Uncle Sam's Secret 

by Maureen E. Carr

Blind Rehabilitation training is a little known program that our government makes available to veterans who are legally blind. It is one of America’s biggest and best kept secrets. Here is a quick look at this most extraordinary and excellent benefit.

Throughout the United States and Puerto Rico, the VA Healthcare System has established ten inpatient BRCs (three more are in the planning stage). These are places veterans can come for unique residential training. Additionally, there are numerous outpatient and abbreviated blind rehabilitation options scattered throughout the country.

I have been a blind rehabilitation teacher in a VA Medical Center BRC for the past 22 years. The experience I have gained, the lessons I have learned, and the hundreds of veterans whose lives I have seen changed for the better by this unparalleled training have only been surpassed by the dedicated and talented staff I have worked with.

Frequently with the loss of vision comes loss of control over one’s own life. Choices are greatly reduced, roles are frequently reversed, and relationships are often strained. Loss is a dominant theme. It is enough that one can no longer drive, or get easily from place to place, but now for many, even something as simple as writing a check, being left alone, preparing a simple meal, or going fishing with a friend is lost.

All too often a person leaves an ophthalmologist’s office with the final words of, “I’m sorry— there is nothing more that can be done.”  Too many times physicians believe that if there is nothing more they can do medically, there is nothing more to be done. Referrals to appropriate rehabilitation services are seldom made. How wrong this is! 

If I were to give a speech to physicians, in particular ophthalmologists, I would entitle it “What You Can Do for your Patients When All of your Skills and Talents Are Not Enough.”  No matter the age the person or the limitations of their vision, blind rehabilitation training is an appropriate prescription. It is not a cure but most definitely a pathway to a meaningful, productive, and worthwhile life.

Being a legally blind individual, I know firsthand the importance of being able to interact with peers and acquire adaptive skills. As a child attending a school for the blind, I learned to succeed or fail based on my own skills and abilities, not my amount of vision. Being around people who are just like you is an incredible awakening experience. Notwithstanding the ethnic origin or personal background of the person, blindness can be a great equalizer.

As well meaning as loved ones may be, not having knowledge or understanding of the multiple losses can be frustrating. This experience for both the blind person and the family member is a frightening and difficult time.

The future looks bleak; tempers are short, and anger and depression are byproducts of the frustration and fear. There seems to be nowhere to turn … and then sometimes, unfortunately not often enough, a blinded veteran will hear about the VA-sponsored blind rehabilitation programs.

The benefits of inpatient Blind Rehabilitation Service (BRS) training far exceed the skills taught. While in no way do I want to diminish the value of daily lessons in mobility, visual skills, manual skills,  living skills, and nursing education, I do wish to convey that there is much more to gain for the individual participating in an inpatient program.

Challenging misconceptions, breaking down old beliefs about blindness, and working toward acceptance are all benefits of being with peers. Providing an opportunity for the individuals to rise to their own level of independence is the task. The inpatient program lasts for approximately six weeks, helping honorably discharged veterans reclaim their independence, autonomy, and self–esteem.

The inpatient experience with peers allows veterans to look at their limitations, see how others are dealing with similar or even more significant challenges, and then move forward. They also become very aware that they not alone. The reclamation of self-confidence and self-esteem rapidly increase as they realizes that it isn’t “all over” for them. There is a life that can be productive, meaningful, and worth living. One veteran told me that for him the word blind had taken on a new meaning: Beginning Life  In a New Dimension. 

Optometric and other medical staff work along with the rehab teaching team to develop an individualized training program, which will have the best chance to foster independence. Families are sometimes brought in toward the end of the residential stay in to help them better understand the needs of the trainees and how they can allow the newly acquired skills to work on behalf of the veterans. Families are taught that when they prevent their loved ones from failing, they risk robbing them of their chance to succeed.

Many times family members will wear a visual simulator, which gives them an opportunity to experience what the veterans are experiencing. Visualizing them cross a busy street independently or cook something on a stove work to dispel stereotypical ideas that they may have had about a blind person’s abilities. The previously impossible soon becomes possible. Between the combination of newly acquired skills and an awakened sense of self-confidence/self worth, life has surely had a dramatic change for the better.

Many veterans who started with few expectations at the beginning of their program want to come back for additional training in Computer Access Technology. This is a separate program that veterans have available to them.

We should take great pride in our Department of Veterans Affairs BRS programs. For further information, go to http://www1.va.gov/blindrehab.

Maureen Carr is a Vision Rehabilitation Therapist for the VA Connecticut Healthcare System at the Eastern Blind Rehabilitation Center in West Haven, Connecticut. She composed the piece in response to a personal frustration at the number of veterans who had been visually impaired for years but who had no knowledge of VA BRS and its programs.

Copyright © AER Report (Volume 27, Number 3). All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission from the Association for the Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired.