Story at a glance
- Schools teach the blind life skills to help them live independently.
- “Our goal is to demonstrate through belief and example that blind individuals can live the lives they imagined,” says one educator, who is herself blind.
- "We hope that the general public sees blind people traveling independently so often, that it is no longer an anomaly; it is the expectation," she says.
It’s not always easy knowing how to navigate during times of uncertainty when you can’t see what's ahead, but a positive mindset and proper preparation can help when taking the next step into the unknown.
Students and staff at the Virginia Rehabilitation Center for the Blind and Vision Impaired (VRCBVI) know this firsthand because they live it every day.
“We cannot always control what happens in life, but we can determine how we will respond and what we will do,” says VRCBVI Director Melody Roane, who lost her eyesight when she was young.
At the VRCBVI campus, students who were born blind or lose their sight later in life learn that resilience, determination, positive focus and a supportive community can lead to successful outcomes.
Though the VRCBVI Richmond, Va., office is quiet now with staff teleworking and students at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, spring blossoms blooming on trees outside the building and a sprinkling of new flowers emerging on the lawn symbolize the new life and hope that this program offers.
“Before enrolling in the VRCBVI training program, many students focus on what they can’t see rather than what they can do. In all our activities, our goal is to demonstrate through belief and example that blind individuals can live the lives they imagined,” says Roane.
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In fact, as you enter the building's lobby, there is a quote on the wall by author/philosopher Henry David Thoreau that says, “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you’ve imagined.” This sets the tone for the VRCBVI's purpose.
Accomplishing the life one envisions is not always easy and usually involves a lot of hard work — but Roane believes it is possible. In 2019, VRCBVI successfully served 434 Virginians through individualized training programs, which can last from weeks to several months with the end result of independence.
Achieving skills that range from cooking to establishing a career, learning Braille to mastering technology skills, completing educational goals at school to managing personal health, including handling emergency situations, are key components of the VRCBVI training program.
Students and staff are also often seen walking through the busy city streets and neighborhoods of Richmond. A vital part of the skills training is helping students develop the ability to travel independently. Partnering with an instructor, students learn to navigate unfamiliar territory through the use of a long white cane.
Just as in life, unexpected obstacles and difficult challenges are often encountered. “Roundabouts, uneven sidewalks, and construction are all environmental features blind individuals will need to know how to deal with because they are present in communities anywhere you go,” explains Roane.
“It is our goal to demonstrate to students that, if you are blind, you can learn the skills and confidence that are necessary to live and work in familiar and unfamiliar environments. The choices you make in life do not have to be limited to the familiar. You can, for example, accept a job in a city where you have never been and learn to navigate it successfully,” says Roane.
One of the cane travel instructors at VRCBVI is Domonique Lawless. Originally from Louisiana where she obtained her master’s degree in Teaching Blind Students, and dual-certified in Braille and orientation/mobility instruction for the blind, she came to Richmond to help others like herself.
Lawless is blind.
She understands it can initially be scary to take that next step forward when you can't see where you are going.
But she hasn’t let that stop her from living life to the fullest. Lawless believes with adequate preparation and training, you can confidently and courageously go forth on the path in front of you. Her positive spirit and zest for life demonstrates this.
After attending a training center when she was growing up, Lawless learned skills that boosted her confidence and taught her independence. “The training I received gave me the skills I needed to travel to six countries and many states, give a speech to a large crowd using my Braille notes, cook a meal for forty people, complete all my grad school assignments using access technology, and do so much more," she says.
As an orientation and mobility instructor accompanying students as they navigate through the city, Lawless says, "the student learns cane technique (proper way to maneuver the cane), how to use cardinal directions, mental mapping, and gathering information. We could be listening to traffic to determine the best time to cross, listening for other cues, figuring out what direction we’re traveling or even waiting for a friend."
Developing problem solving abilities and learning to interact with the public during the city navigation training are transferrable skills that will also help the students flourish in the workplace and make it through the often unexpected happenings of day-to-day life in general. Each step forward becomes easier.
"Our students have the opportunity to learn to locate businesses, utilize public transportation, and shop for items using customer assistance. As they utilize their travel skills, they are able to grow in confidence," says Lawless. "Many of our students come to the center with the misconception that blind people cannot travel independently or just with a lack of understanding of how independent travel could be feasible. With each lesson, they chip away at that misconception and replace it with a little more confidence."
"Blind people are just like you," says Roane. "They have hopes and dreams, strengths and challenges, abilities and frustrations, the capacity to do and the disappointments of being told no. We are just like you."
She adds, "We hope that the general public sees blind people traveling independently so often, that it is no longer an anomaly; it is the expectation."
Lawless agrees, "If we, like our sighted counterparts are skilled, focused, and determined, then there will be enumerable possibilities."
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