Photos by Jane Primerano
Vision Loss Alliance Rings In 75 Years
By Jane Primerano
The Vision Loss Alliance, located at the Episcopal Church of the Savior in Denville, provides a variety of skills to the blind and visually impaired and it’s been doing it for 75 years.
Founded in 1943 as the New Jersey Foundation for the Blind, the alliance changed its name in 2016 to better reflect the services it provides, Executive Director Kris Marino said. One of the ways the center is celebrating is Dining the Dark, a fundraiser at Meadowood Manor in Randolph Township.
The evening starts with the lights on, so guests can linger over cocktails and fill out bid forms in the silent auction and purchase works of art in the art sale as well as visit program tables around the room. Then they are handed sleep masks and brought into the dining room.
A client of the alliance serves as a table ambassador, helping the guests navigate eating without seeing their food, Marino said.
“They are good hosts,” she said.
Before the dinner, VLA staff need to meet with the wait staff at the restaurant to make sure they understand how to position plates, silverware and glasses properly for the blindfolded guests, Marino explained. The diners will choose their entrees tableside to help them navigate the unfamiliar eating method. No guest is required to keep the mask on all evening, Marino noted.
Another fundraiser specifically for the 75th anniversary year is a cookbook full of recipes submitted by board members, staff, volunteers and students. Cooking has been part of the education at the center for many years and the photo on the cookbook cover is from the 1950s, taken in the kitchen of its former home nearby on Diamond Spring Road. Below the old photo is the center’s motto, “Transforming Lives One Individual at a Time.”
The book is available in a number of electronic formats, including for Apple, Kindle, Nook and various other readers. The cookbook is $25 and can be purchased by calling 973-627-0055 or by emailing Marino at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More services added to program
The Vision Loss Alliance serves the blind and visually impaired in seven north Jersey counties from three locations, the main office at Church of the Savior and two satellites in Ridgewood and Montclair. “There’s a big need in South Jersey,” Marino said.
Clients can access the center through several public transportation options, the most common is AccessLink. Some municipalities and counties have Dial-a-Ride services, such as Morris County’s MAPS that also make it convenient to get to Denville.
The current location is an annex to the Episcopal Church which once housed a day care center. It features training rooms and offices as well as a large multi-purpose room which can be partitioned off.
On a recent Tuesday, a fluffy tail protrudes from under one of the partitions. Marino explained clients of the Seeing Eye can come to the VLA to develop independence skills before they learn to partner with a guide dog.
Besides independence, clients learn specific skills, including many that didn’t exist in 1943.
“Apple has wonderful accessibility features,” Marino explained, “Facial i.d., no code entry, many things for low or no vision.”
Client Paul Caruso couldn’t agree more. He was a JAWS (Job Access With Speech) screen reader user on his laptop but said there were a lot of keystrokes involved. The Apple system uses toggles, making it easier to use text message, email, YouTube and Safari search.
“You double tap to get in and out of programs,” he said, adding, “it’s more portable.”
Caruso carries the iPad mini and is thinking about getting an iPhone.
“If you turn off the voice over, it looks like any iPad,” he noted.
He has been coming to the tech program for three years. He also attends the Thursday Health and Wellness classes at VLA, even though he has to travel from Lodi.
“It’s worth it,” he said. “A lot of people come from Bergen County.”
The health and wellness program includes a fitness and balance class; “Inquiring Minds,” which features speakers or discussion on various topics; music appreciation and an African drumming program.
“I play the Ashiko drum,” Caruso said. He said he tries to keep up with the fitness and balance exercises at home.
Caruso is also looking for a job. For 22 years he held vendor licenses under the Business Enterprise New Jersey program which is the state’s method of implementing the federal law that mandates a priority to blind persons to operate vending facilities on Federal property. These facilities include vending machine locations, newspaper stands, snack bars and full service cafeterias, according to the state Department of Human Services website.
After operating two snack bars, Caruso had a news stand in the justice complex in Trenton, where he lived for 22 years. Now he’s looking for any sort of phone work. He notes being interviewed for a job is different than bidding for a stand location.
“I just keep plugging,” he said.
Different Experiences, Different Needs
Each client’s needs are different. Program Director Elsa Zavoda is uniquely able to provide for many of those needs. An occupational therapist, she is one of only 16 in the country and two in New Jersey who is certified in vision loss services.
The state doesn’t yet require that certification, she said, but since that may change, she was anxious to become certified. Many of the techniques she uses are geared to maximize the vision clients have left. “Once I evaluate a client, I develop a plan of care,” she explained.
Each client needs to be referred by a physician in order for the services to be covered by insurance. Zavoda prefers the referral to come from an ophthalmologist because a general physician can’t give the same kind of specifics about the client’s vision loss.
Both the client and the client’s caregivers and loved ones need to learn the best methods for coping with vision loss, Marino emphasized. Simple tips like having the client take your elbow or using the example of a clock face to tell him or her where food is placed on a plate can be helpful.
Techniques to assist in daily activities, use of lighting and contrasting colors to enhance functional vision and training in adaptive devices are important parts of Zavoda’s work with clients.
Some clients have other disabilities they must navigate. Linda Anderson was a pharmacy technician working with IV pharmaceuticals and hemodialysis when she developed her vision and physical problems.
A JAWS user, Anderson has also worked as a patient advocate at East Orange General Hospital. She is also a minister and teacher at Smith Memorial church of God in Christ in Newark.
“I took a lot of convincing that the iPhone would work for those who are blind,” she said, admitting she was not at all tech savvy, although she used a computer when she worked at the hospital.
Anderson is a cheerleader for VLA.
“Imagine a bunch of blind people getting along with technology was pretty mind-boggling,” she said.
“Agencies like this help you move forward,” she said, noting that medical professionals aren’t always the best people to encourage their patients. Peer support is vital, she said.
“One thing about blindness, it’s easy to say ‘I can’t do’,” she said. But a support group helps. It also enables blind people to laugh at themselves in a way they can’t when they are with sighted people.
Zavoda takes VLA’s mission on the road, she explained. She gives presentations at senior centers and independent living centers focusing on home safety, tips and basic strategy for coping with vision loss or caring for someone with vision loss.