VIP’s vision stresses support

Mary Lewis first noticed something wrong with her vision in 1989, when straight lines turned wavy.

The visual anomaly turned out to be an early symptom of the most common eye disease affecting seniors – macular degeneration, a condition that attacks the retina’s center, making direct vision blurry while leaving some peripheral vision intact.

When she received her diagnosis, Lewis was a 52-year-old archeology, history and classics professor at New Jersey’s Kean University.

“For someone who read every day, not being able to focus to read was frightening,” Lewis said. “It’s more difficult to admit the problem when you lose sight later. That issue of ‘fessing up and admitting you can’t read signs in the bakery – that’s hard for someone who’s always been independent.”

The disease was held at bay with laser and other surgeries for a decade, but at 62 Lewis retired from her teaching post, relocating to Bainbridge in 1999.

Soon after moving to the island, Lewis joined the Visually Impaired Persons (VIP) group.

“I found the VIP group full of crusty, wonderful people,” Lewis said. “They helped smooth my transition to the island.”

“Everyone, when they’re first diagnosed, comes here frightened and frustrated,” VIP member Evelyn Peratrovich said. “They may start off bitter and negative, but it doesn’t take too many meetings before they turn positive and upbeat.”

VIP was started in 1992 by Nancy Humleker, office manager for a Poulsbo ophthamologist.

Peratrovich attended the second meeting, held on Bainbridge at the Winslow Arms Apartments.

“I had just been diagnosed with macular degeneration,” Peratrovich said. “and my husband, Stan, had been visually impaired forever, so we both went.”

Virginia Hardy became the first president, and Peratrovich said she was elected secretary.

“I had the best eyesight of anyone there,” Peratrovich said, “so I had to do it.”

Nineteen people attended the first meeting, but today the group, which is funded by the Bainbridge Foundation, lists about 40 Bainbridge and 16 Kitsap members.

Between 30 and 35 people turn out for the monthly meetings at the library – many of whom have known each other for years, Lewis said. “VIP gives them a forum to share information, a social arena and an advocacy group.”

Most members – nearly 90 percent – are seniors with macular degeneration, but others are affected by conditions such as glaucoma, retinitis pigmentosa and diabetic retinopathy.

There are also a few younger members, as well as members visually impaired from birth.

“We had a couple of young mothers,” Peratrovich said. “One, Dana Curtis, had all of us behind her through the pregnancy.

“She wore binoculars so she could see her baby being born.”

Adapting daily

Like other VIP members, Peratrovich has learned to both tailor her environment and adapt gimmicks and gadgets to circumstances.

“We own many different hand-held magnifiers,” Peratrovich said. “We use lots of lights – fluorescents and mini lights – and we’re the only house in our neighborhood lit up like that.

“We have a large Rolodex and a large-print telephone, and we use extra-thick pens and large pads to write notes – no little Post-its for us.”

At the Bainbridge library, visually impaired people can use the computer services in the small room near the children’s library that is dedicated to their needs.

The room holds the VIP group’s archives, large-type ferry schedules and flyers and brochures of support services.

The room contains a CCTV – not a TV at all, but a “closed circuit magnifying device” that enlarges printed material.

“People love to come to the library and use the CCTV to read stock quotes,” Lewis said.

But the most noticeable feature is an oversize computer monitor – 21 inches square.

In 1999, Mike Schuyler, Kitsap Regional Library’s Chief of Support Services, received a $30,000 grant from MCI/Sprint.

Schuyler used the untargeted grant to purchase large terminals and print-enlarging software for five of the libraries in the Kitsap system.

The computer supports a “screenreader” program, called “JAWS,” that “speaks” text to the listener.

Although there are nine voices to choose from, Lewis says every JAWS voice sounds like the computer-generated speech it is.

“It’s funny to hear it,” Lewis said. “A word like ‘record’ is read the same way for every meaning.”

The National Federation of the Blind uses JAWS for their “newsline,” a service that enables VIPs to listen to excerpts from various newspapers, including the Post-Intelligencer, the New York Times and USA Today.

While technologies for the visually impaired have improved in recent years, both Peratrovich and Lewis feel that advocacy groups like VIP are still critically important.

In one successful project, VIPs worked with the city and local merchants to get steps and sidewalks edged in yellow.

“Bainbridge isn’t very pedestrian-friendly,” Lewis said. “Ferncliff is the best, between High School and Winslow Way, but people are quite loath to walk up and down Ericksen.”

The biggest problem, said Lewis, are cut outs from driveways, which can be difficult for visually-impaired persons to negotiate. “You’re walking along – and suddenly the surface falls away a foot,” she said.

Besides safe places to walk, transportation is high on the list of priorities, Peratrovich said.

Most important, however, is increasing the level of public awareness. VIP members believe problems such as store displays on sidewalks and dim lighting in restaurants could be alleviated with education.

“There are some things you just don’t consider until they affect you,” Lewis said.

* * * * *

The Visually Impaired Persons support group meets 1 p.m. Jan. 9 at the Bainbridge library.

Call 842-0123 or 855-1470 for transportation or information.

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