates Sept. 7, at an IRS call center in Austin, Texas, his first choice.
With partial vision, Gonzalez can use Zoom Text, a software that magnifies information on the computer up to eight times, and has been learning to use Job Access With Sound (JAWS) software that speaks text back to him. He has also been learning to use the Braille alphabet.
"The people here have been really tremendous," he says. "This is an awesome place, and I'm glad to be here."
STARTING FROM BASICS
Not every trainee at the center starts at Gonzalez's level. Many are coming out of schools for the blind or from parents' homes where they have never had to care for themselves.
For most, their first stage of instruction after their monthlong evaluation is "Techniques of Daily Living," in which they learn how to cook, keep house, choose and care for their clothing and identify and use money, as well as table etiquette and personal grooming. This area of concentration also includes adult education for those working toward their GED.
Lis Geoghegan, who has been teaching the class at the center for two years, is blind. Before coming to Arkansas she taught sighted preschoolers in Texas. "Fifteen 3-year-olds," she says.
She's also certified to teach special education, which comes in handy with clients who have additional disabilities.
Her primary lessons involve teaching visually impaired people to care for themselves, their homes and their families. How to do laundry. How to iron a shirt. How to tell time using a Braille watch. How to label the items in your kitchen so you know what they are without being able to see them.
"How do I keep a 2-year-old from running away and I can't see him?" is a common question, Geoghegan says. "Kids tend to be noisy," she says. And if they're not, try putting bells on their shoes, or having them play in a confined area.
"Tell them they have to hold your hand. Sighted mamas do that lots of times," she says. "We teach them to think creatively."
In many cases, people who have lost their sight must relearn previously simple tasks.
"They know how to iron, but don't know how to do it without being able to see," Geoghegan says. "They want to know how to find something on their plate without sticking their hands in it." (The answer: "Let the utensils be what you feel with, not your fingers.")
The greatest fear clients have in the kitchen is how to cook without getting burned or cut, but "once they realize they can do it, their whole attitude changes," she says.
Most men struggle with sewing, but perhaps the toughest thing for the visually impaired involves cleaning house, Geoghegan says.
"Sweeping is really hard," she says. Whereas sighted people can spot where the unfinished spots are, Geoghegan says, blind people must generally do the job twice to be sure they've caught everything.
Among the devices you can find in Geoghegan's classroom are large-print closed-circuit hand-held magnifiers, talking clocks, a computer-connected Braille embosser, telephones with large buttons and Braille numbers, pin-on devices such as buttons or knots to identify items of clothing by color and even a vocalizing color scanner which really can tell the difference between light blue and dark blue and pink and burgundy.
"When in doubt, wear jeans," Geoghegan advises.
She can get about the familiar areas of the campus without a cane or even her guide dog. "As a girl, I rode my bike around my neighborhood just using my hearing," she says. She went to public school in Chadds Ford, Pa., south of Philadelphia, where she had a resource classroom available but basically was "mainstreamed."
"I was real stubborn, real intuitive," she says. "I was also competitive, and driven by wanting to fit in."
SISTER BLAZED TRAIL
Geoghegan radiates such confidence that David Dunphy, 26, who has been blind since birth and who came to the center from Garden City, N.Y., at first had no idea she wasn't sighted.
"I really couldn't tell," he says. "It helps to have someone teaching who is blind. She's one of the best teachers here."
Dunphy followed in the footsteps of his older sister, Beth, who after graduation went to work for the state of Arkansas, testing the state's software for compatibility with JAWS and other programs for the visually impaired.
David, too, went through mainstream education in public schools, and graduated magna cum laude from Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
He's in the center's Enterprise Solution Programmer program, learning to create software, and after an internship period that's built into the program, he hopes eventually to move to either the New York or Boston area.
"I'm happy I came here," he says. "I haven't seen too many places that offer this kind of services. I would not raise a blind child in New York."
The center teaches visually impaired adults how to get about using a white cane, as well as other "orientation and mobility" lessons, including how to use public transportation.
Kate Beck, who heads the orientation and mobility department, has been at the center for 12 years and also teaches techniques of independent living.
Even the 2 percent of blind people who can have access to a leader dog must still first have had training with the cane, Beck says.
"You move a lot faster with a dog," she says. "That means you have to think a lot faster or get lost a lot faster. You still have to figure out how many streets you've crossed." And you must still know how to get around when your dog is sick or at the veterinarian.
There are two cane designs - rigid, with a grip similar to a golf club (and, like golf clubs and fishing rods, are made of aluminum, graphite or fiberglass ), and folding, which collapses into a smaller, easy to handle and store bundle when not in use.
"In training, most people find a rigid cane better than a folding one," Beck says.
Students first learn their way around the campus, then learn how to get about on the nearby sidewalks. They take field trips to Hillcrest and other residential areas, downtown to learn to negotiate city streets - Beck says the River Market, with all its pedestrian traffic, is a good spot - and eventually to malls and the airport.
"Once someone is proficient, he can travel anywhere public transit will take him," Beck says. "Of course, here we can't do light rail or monorail."
In the basement is the Assistive Technology department, where Jan Lynch rules half the two-part lab in which trainees use computers that talk back to them using JAWS and have refreshable Braille-enabled keyboards. They even learn how to use Braille-enabled personal data devices, a little bulkier than your average PDA.
"Everything that has to do with Braille is bulky," Lynch says. "It's more like a full pocket PC. You'd be surprised how many people have them," even at a cost of around $5,500 (even without the Global Positioning System, which costs another $500 or so).
Lynch's eight students are learning not just how to operate the hardware and software, but also teach it to others.
"Even if they don't have vision, they have to know how it works," she says.
Among them is Ajaiba "A.J." Ahmed, 26, from a small town in Ethiopia, who lost her sight at age 3 to trachoma, an eye infection common in Third-World rural communities where people live in overcrowded conditions with limited access to water and health care.
She, too, found the center via the Internet, and came to the United States on a diversity visa, one of a few thousand Ethiopians who get the chance through a lottery system. She ended up first in Texas because that's where her sponsors lived.
Although she misses her 11 siblings, she admits she enjoys the social life "and the food is good," she says.
Lynch has been at the center for 28 years.
"This is a unique place to work," she says. "I get job offers every year but I don't take 'em. Here they want you to think.
"You can't get the oneon-one training you get here anyplace else. This is the only place that provides it," she says. "There are only a handful that even come close. This place has changed a lot of lives."
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