Low-vision residents receive training in living with impairment


Imagine slowly losing your vision, being unable to read small lettering or possibly not even being able to discern different colors. You begin relying on others to help you more and more.

Now imagine being provided with devices that magnify these letters or tell you what color a shirt is with the click of a button. You become self-sufficient again, even independent of assistance.

The Altoona Bureau of Blindness and Visual Services is making a difference for low-vision individuals throughout the state and Centre County by providing teaching assistance and technology to help those with vision impairments regain their lives and their freedom.

The bureau, through the state Office of Vocational Rehabilitation, hosted a low-vision “jumpstart” program Wednesday at the Lions Club in Pine Grove Mills. Regional residents gathered at the event to learn new innovations in low-vision technology, receive training in the technology and generally be around others with similar eyesight experiences.

“It’s very challenging for someone to live alone with a vision disability,” vision rehabilitation therapist Shelly Haupt said. “This lets them socialize and build friendships.”

Social worker Steven Kechisen said the bureau serves about 200 people across the county, from infants to the elderly. The bureau, he explained, is the point of contact for anyone seeking vision assistance.

“A lot of people think that they have to go through an eye doctor to get a referral,” he said. “That’s just not the truth. They can do a self-referral and we can determine if they’re eligible or not.”

A social worker would meet with the individual in his or her home, he said, and evaluate if the person can benefit from the program. If the person needs special equipment, a vision therapist will also meet the person at home to educate how to use the device as well as other skills.

“The job of the vision rehabilitation therapist is to increase their independent living skills to keep them in the home setting,” Haupt said.

Kechisen demonstrated an OttLite table lamp to Janet Lose, 79, of Bellefonte. The light, he explained, uses filters to reduce glare and improve contrast on reading materials, allowing Lose to pick out words and colors more easily.

Lose said eyeglasses no longer work for her and she needs magnification devices in order to read things like mail and medicine labels. Between the magnifiers and a larger OttLite she already has, she said she’s able to read independently, noting she was able to read all the cards she received recently for her birthday.

The program featured numerous other devices and aids for the low-vision population. Aids ran from the simple — such as colored, raised stickers for use on microwaves and remote controls — to more elaborate technology.

Haupt demonstrated a Colorino, a remote control-sized device that assists those who have trouble discerning colors on clothes. If you’re unsure of what color a shirt is, you hold the device up to the cloth, press a button and a voice tells you the color.

Haupt also demonstrated the PenFriend audio labeler, which resembles a small microphone. The pen works in conjunction with adhesive labels, allowing the person to touch the pen to the label and record a description. Touching the pen to the label again will replay that specific message.

“This is used for labeling food, cooking instructions, clothes, your CDs,” she said. “A lot of people use it for journaling, recording different days on different labels.”

The bureau also provides low-vision canes, Kechisen said — the recognizable white canes with a red base, identifying the user as a low-vision individual.

Mildred Cornelison, 89, of State College, said she wished there were more public awareness of the symbol of the white cane and what it stands for. She also called for training on how to assist a person who has a vision impairment and how to give a little assistance versus a lot.

“The white stick, most people know that,” she said, referring to the thin white stick used by those who are almost or totally blind. “But people might not know what the actual cane stands for.”

Jeremy Hartley: 814-231-4616, @JJHartleyNews

Altoona Bureau of Blindness and Visual Services