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A resource hub for the visually impaired promotes independence, equality

By Jessica Levine

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in Madison Commons, a publication of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Journalism Department and Community Shares of Wisconsin, of which the Council is a member. We are reprinting it with permission and with some minor copy changes.

In the offices at 754 Williamson Street, six black and white photographs hang on the wall and welcome visitors.  Each photograph is a portrait of an early secretary or director of the Wisconsin Council of the Blind and Visually Impaired, and many of these leaders were blind or visually impaired in some way.  They are a constant reminder to all who seek the help of the Council that blindness and visual impairment do not prevent people from accomplishing great things in life.

“It’s a great place to work, doing great, very needed work,” said Debby Anderson Meyer, fund development director of the Wisconsin Council of the Blind and Visually Impaired (WCB).  “And if there was something I could shift, it would be people’s perception of who might use our programs and services.”

Every seven minutes, someone in the U.S. will lose the full function of their eyes, and Anderson Meyer explained that many people who are losing some functionality of their vision do not consider themselves to be visually impaired. 

As the only statewide organization of its kind, WCB’s direct services, community education and advocacy are significant to Wisconsin residents with low or changing vision and blindness.  A board of blind and visually impaired individuals directs the Council, and WCB is a Community Shares partner. 

The White Cane Annual Fund provides support for the Council, and it has been in existence since 1948. 

Within the WCB offices, the Sharper Vision Store provides access to many tools used by the blind and visually impaired.  The WCB added the Sharper Vision Store within the last 20 years to its location on Williamson Street.  The store’s merchandise serves to enhance the independence and safety of people who have vision loss.

Within the last four years, WCB established an online component for the store, which increases the Council’s outreach and enables the community to shop for the products they need more easily.  Many of these resources are difficult to find anywhere else. According to Brent Perzentka, Sharper Vision Store staff member, the majority of clients WCB receives are older adults with macular degeneration, and eye disease that decreases the ability to see objects clearly. 

The physical store offers magnifiers of varying sizes, intensity and purpose to complement each person’s vision problem and the task they want to complete.  The Sharper Vision Store also stocks talking watches and clocks, braille watches, large print products, and more useful tools for people with vision problems.

The store is part of WCB’s direct service, but the Council was originally established as an advocacy group in 1952.  “When we talk about advocacy, it’s a lot to do with any kind of discrimination,” said Anderson Meyer, “but a lot of it has to do with access.” 

When the state turned down federal funding for the expansion of Amtrak throughout Wisconsin, the blind community was “devastated,” said Anderson Meyer, because it is not possible to get everywhere through the bus system.  In addition to transportation, significant advocacy issues that the Council addresses include employment, discrimination, protection of service dogs, protection of pedestrians through the White Cane Law, and accessibility of educational materials for post-secondary students.

In addition to legislative advocacy, WCB partners with the UW-Madison’s Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences to provide low vision therapy.  Council member Marshall Flax, a certified low vision therapist, provides vision rehabilitation services at the University Station Eye Clinic. Flax is also a certified orientation and mobility specialist, which means that he helps clients orient themselves to new environments so they can be as independent as possible.

“What is it you can’t do now because of your vision that you want to be able to do?” Flax asks his clients, and he helps them achieve these goals.  Through orientation and mobility training, Flax shows clients that visual impairment and blindness do not control their lives.  He empowers his clients by helping them realize their independence.

The WCB reaches out to blind or visually impaired individuals, and it also provides educational resources for the public and professionals as well.  Through speaking engagements, WCB informs people about vision health and technology that can keep people who have vision loss active, engaged and connected.  A recent webinar focused on new technology, like e-readers, that increase access to literature and other information. 

“Blindness is just one thing people learn to adapt to and live really full lives,” said Anderson Meyer.