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'Seeing the light' through visually impaired services

Posted: June 7, 2009 9:27 p.m.
Updated: June 8, 2009 4:55 a.m.

Barbara Bailey is a longtime Senior Center volunteer. She has a retina-destroying eye condition, but continues to help others through the Center's Supportive Services department.

 
People with impaired vision can do everything a normally sighted person can do, but they need to slow down to do it, said John Taylor, who leads the Santa Clarita Valley Senior Center's Visually Impaired Services Program.

"The VIAS program, which offers assistance and support for those with low vision, helps people learn the necessary adjustments and regain confidence," said Taylor, 48.

The proper way to load knives in the dishwasher, necessary home modifications, recommendations for assistive devices, advice for safe navigating as a pedestrian, referrals to the Braille Institute, movie videos that feature audible narration of each scene and dialogue, these are all part of the many services and resources offered by VIAS.

Diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa (also known as "RP") at the age of 32, Taylor's genetic eye disorder has caused progressive vision loss. It has also given him first-person enlightenment as to what's required for surviving in a "sighted" world - and then helping other people to learn those ropes.

"Our VIAS program offers new skills, compassion, and empowerment to those affected by vision loss," he said, adding that everyone who works or volunteers at the Center is geared toward those positive goals.

People here are very helpful to the visually impaired and we are very grateful to be able to help our clients," he said.

Taylor credits Senior Center/SCV Committee on Aging Executive Director Brad Berens for realizing the need for VIAS and helping local seniors retain their independence and self-esteem. As a result of that program, Taylor said, his own life has bloomed despite increasingly faltering vision.

"I no longer feel sorry for myself. I have gone from depression and denial to delight. I love what I'm doing, helping the visually impaired," he said.

When asked if the Santa Clarita Valley "as a whole" is helpful to people with vision loss and blindness, Taylor offered a resounding, "Yes!"

"People are treated very well in this community," he said. "They see me with a cane, especially in Santa Clarita, and they say ‘Can I help you?' They will help me cross the street - even though I can see the signal lights. But do I take that hand? Absolutely!"

Like Taylor, Senior Center volunteer Barbara Bailey understands the stress and limitations presented by impaired eyesight.

The upbeat 75-year-old New-hall resident was struck by a rare eye problem nine years ago. Known medically as "birdshot retinochoroidopathy," the inflammation-producing condition destroyed portions of Bailey's retinas, resulting in "holes," as if struck by birdshot. Extremely limited peripheral eyesight resulted. So have significant adaptations in her activities of daily living.

An avid proponent of the VIAS program, Bailey is determined to prevent vision loss from limiting her enjoyment of life. A good deal of that pleasure comes from helping others, she said.

A Center volunteer since 1994, Bailey formerly served as a Health Insurance Counseling and Advocacy Program (HICAP) representative. But her eye condition put a stop to that work as it required reading small print in insurance forms. Undaunted, Bailey transferred her volunteering spirit to the Senior Center's Supportive Services department and has remained, answering busy phone lines and helping to disseminate important information.

Bailey, who credits the Senior Center's Tai Chi class with giving her an improved sense of balance, recalled that her eye problems started 40 years ago - as did anguish in getting a correct diagnosis.

"One doctor told me I had a brain tumor," she recalled.

Fortunately, he was wrong. Eventually another physician properly identified Bailey's vision problem and sent her to a retinologist.

"He said he had never seen a case of it but that this was a text book case," said Bailey of the referring medical doctor.

In time, she became part of a research project through the Jules Stein Eye Institute. (A world-renowned center on the UCLA campus, named for the famous ophthalmologist, Dr. Jules Stein, the institute is dedicated to the preservation of vision and the prevention of blindness.)

"They're doing a lot of research into genes," she said, adding, "Some children are born with this, which would be terrible. I am fortunate it didn't hit me until my late 40s."

Previously a widow who four years ago re-married a widower, Bailey said vision loss had led to a gradual decline of her self-confidence. Inability to see where she is "putting her feet" or where she's walking contributed to that hesitance.

As her ability to see faces had also waned, Bailey has had to learn to recognize voices. More than contributing to depression, vision loss prompts frustration, she said.

"Sometimes I get disgusted," she stated. "An example is when my husband has appointments with doctors and I am so apt to tell him, ‘You go inside and I'll find a parking place.' I was so used to driving."

Although emotional lows accompany vision loss, Bailey ardently strives to avoid dwelling on the negative.

"It won't do any good," said the blue-eyed great-grandmother through a smile.

She lauds her "normally sighted" husband for helping her cope with vision loss and maintain a busy, grateful life.

"He is such a big help to me. We help each other. I am the ears and he is the eyes," she said.

Bailey, who recently returned from a month-long trip to Australia and New Zealand with her husband, recommends the Senior Center's VIAS program to anyone in need. She also attests to its value and rewards.

"There's such a sharing of support and camaraderie here. And while not everyone has the same problem, everyone has something to cope with. John Taylor has access to so many services available. It's really a very special program," she said.

For information about the SCV Senior Center's Visually Impaired Services, the Low Vision Support Group, and the Braille Institute's Mobile Solutions Van, call John Taylor at (661) 259-9444, extension 125. The Mobile Solutions Van from the Braille Institute will be available for the visually impaired at the Santa Clarita Valley Senior Center from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday, July 7.

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