Journey of a Vision Rehabilitation Therapist, From Student, to Teacher, to Teacher of Teachers
I stood in the middle of my dorm room at the World Services for the Blind. It was my fortieth birthday and I had no career plans for the next 25 or so years. As my vision had gradually gotten worse due to retinitis pigmentosa, I’d developed good skills to live as a blind person, but I felt inadequate in my profession. I had eight years of university training and I didn’t want to return to college! But…that’s exactly what I did thanks to the encouragement of Dr. Patricia Smith, Department Chair of graduate studies in orientation and mobility and rehabilitation teaching—now vision rehabilitation therapy—at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. (Note: VRT training is no longer offered at the university, since the retirement of Dr. Smith, but the school still offers training for students for Orientation and Mobility and Rehabilitation Counseling).
Becoming a Vision Rehabilitation Therapist
For the next two years I studied under the masterful tutelage of Dr. Smith. My blindness did not stop her from expecting excellence from me. For example, Dr. Smith insisted that I develop “outside the box” methods of monitoring client development, since I could not visually evaluate client progress. One day she said to me as we discussed my progress as a rehabilitation teacher, “You will either be an excellent teacher or a poor one.” “As a blind person,” she continued, “you will never be allowed to pass as an average teacher as sighted people often do.” “But,” encouraging me she went on, “If you become an excellent teacher, you will be better than any sighted person can be, because your clients will learn more than just skills from you.” I have never forgotten those words!
Choosing My Internship Site
When the time came to choose an internship site, Dr. Smith suggested the Texas Commission for the Blind’s (TCB) Criss Cole Rehabilitation Center in Austin. I’d read a little about the center in the Unseen Minority, Frances Koestler’s history of the blindness field, and it sounded like a good opportunity. I’ve rarely turned down an adventure, and they were offering free room and board!
Hired as a Vision Rehabilitation Therapist
This is one of the best decisions I ever made in my life. Shortly before my internship ended, a job position opened in my department and I was hired as a rehabilitation teacher. I later learned that the Center’s Director approved my hiring, because I didn’t hesitate on my first day of internship to fill in for staff that could not get to work. That weekend Austin experienced one of the worst ice storms in history and only weekend staff was available to work with the residential clients.
During my internship, I met Sue Carter, rehabilitation teaching trainer in TCB’s staff development department. When Sue learned that I was doing functional low vision assessments with each of my clients, our mutual interest in low vision quickly created a professional bond between us. Eventually, these assessments became part of the standards at the Center. When a new position was created in Staff Development, Sue encouraged me to apply. During the years I worked under Sue Carter, I grew exponentially as a vision rehabilitation professional. Much of my professional success is credited to Dr. Smith and Sue Carter.
From Teaching Students to Teaching Teachers
I must pause here momentarily on the journey and tell you that changing from teaching clients to teaching staff was not an easy decision. I still believe that the most rewarding job is teaching other visually impaired individuals the skills needed not only to live as independent/interdependent adults but to live confidently as someone who just happens to have a visual impairment. Many visually impaired people learn the skills to function with vision loss but then there are those like two of my first clients who gained so much more. A woman whom we will call “Debbie” was a young mother with a very small child who was so depressed she sat on the living room sofa all day. Even after attending the Center, she did not accept herself with blindness. Two years later I ran into her again at the Center. She told me, “Over and over I thought about everything you taught me, and now I’m back ready to find a career as well as be a wife and mother.” Most remarkable was a man whom we will call “Robert”. His vision loss was self inflicted. He’d been to the Center once before but was back just to study braille. I’ve never seen anyone learn braille as quickly and as well as Robert. Those were the days before braille embossers, so I had to prepare all of his materials by hand. Twenty-five years later Robert is a very successful business man in a large city. He is tall, handsome, has a Ph.D, and, oh yes, he’s blind.
For the first year I taught in Staff Development, I wasn’t sure I’d made the right decision. I missed the direct interaction with clients. Eventually, satisfaction came from knowing I was teaching TCB staff what I’d learned from Dr. Smith and other notable professionals in the blindness field and was learning from Sue Carter. I realized I might affect the lives of fifty people a year if I continue teaching clients, but if I trained even ten professionals annually, I could affect the lives of five hundred people a year.
The “Kitchen Drawer” Philosophy
Working with Sue Carter I learned the concepts I later incorporated into the “kitchen drawer” philosophy. I observed many visually impaired people. Some seemed to have gaps in their skills while others could do anything. In time, I realized the confident, independent individuals seemed to have a tool box of a few skills they drew upon depending on the task. Or a kitchen drawer filled with just what they would need throughout the day. In time, I realized the “kitchen drawer” only needed twenty-five skills to perform hundreds of tasks. Task #1 might need skills 2, 6, 7, and 20. Task #2 might need skills 2 6, 10, and 20. What a psychological relief this is to a newly visually impaired person. He doesn’t have to learn 300 tasks over again. He simply needs twenty-five skills!
My Own Video Series
My most interesting duty in Staff Development was filming Tips for Daily Living with Lynda Jones, a two minute segment in the agency’s TV show. Topics included recreation and sports, transportation, labeling, and holiday suggestions. Every segment began literally with an eye-catcher. The segment on transportation began with me driving my bosses Miata convertible then hopping out of the car and walking off using my cane. The recreation segment began with me getting a hole-in-one at a putt-putt golf course. The outtakes showed me getting hit in the stomach with a beeping football that failed to beep! Several years after I left Texas a young visually impaired student in Mexico saw the videos and asked if I’d really driven the car. Isn’t videography wonderful!
Development of Braille Competency Exam
I believe my greatest accomplishment while working in Staff Development, was creating a Braille competency exam for TCB staff. To support the braille exam I wrote and received a federal grant to improve Braille production and equal access for agency staff. Through the grant, doors were open to teaching opportunities at universities and other educational initiatives including an AFB Braille project.
My Career in the Vision Rehabilitation Therapy Program at Florida State University
In 1995, when a vision rehabilitation therapy graduate program was funded at Florida State University, I applied for the program coordinator’s position. In June 1996, I left Austin and journeyed to Tallahassee and began the most rewarding years of my career. For thirteen years, year after year,until the rehabilitation teaching part of the program lost funding (It still offers Orientation and Mobility and training to become TVIs (Teachers of Visually Impaired students in school settings). I was blessed to teach talented, dedicated individuals—some in their twenties and just getting started, others well into their careers but wanting a degree in the field. Everything I’d learned and observed over the years I taught my students. Some classes were held in my home so the students could practice in a real-life setting, but also so they could see how a blind person can truly live independently.
The Best Decision of My Life
One day Dr. Smith’s words came back full-circle to me. One of my students said, “Ms. Jones, I’ve learned more from watching you than from my classes.” Those words, the amazing success of many of my FSU students, and the contact I still have with several students, let’s me know I made the best decision of my life when I chose to become a vision rehabilitation therapist.