October 8, 2013

Professionals needed to help visually impaired

By JEFF MEYERS Press-Republican

---- — PLATTSBURGH — Joanne Zucker has a congenital eye defect that has prevented her from seeing more than shadows for her entire life.

Yet, Zucker has not allowed that defect to interfere with her life: She has enjoyed a successful career in education, has raised a loving family and has helped others with similar vision disorders reach for their own dreams and wishes.

Along the way, she has received priceless support from the North Country Association for the Visually Impaired, a regional organization that has provided education and adaptive-living training to more than 5,000 individuals and families since 1989.

“Eileen’s support was extremely beneficial,” Zucker said of the contact she had with the association’s Eileen Brennan, a trained rehabilitation teacher and orientation and mobility specialist.

“At first, Eileen came to the house and taught me how to use appliances safely, what kinds of modifications were needed (to make the living environment safe for Zucker),” she continued. “She also took me out for an assessment to see how I would do (in an unknown environment).

“She helped me determine what areas I needed to improve upon.”

Brennan is one of three visual-rehabilitation teachers working with the North Country Association for the Visually Impaired. She covers Clinton and Essex counties, while Pat Wilson provides services in Franklin County, and Michele Boyea covers St. Lawrence County.

The certified experts provide one-on-one services at the work site and in school as well as at home. They also offer specialized low-vision exams and instructions for equipment used to match individual needs.

“We help the blind or legally blind with how to conduct activities of daily living,” Brennan said. “How do they clean their home? How do they tell money apart? How do they know when they get in the shower how to find and use shampoo?

“Imagine if your vision suddenly changed, how that would impact your daily activities, how you’d get up in the morning, how you’d shave, how you’d make sure that your clothes matched,” she added. “Those are all activities of daily living that we all take for granted.

“Orientation and mobility helps the visually impaired to carry out those activities of daily living in a safe manner.”

Only a few clients are totally blind, Brennan noted. Most have some level of vision but are considered legally blind based on a medically determined field of vision. If health-care providers identify a person as legally blind, providers are required by law to notify the Commission for the Legally Blind.

Zucker has some vision but has been legally blind since birth. She has optic nerve hypoplasia, a congenital condition that prevents the optic nerve from developing properly. 

But she has succeeded in every direction she has taken in life, including more recent training to become a teacher of visually impaired children following a 25-year career in the Northeastern Central School District as a teacher of special education.

Training to work beyond visual impairment is not always easy, she said, and Brennan added that different people respond differently to the contact she and other specialists provide.

“When I first met Eileen, I was willing but in a limited sense,” Zucker said. “It took years of work with her (to establish a high level of confidence). Even as recently as last spring, I said I would never use a cane in school.

“Eileen challenged me to use a cane in one new situation a week, and now I have that level of confidence.”

The North County Association for the Visually Impaired continues to serve those in need across northeastern New York, but officials are concerned that a lack of trained professionals entering the field could impair the agency’s ability to reach out to everyone in need.

“We have people out in the field to service our customers, but we do have concerns about a shortage of providers,” said Jodi Burns, development coordinator for the association. “We feel that it’s important to get our name out there and let people know about the services we provide.”

A career as an orientation and mobility specialist or teacher of the visually impaired can be a rewarding experience at a time when many openings are available locally and across the nation.

“We’re at a crisis situation,” said Donna Abair, executive director for the association. “There are not enough people out there to perform the services needed. This is a great field for kids in college to consider. There are jobs available.”

Any bachelor program can be used to jump-start a career in supporting the visually impaired.

A trained professional requires specialized training through a master’s degree program, with online-degree programs available at Hunter College in New York City, Salus University in Philadelphia and the University of Massachusetts, as well as other post-graduate programs.

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TO LEARN MORE Anyone interested in a career in working with the visually impaired can call the North Country Association for the Visually Impaired at 562-2330 for more information.