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
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
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
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
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