Blind World Magazine

Center offers ideas to help blind live independently.

Dallas Morning News, Texas.
Thursday, July 27, 2006.

The apartment seems like any other model home at first. Then you hear the microwave and the bathroom scale talk.

And small, colorful raised circles dot the appliances to mark favorite settings.

The new apartment - built inside the American Foundation for the Blind's northwest Dallas offices - is filled with gadgets and design features to help the visually impaired live as independently as possible.

The model home is part of the foundation's new Center on Vision Loss, which also offers educational programs, a resource library and demonstrations involving computers and other technology.

The New York City-based nonprofit foundation, which has long operated a Dallas office, advocates nationwide for better accessibility for the blind.

"Our goal is to whet people's appetites to see what's out there and help them get it," said Judy Scott, director of the foundation's Southwest region, who came up with the idea for the Dallas center.

The foundation raised $2.3 million - all private funds - to build the center. Local officials have been giving tours in recent months and plan a grand opening in October.

People who have lost their sight often do not know where to turn to learn how to modify their homes for everyday tasks, said Ms. Scott, who became blind as a teen because of retinal degeneration. Only 5 percent of people with vision loss are in programs to help them stay independent, she said.

"There will never be enough money or service providers to train people one on one," she said. "I thought, let's do a site where people can come and see what's available."

Ms. Scott also said she hopes the center will influence builders to make homes and public buildings more accessible to the blind.

The model apartment includes carpet in the living areas that is broken up by tile to signal when you're near a doorway. Light switches are installed in dark colors to stand out on walls, to help those who still have some vision.

The kitchen includes a cutting board equipped with an anchor that holds and guides a knife to safely chop food. There's even a small device that beeps when you fill a cup or glass.

The center's technology area includes a Braille printer and a handheld device that magnifies up to 15 times to help people read menus or price tags or write checks.

The foundation does not sell any of the items on display but offers details about the products and where to buy them. Prices range from a few dollars for a nail clipper with a magnifier attached to thousands for computers.

The need for such help is growing.

About 10 million people in the U.S. are visually impaired, with 1.3 million of them legally blind, according to the National Federation of the Blind. Those numbers are expected to double by 2030 as baby boomers age, according to the Baltimore-based nonprofit organization, which represents 50,000 blind people nationwide.

After losing much of her sight a decade ago, Dallas resident Esther Smith said she spent years figuring out how to do the things she used to take for granted.

"When you leave the doctor's office, you're on your own," she said. "You're told, 'You have macular degeneration. Goodbye.' "

Ten years later, Ms. Smith gets by with talking appliances and magnifying devices. She has a system of folding her bills so she can quickly find any denomination in her wallet. She knows exactly how many steps to take to get from her porch to the street.

"You learn it or you sit in a corner and feel sorry for yourself, and I'm not into pity parties," said Ms. Smith, who serves on the new center's board of directors and donated money for the model apartment. "You find there are limitations, but with determination and your own cleverness, you find your way around it."

Displaying modifications and aids at the new Dallas center can help empower blind people, said John G. Pare Jr., spokesman for the National Federation of the Blind. But he said that those who are blind need to accept their condition and not be embarrassed to get help.

"You have to get over that," said Mr. Pare, who became blind as an adult. "You have to say, 'I'm going to keep living my life to the fullest and do the same things I used to do.' You're just not going to do them in the same way."

The Center on Vision Loss so far has attracted about 80 visitors per month, many from area senior centers. The foundation eventually hopes to draw visitors from across the country. Organizers also are creating a virtual tour on the Web.

Dallas resident McCarty Dowell, whose glaucoma limits vision in his left eye, was impressed after a recent tour of the center.

"I heard about it and said, 'Let's go see what this is all about,' " Mr. Dowell said. "Anyone who's limited in their vision should come first thing."

CAPTION: Esther Smith works a crossword puzzle using a magnifier - one of many gadgets for the visually impaired featured at the Center on Vision Loss. The numbers on the thermostat, clocks and kitchen timers are unusually large. LOUIS DeLUCA/DMN


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