By Audrey Demmitt, RN and VisionAware Support Group Advisor

Are you a support group leader looking for ideas, tools, and information? Have you considered starting a support group for the visually impaired but aren’t sure where to begin? Vision Exchange can help. Polly Abbott, Certified Vision Rehabilitation Therapist (CVRT) and Director of Rehabilitation Services at Second Sense tells about a new online resource for low vision support group leaders and shares her thoughts with VisionAware.

About Second Sense

Second Sense, located in Chicago, Illinois, has been serving the visually impaired community since 1947. Their mission is to inspire individuals to move beyond vision loss and believe in their abilities. They provide a wide range of services to individuals and small groups in the community. Second Sense strives to be a resource to those who are learning to adjust to vision loss and recognizes the value of peer support groups.

Interview with Polly Abbott

Polly Abbott believes “peer support groups are a very important component in the rehabilitation process. Low vision support groups are unique in that they try to address emotional needs as well as educational needs of the members.”She has worked closely with support group leaders and sees the benefits of these groups. Polly observes there are three types of group members. New people enter the groups looking for understanding and support. Then there are the members who are focused on finding answers and solutions. Eventually, group members become knowledgeable and experienced in their adjustment to vision loss and then can share it with other members. “Benefits of attending a support group are seen over time as it takes 6 months to a year to build relationships and for cumulative learning to take place,” says Polly.

Polly is passionate about support groups and wants to provide leaders with support too. She created Vision Exchange, an online community for support group leaders. To date, there are about 80 participants on this listserv from all over the US and from different backgrounds. It is a place to discuss ideas and issues, exchange information and share resources with other leaders. Polly’s vision was to provide group leaders with support and resources to enrich their groups. To join this community, sign up for Vision Exchange.

Vision Exchange Resources

Recently, Second Sense received funding to develop new resources for support group leaders and has expanded Vision Exchange. It is now a web-based resource that includes:

  • phone and E-mail consultations with CVRT, Polly Abbott, regarding group facilitation, addressing difficult issues with challenging members, and providing low-vision resources
  • resources on starting and leading groups
  • Vision Loss A to Z library of reading materials
  • access to printable large print handouts for group members and tip sheets for group leaders
  • membership in the online community dedicated to support group leaders to share ideas and ask questions

Vision Exchange is continually growing and more materials will be added. Polly hopes to use the collective expertise and resources shared on the Vision Exchange listserv as she develops new materials for the website. Vision Exchange wants to know what group leaders need and want. A manual for group leaders will soon be available in PDF. “This project is a natural outgrowth of what we do at Second Sense. We just want people to know about available resources,” says Polly.

Tips for Support Group Leaders

When asked to share a few tips for support group leaders, Polly responded with these:

  • Ask yourself why you want to start a group and do a bit of personal reflection. Consider the commitment and be sure you are in it for the long haul.
  • Prepare yourself by learning about blindness, how to start and lead a group, and the adjustment process (see Hadley courses mentioned below).
  • Leading a group requires good organizational skills and planning. Group members will need structure so they can come and focus on adjusting and learning.
  • Don’t be afraid to lead. It is your responsibility to halt off-topic conversation and manage time. The group members depend on you to make the meeting a quality experience.
  • Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know but I will find out for you.” You can be a role model for researching information and finding resources. You don’t have to be the “expert.”
  • Don’t be afraid to share your own story and struggles in order to demonstrate appropriate sharing and make yourself relatable.

Resources to Help Prepare Effective Group Leaders

Here are a few of Polly’s favorite resources to help prepare effective group leaders and create engaging groups:

  • The new Vision Exchange online resource -provides information, ideas and resources for support group leaders.
  • Vision Exchange listserv online community- join the discussion and get ideas from peers who have a variety of expertise such as social workers, educators, nurses, activities directors, librarians and vision rehabilitation specialists. Find instructions on the Vision Exchange website.
  • APH ConnectCenter Directory of Services -use to locate services for the visually impaired across the United States. Search for services in your state.
  • VisionAware– provides a wealth of “how to” and “is it possible to…” information for adults experiencing vision loss. The blogs offer personal connection and a virtual support community on a variety of topics. “Often I recommend VisionAware to clients and families because it is accurate, thorough, and extensive,” remarked Polly.
  • The Hadley School for the Blind Adult Continuing Education courses – Polly suggests Self Help Groups Intro and Advanced Topics, Blindness Basics, and Self-Esteem and Adjusting with Blindness. You can register for these free courses. For more learning, check out Seminars@Hadley such as Self Help Groups: Resources and Strategies and the new Low Vision Focus@ Hadley for older adults living with vision loss.
  • International Low Vision Support Group Network– provides audio-visual presentations on macular degeneration and low vision topics for use in support groups, a facilitator’s kit, monthly handouts and newsletters, and a selection of thought-provoking poetry and essays that can be read at meetings.