Dawn Backer
Dawn Backer

Tell us a little about yourself. What is your background, education and training?

I have lived in Sioux Falls, South Dakota since birth and appreciate being able to live near my family and friends. My parents were great people who taught me to be honest and work hard. After high school, I attended South Dakota State University and majored in Family and Consumer Sciences (which was the new job title for a home economics teacher). One of my positions while I was attending college was with the South Dakota State University Extension Service, where I taught nutrition to men and women receiving food assistance, including how to maintain good nutrition within a limited budget. It was then that I realized I wanted to teach adults and had a talent for it.

I began looking for a job after graduating from college, which at that time meant searching through the “help wanted” ads in the newspaper. As I searched for employment that would allow me to teach adult learners, I came across an advertisement for an independent living skills teacher for older persons with vision loss. The position was for an itinerant Rehabilitation Teacher of blind adults (now called a Vision Rehabilitation Therapist) and required travel throughout Southeast South Dakota. I didn’t know a lot about the work, but decided to apply. Fortunately, I was hired for the position, which marked the beginning of my lifelong career.

I received my initial job training at the South Dakota Rehabilitation Center for the Blind, where I spent several intensive weeks learning the specialized skills of blindness. Since I had graduated from college with a Family and Consumer Sciences degree, I already had many of the basic skills the job required; what I needed was to learn those skills using non-sighted techniques, including how to teach them to young adults and adults with vision loss.

My training at the Center involved learning blindness skills in all of the following areas: home management, home modifications, home mechanics and repair, personal self-care, labeling, financial management, sewing, indoor and outdoor mobility, leisure activities, using the telephone, reading and writing, and braille.

I was required to wear a blindfold during my training, in order to better understand what my blind clients were experiencing and to help me learn to maximize all of my senses. What I remember vividly is how isolated I felt whenever I wore the blindfold; also, I had to remind myself to concentrate and pay attention to important environmental cues like hearing, touch, and smell. In order to graduate from the program, we were required to prepare a meal for our group and go out for a group restaurant meal—while wearing the blindfold. We went out to eat at a Chinese restaurant and I even used chopsticks! It wasn’t easy, but I did it.

As a Rehabilitation Teacher/Vision Rehabilitation Therapist, I traveled to 20 counties and had a caseload of approximately 50-60 people. I made overnight trips 2-3 times per week and would usually teach 3-4 people each day, depending on the distance I needed to travel. I often spent at least an hour in the car between each two-hour lesson. The average age of the learners I worked with was 80. No one was ever considered “too old” to learn new skills!

In 1989, our agency decided to increase low vision services in rural areas of the state, and I became the Statewide Low Vision Specialist. In that position, I traveled throughout South Dakota to develop one-day low vision clinics in rural areas, with an emphasis on reaching adults in Native American communities. I developed the program, wrote policy, purchased equipment, found locations to host the clinics, and hired doctors who were able to travel and provide low vision examinations.

In 2003, I became certified as a Vision Rehabilitation Therapist by the Academy for Certification of Vision Rehabilitation and Education Professionals (ACVREP). I was able to do this as a result of training provided by Salus University (formerly the Pennsylvania College of Optometry) in Elkins Park, PA. Because Salus offered an innovative program that combined online learning with weekend classes in South Dakota, I was able to grow professionally and become ACVREP-certified while continuing to work in my home state.

Also in 2003, I was appointed Manager of the Rehabilitation Center for the Blind and continue in that position. In October 2009, I will celebrate 25 years of working for the South Dakota Division of Service to the Blind and Visually Impaired. Most importantly, I have been married for 27 years to my husband Rick and we have two boys, aged 20 and 15.

What made you interested in blindness, visual impairment, and low vision as a career?

It’s interesting: Until I applied for the position at the South Dakota Rehabilitation Center for the Blind 25 years ago, I had no idea there was such an agency, or the professions of Rehabilitation Teaching/Vision Rehabilitation Therapy and Low Vision Therapy. I was extremely fortunate to have found a job that opened the doors for a lifetime career!

After working with clients and consumers in their homes, I realized this was a career for me – not just a job – and I discovered my passion for teaching. I enjoyed helping people who were blind or had low vision to find solutions for everyday problems and I learned that I was an excellent problem-solver.

I enjoy traveling and find it fascinating to become acquainted with my state while getting the chance to learn more about people and how they live and work. One lesson I have learned is that at some point in life, everyone needs someone for a little help. I discovered the field of blindness and low vision by the grace of God, who has blessed me in many ways. I have met hundreds of people who have helped me realize that I wouldn’t want to work in any other field.

Tell us about the South Dakota Division of Service to the Blind and Visually Impaired. What services does your agency offer?

The South Dakota Rehabilitation Center for the Blind is a state program within the South Dakota Division of Service to the Blind and Visually Impaired and provides services to individuals who are eligible for vocational rehabilitation or rehabilitation teaching programs. The center provides individualized training and learning opportunities to adults aged 16 and older, through a range of programs that help people with vision loss and other disabilities overcome barriers to personal fulfillment and achieve the highest possible level of independence.

The center is a non-residential training facility, but we provide apartments within close proximity of the training center for clients who live too far away to commute. We also offer instruction in the use of public transportation options, including taxis, buses, and wheelchair-accessible vans. Our center program does not have specific starting and ending dates, because each person’s training program is based on individualized goals. Student schedules are set up in 60-minute blocks of time, from 8:30 to 4:00 each day.

The initial evaluation period allows staff members to determine and evaluate each learner’s needs and together develop individualized goals and objectives. Evaluations typically range from several days to two weeks. Individualized rehabilitation training plans include goals and objectives that are based on each person’s unique needs.

Training at the Rehabilitation Center for the Blind includes the following adaptive skill areas:

Orientation and mobility or cane travel:

  • Skills needed to travel safely and independently without sight or with limited sight: using the long cane; using public transportation; and travel in residential and commercial areas.

Braille and communication:

  • Skills needed to communicate in daily life: reading and writing braille; identifying coins and bills; telling time; and using writing guides for checks, letters, and signatures.

Home management:

  • Skills needed to increase or maintain independent living: meal preparation; shopping; cleaning; sewing; clothing care; personal care; and labeling clothing and household items.

Computers with assistive technology:

  • Skills needed to efficiently operate a computer with assistive technology: screen readers; screen magnification programs; personal note takers; and refreshable braille.

Home Mechanics:

  • Skills needed to perform simple indoor and outdoor home repairs and maintenance: using power and regular tools; lawn and yard care; and safety techniques and precautions.


  • Skills needed to make popular crafts: ceramics; leather crafts; woodworking; knitting; and sewing.


  • One-on-one and group counseling address each learner’s individual needs and provide an environment to share feelings, adjustment strategies, and coping mechanisms.

Specialized Diabetes Services:

  • Alternative methods for diabetes self-management to help accurately measure insulin; monitor blood glucose levels; and manage diabetes complications.

Low Vision Clinic:

  • A low vision evaluation can determine the clarity of vision, size of readable print, existence of reduced visual fields, contrast sensitivity needs, and lighting requirements for optimal vision.


  • Employment skills and strategies: resume writing; job strategies; interviewing techniques; job coaching; job search strategies; job retention skills; and development of an individualized job-seeking plan.

Can you describe a typical working day?

As the manager of the Rehabilitation Center for the Blind, a typical day consists of meetings, writing reports, and keeping our mission and services moving in the right direction. I am the only Certified Low Vision Therapist (CLVT) on staff, so I continue to provide these services at our Rehabilitation Center for the Blind low vision clinic.

I work with our optometrist to provide training to patients in the use of recommended low vision devices and eccentric viewing (learning how to see around a central “blind spot”). I also assist with visual acuity testing, perform functional vision evaluations, and provide on-site assessment and training for workplace adaptations and accommodations.

I am also involved with several different disability groups that promote National Disability Awareness Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) in October and an annual Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) event, which commemorates the passage of the ADA. At the ADA event, we present awards to people or businesses that eliminate physical or attitudinal barriers in our community. A citywide picnic and all-day entertainment make the event a powerful celebration.

Is there a story you’d like to tell about a particular person who benefited from your agency’s services?

Duane had been visually impaired for most of his life, due to congenital glaucoma. When he was an adult, however, an accident caused him to lose additional vision. He was told he couldn’t return to work at the recycling plant where he had been working for several years because of the risk of losing his remaining sight. Duane was afraid to leave his home and consequently became isolated from his friends and family.

With mounting medical bills and no insurance coverage, he became even more frightened and frustrated. Duane didn’t believe he could work, but trusted his Rehabilitation Counselor, who told him he could – and would – be independent and return to work again if he learned important adaptive skills such as braille, cane travel, personal management, meal preparation, and home maintenance. Although Duane struggled with depression and feelings of hopelessness, when his Rehabilitation Counselor suggested he attend the South Dakota Rehabilitation Center for the Blind, he decided to go.

Duane recalls the trip to Sioux Falls and how his counselor stopped along the way to check in with another blind client who had found employment. While waiting in the car, Duane said to himself, “If this guy could find a job in a town of 300 people, I surely can find a job in my town.” He decided then and there to make the most of his training and work hard.

Here is a quote from Duane about his training program at the Rehabilitation Center for the Blind:

“The Center taught me how to use a computer. Before my skills of blindness training, I had absolutely no computer experience. Each class helped me; for example, communication class taught me how to use the telephone to access the newspaper and use directory assistance. Orientation and mobility kept me alive, because I learned that cars and trucks don’t stop just because I have a white cane! Home management class helped me get organized, which helped me at work also. Computer class and employment skills training are why I am working full-time with benefits at Wyndham Motels, Inc. I practiced interview questions, developed a resume, and learned job etiquette, which helped prepare me for this job. It is because of the South Dakota Rehabilitation Center for the Blind that I am employed today.”

What do you like best about VisionAware? Do you have a favorite feature or section on the site?

I love the VisionAware website because it has helpful tips and step-by-step instructions on how to solve everyday issues of independence. It allows for easy access for everyone to get quick and up-to-date information. It’s a one-stop website to find helpful information about low vision and blindness.

How can our readers learn more about your agency’s services?

Readers can visit our website at http://dhs.sd.gov/sbvi or call our toll free number: 1-800-658-5441.