By Maureen A. Duffy, M.S., CVRT

Meet Barbara Hunt, CVRT, Chief of Voluntary Services at the Edward Hines, Jr. Veterans’ Administration (VA) Hospital in Chicago, Illinois. Follow Barb’s long professional journey from her early days at the German School for the Blind in Marburg, Germany to her present position with the Hines VA. As Barb says of her long career at Hines, “I was hooked! I knew I needed to work with America’s heroes!”

Head shot of Barbara Hunt

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

As I was completing high school, my plans were to become—of all things!—a Latin teacher. Those plans changed, however, when a representative from Manchester College in Indiana came to my school one day. I fell in love with the campus immediately and decided then to change my major to Chemistry and German.

When I was in my junior year in college, I had the opportunity to study in Marburg, Germany for a year. I was hooked on the German language, the people, and the country. During my year abroad, I saw a flyer asking for volunteers to help with recreational activities at the Deutsche Blindenstudientanstalt (the German School for the Blind), which was the secondary school in Marburg for students with vision loss, preparing them for universities or commercial colleges. I was hooked after the first event!

During the time I volunteered, I met Pamela and Dennis Cory, an American couple who were on the staff there. Pam and Dennis had done undergraduate work in Germany, volunteered at the school for the blind, returned to the United States to attend Western Michigan University for their graduate degrees (Pam in Vision Rehabilitation Therapy and Dennis in Orientation and Mobility), and then retuned to Germany to work.

In 1970, after my year in Marburg, I returned to the United States to attend graduate school at Purdue University. I completed my master’s degree in German in 1973 and then returned to Marburg, where I worked as an English teacher and dorm mother, again at the school for the blind.

After spending three years there, I decided to return to the United States once again, this time to obtain a master’s degree in Vision Rehabilitation Therapy (at that time called Rehabilitation of the Adult Blind) at Western Michigan University, following the career paths of Pam and Dennis Cory.

The Edward Hines, Jr. VA Hospital in Chicago, Illinois
The Edward Hines, Jr. VA Hospital in Chicago, Illinois

As part of the requirements for my degree, I completed a 15-week internship at the Hines Veterans’ Administration (VA) Hospital in Chicago, Illinois. My internship included observations, team teaching with full-time staff members, and ultimately teaching my own clients the full range of daily living skills, including personal management and self-care; home management; recreation and leisure; reading and writing; and home mechanics and repair.

Once again, I was hooked. I knew I needed to work with America’s heroes.

After receiving my master’s degree in 1978, I was hired right away as a Living Skills Instructor at Hines. After three years in that position, I became the supervisor of the entire Vision Rehabilitation Therapy department and had the opportunity to supervise interns from Western Michigan University and Northern Illinois University in DeKalb.

In 1995, I became the Visual Impairment Services Team (VIST) Coordinator at Hines and managed the care for almost 400 Veterans with vision loss. VIST Coordinators are located at local VA Medical Centers across the country and work to ensure that Veterans with visual impairments receive appropriate benefits and services.

Throughout most of my career, I have also been an Instructor in the Master of Science in Special Education Program at Northern Illinois University. I teach a range of classes to my Vision Rehabilitation Therapy students, including personal management and self-care; home management; recreation and leisure; reading and writing; and home mechanics and repair. 

I have also served in several leadership capacities with the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired (AER), the primary membership organization of professionals who provide services to individuals with vision impairments. I have been an officer for the Illinois Chapter, Chair of the Vision Rehabilitation Therapy Division, and a member of the Board of Directors.

Currently, I serve on the Board of Directors of the Academy for Certification of Vision Rehabilitation & Education Professionals (ACVREP), the professional certification organization for vision rehabilitation and education professionals. My experience with ACVREP has been phenomenal as we have worked to make our profession more visible and more credible. Online testing, subject matter expert committees, and international eligibility requirements will help expand certification and ultimately help us to market our professions and increase our visibility in the health care and education fields.

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

In Germany, at the school for the blind, I saw the impact professionals could make on the lives of children with sight loss. By teaching skills for independence, children could build self-confidence and gain the courage to plan productive lives.

I remember one young girl whose family had done absolutely everything for her. At age 12, she couldn’t even tie her shoes! At the other extreme, I worked with an 11-year-old girl who had absolutely no vision and refused to use a cane for mobility because she didn’t want the sighted kids to see her that way. Both of these girls learned a great deal of independence, graduated from the school for the blind, and have created interesting and independent lives for themselves.

Tell us about the programs and services that are available for veterans with vision loss.

There are 158 Veterans’ Administration (VA) medical facilities throughout the United States and five territories. At each facility there is a Visual Impairment Services Team (VIST) Coordinator who meets with veterans with sight loss, discusses services, makes referrals, and provides support and counseling as needed.

