Marj Awalt, a Pioneer in the Vision Rehabilitation Field
by Laura Vittorioso, Vision Rehabilitation Therapist, The Iris Network
“Putting the Person First”
Marj Awalt is recognized as one of the earliest Vision Rehabilitation Therapists in the state of Maine. Marj, of Augusta, Maine, retired nineteen years ago from the State of Maine Division for the Blind and Visually Impaired as the last Adult Education Specialist. Prior to the 1970s the Division for the Blind employed several “Adult Education Specialists” as they were then called. The Adult Ed Specialists provided individual instruction in braille, talking books (which were then on 33 rpm records), crafts and rotary phone dialing. Other responsibilities included: general education about eye conditions, adjustment counseling and information regarding benefits and services. According to Marj the guiding force throughout her career was “putting the person first.”
Marj Awalt, born Marj Doyen, grew up in the small town of Bethel, Maine with her sister Connie, who also joined the field in the mid-seventies. Marj lost her vision at an early age. She completed her education in 1954 at Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Massachusetts. Her mother was a teacher and her father worked as a barber. The family eventually moved to South Portland where her mother took a teaching position and her father worked as a milkman for Hood Dairy. After high school Marj enrolled in Vermont Junior college in Montpelier where she obtained an associate degree in liberal studies. She completed her B.S. at Gordon College majoring in Christian Education. In 1959 Marj obtained a position as a clerk-typist with the Maine Department of Human Services. The Division for the Blind was housed in the same office and it is here where Marj met one of the home teachers, Louise Bennett, who introduced her to the profession and encouraged her to enroll in a training program for Home Teachers in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
In 1962 Marj enrolled in the training program for home teachers in Pennsylvania which included housing and practice work at The Overbrook School for the Blind in Philadelphia and academic course work at the University of Pennsylvania. The class, which comprised Marj and seven other students were all blind or visually impaired. The thinking at the time, according to Marj, was that people who were blind or visually impaired were best suited for the job because they possessed the necessary skills. The home teachers took the train to the University of Pennsylvania several days a week for classes in counseling and psychology. Internships were completed two days a week at the Pennsylvania State Services for the Blind. At the completion of the year-long program, students received a graduate certificate.
Marj obtained a job immediately with The Industrial Home for the Blind in Brooklyn, New York (now Helen Keller Services). The agency came to the graduate students to recruit for open positions. Marj had to train for three months with a mobility instructor in order to learn the subway system and how to “count the blocks.” The mobility training had to be completed prior to her start date as a Home Teacher.
Marj was assigned to Brooklyn and Queens so she could access public transportation. One day was spent in the office just arranging travel routes. Marj said she could see on average four—five clients a day traveling in the city. She secured a basement apartment in Brooklyn….”It was the first time I had lived on my own. I worked hard during the day and enjoyed the city at night.”
Emphasis was placed on teaching handcrafts. According to Marj, it was thought people who were blind or visually impaired needed “busy work.” Marj admitted she was not very skilled in the variety of crafts to be taught: rug braiding, chair caning and weaving. “I was okay with knitting which I had been doing since I was five years old.” One of her supervisors questioned whether she would be able to handle the job with limited skills in this area. Fortunately Marj realized she didn’t actually have to be able to do the various crafts herself as long as she could teach the adaptations.
Return to Maine to Work
Marj remained at The Industrial Home for the Blind for several years. When a position opened up with The State of Maine, Division for the Blind, Marj was happy to return home. Initially she was housed in the Portland office and covered a large territory, ten counties, which included the southern coast…from Kittery up to Rockland and inland to Rangeley. The services she was able to provide with such a large territory were spotty. On average she saw clients every couple of months. If someone was learning braille, they were seen at least monthly. In addition to teaching braille, the Adult Ed Specialists provided education about blindness and vision loss, services and benefits and taught basic adaptive techniques, such as: pouring, dialing the telephone and use of the Talking Books program and equipment.
Marj met and married Hugh Awalt in 1967. She needed an escort for the annual Maine Fraternal Association for the Blind banquet and a friend set her up with Hugh. “I was Hugh’s blind date,” she jokes. He worked for the State Department of Transportation in Augusta, Maine. After they married, the couple moved to Augusta and purchased a home where they still reside. She chuckles remembering the announcement in the wedding section of the local newspaper, “To Wed a Man She Never Saw.”
The State of Maine eventually eliminated the position of Adult Education Specialist; however, Marj remained until her retirement in 1996 as the only state employed Adult Education Specialist or Rehabilitation Teacher. Marj’s territory eventually became the Augusta area. New positions were funded through the nonprofit agency for the blind, now The Iris Network.
Highlights of Her Career
When asked what were some of the highlights of her long career, Marj replied, “the people, both the clients I worked with and my co-workers at the state and private agency; also the consumer groups.” She remembers one summer when she worked with four blind and visually impaired high school girls in the home economics room of a local high school. They met once a week to learn activities such as: needle threading, mending, ironing, use of the stove and simple cooking. As a treat for the students at the end of the program the group went to Macy’s Department Store in Portland. Marj told her students they could each buy one item and afterwards they could have lunch at the restaurant there. “I had to elicit assistance from one of the store clerks. We were quite a sight….the five of us and my guide dog.“
There was a week-long training trip to New York City’s Center for Independent Living (now VISIONS) in 1979 which Marj remembers fondly. The group of rehabilitation teachers from the private agency and Marj were sent to learn about the newest population of blindness….older people. “A great time was had by all learning from experts in the field during the day and enjoying the wonderful restaurants at night.” For Marj it was a special time to be back in New York where her career started. Other highlights included the monthly staff meetings. “At that time, we were small and everything was new and we were really building this profession.” The school presentations were also special for Marj. “I am still stopped by students and teachers who remember my talks and guide dogs.”
Marj went through three guide dogs during her working years: Tracy, Dorie and Gail. All three were females from Guiding Eyes for the Blind.
Now retired, she has resumed use of her cane. After retirement Marj worked as a Hospice Volunteer and also as a telephone volunteer for a women’s shelter. She remains active as the president of The Rainbow Club, a support group for people who are visually impaired. Marj has been a key player in the formation and continuation of this group for over twenty years. She and Hugh have always loved music and both continue to sing in their church choir.
Marj celebrated her 80th birthday last summer where she was greeted by many of her former co-workers from across the state. Unfortunately this writer was not able to attend; therefore, was so pleased to have the opportunity to personally catch up with Marj and see how she continues to give to others through her various community groups. She summed it up this way, “It is a lifelong commitment this work….we don’t do it for the money, it’s always been the people.”