By TEDDYE SNELL
The ability to look both ways before crossing a street, read a simple recipe or punch in a telephone number is often taken for granted by those without visual impairment.
But nearly 15 million people living in the U.S. can’t perform some of these tasks. And that includes many American Indians.
The American Indian Resource Center in Tahlequah recently received a three-year grant for about $1.2 million to develop a program to provide training to visual aid outreach workers. The endeavor, titled “Project NATIVE” – Native Americans Teaming in Visual Empowerment” – will ultimately provide trained workers who will provide visual and mobility training to visually impaired clients in the area.
“We’ve partnered with Northeastern State University’s Oklahoma College of Optometry, which will be recruiting clients for us,” said Kimberly Chaffin, chief administrative officer.
Over the course of three years, the program will train 10-12 VAOWs to assist 200 visually impaired community gain increased independence, productivity and integration within their communities.
AIRC and NSUOCO will be offering free evaluations and training in the use of visual aids and equipment for blind and visually impaired American Indian adults, beginning in June.
“There is such a need for assistance out there, and we want to get the word out,” said Wathene Young, executive director of AIRC.
“It’s been well-received so far. Before, people got assistance from the state, but there’s very little money left for that anymore.”
Dr. Lillian Young, former department head of special education at NSU, is the project director.
“Since Lillian retired, she was looking for something to do to help others,” said Wathene. “She served on the board of directors for the Oklahoma School for the Blind in Muskogee, and took a two-year certification training course to prepare for the program. During the training, which was rigorous, Lillian had to learn to perform tasks without sight, like crossing a street wearing a blindfold and using a cane, and other things.”
The training will include sessions in life skills, orientation and mobility, recreation, vision aids and self-advocacy.
“The grant has provided money for supplies to give to the clients, like talking cooking thermometers, magnifying mirrors, arts and crafts supplies, talking pill boxes and other things,” said Wathene. “We take so many things for granted; I was amazed at the supplies they have out there for the visually impaired.”
Participants must be members of a federally recognized American Indian tribe. The grant has a 20 percent match, which will be primarily funded through NSUOCO’s donation of services.
Workshops will be held Saturdays, June 2, 9 and 16 in the NSU Science Building and College of Optometry training rooms. After each workshop, the VAOWs will make home visits to deliver items that have been ordered for each client.
“During home visits, VAOWs will help clients re-learn and organize their new items,” said Chaffin.
“They may also help the clients with such things as rearranging kitchen cabinets, medicine cabinets, clothes closets, drawers and furniture.”
According to information provided by AIRC, the leading causes of blindness are age-related macular degeneration, glaucoma, diabetic retinopathy and age-related cataracts.
Diabetes is one of the top five leading diseases among American Indians, along with macular degeneration and glaucoma.
AIRC is a 501(c)3 nonprofit corporation founded in 1983. Its board representatives are members of the American Indian communities in Tahlequah and Muskogee. AIRC has 22 years’ experience in “Train the Trainer” activities, and has developed workshops for professionals who work with the disabled community to help with an identified need.
For more information about Project NATIVE, contact Chaffin or Dr. Lillian Young at (918) 456-5581.