VIST Coordinators are case managers who coordinate all services for legally blind veterans and their families, including providing and/or arranging for the provision of appropriate treatment plans and programs in order to enhance a blinded veteran’s functioning level. They also identify new cases of blindness, provide professional counseling, resolve problems, arrange annual healthcare reviews, and conduct education programs relating to blindness.

If a Veteran moves from Chicago to California, there is a VIST Coordinator who will begin working with the Veteran. The VIST Coordinator remains in contact with the Veteran to identify new needs as his or her vision, medical, or social situations change. As you can imagine, being a VIST Coordinator is a responsible, demanding, and highly rewarding position!

A stand magnifier, one type of low vision device
A stand magnifier, one type of low vision device

Veterans receive services from an entire continuum of care: outpatient low vision examinations, residential low vision training, and comprehensive rehabilitation instruction. Veterans are eligible for prosthetic devices (such as low vision optical devices, low vision non-optical devices, timepieces, adapted computers, and canes) if they have a need for the devices and can learn to use them appropriately.

What are your responsibilities now at the Hines VA? Can you describe a typical working day?

After 35 years in the field of blind rehabilitation, I decided I wanted to play a more integral role in management. As a result, I assumed the position of Chief of Voluntary Services at the Hines VA Hospital. In that position, I work with 900 volunteers who come to assist the Veterans and staff in a multitude of ways: assisting with feeding Veterans with spinal cord injuries, pushing Veterans in wheelchairs, assisting with filing and other office tasks, and driving Veterans from home to the hospital for appointments.

In addition, our office oversees more than $1.3 million in monetary and non-monetary donations. In this position, I sit on many hospital committees that are involved in strategic planning and oversight of care. One of my goals when I took the position was to develop more volunteer opportunities for individuals with disabilities. We work with the Central Blind Rehabilitation Center, the Spinal Cord Injury Center, and a variety of outpatient mental health programs to identify volunteers and opportunities. 

In Voluntary Service there is no typical working day. I greet volunteers as they sign in for work, meet with staff members who are requesting money for projects, attend meetings, and—every now and then—have the opportunity to go into the community to discuss the great work VA is doing for our Veterans. 

Is there a story you’d like to tell about a particular Veteran?

I will never forget BJ. She was a 38-year-old Veteran who was also a horse trainer. During one of her training sessions, she was thrown from a horse, and the horse came down on her head. As a result, BJ was permanently blind, deaf, and paralyzed from the waist down. She came to Hines with no communication—or other—skills.

We had to first teach her palm printing in order to communicate. To use the “print in palm” method, the deaf-blind person holds a hand out, palm facing upward, with his or her fingers together. In this way, the hand is positioned like a tablet or writing surface. The “speller” then uses his or her index finger to draw each letter on the palm.

Since BJ had been a print reader, she already knew the letters of the alphabet. We would write letters on her palm, and she would then put the letters together in her mind to create words and sentences.

BJ was a tremendous learner. Although she was in constant pain, she learned to communicate in many different ways: by using the one-hand manual alphabet, the Teletouch, braille, and finally via computer. 

The one-hand manual alphabet, also known as “finger spelling,” is a way to communicate with individuals who have both hearing and vision loss. The “speaker” uses a variety of finger positions to form letters and words against the deaf-blind person’s palm and fingers. The deaf-blind person can either respond by using his or her voice or by finger spelling back to the other person.

The Teletouch is a portable communication device for deaf-blind people. It is similar to a regular manual typewriter, with a braille cell on one end and a standard keyboard on the other. The deaf-blind person places his or her finger on the braille cell while the “speaker” uses the keyboard to type out words that are converted into braille characters for the deaf-blind person. The sender must type slowly and precisely because the receiver must read one letter at a time.

(Please note: The Teletouch has been out of production for some time and is hard to find now, but it had the advantage of being lightweight, portable, and not requiring a power supply.)

Since this occurred about 20 years ago, computer technology was still young and we were still learning! In addition, cochlear implants were developed around this same time. A cochlear implant is a surgically implanted electronic device that provides a sense of sound to a person who is profoundly deaf or hard of hearing. We helped BJ to fundraise, and she was able to receive an implant and regain enough hearing so that she could hear speech.

I am sure that my experiences working with BJ taught me more than I was able to teach her.  I learned patience, innovation, perseverance, and the excitement of even a small success.

Having worked with thousands of professionals in my life, I know that each one has at least one creative idea. In the “old days,” the only way we could share those ideas would be to go to conferences (if we could afford the time and money) or through newsletters (if anyone had the time to write them). Now it is so easy. Now all of us can have thousands of new ideas!