Sightseeing. A periodic tour of CVI news, views and events.

CVI's SightSeeing Blog

Welcome to CVI's SightSeeing Blog! Here we discuss topics of interest and importance to the community.

Some of the information posted here includes personal stories from CVI clients, perspectives from CVI's expert staff, hot topic issues in government, the latest trends in technology for the visually impaired, and much more. Our desire is that this blog is a useful tool to enlighten, educate and provide needed information in a meaningful dialogue for both the blind and sighted communities. Join us as we invite you to share and discuss the topics with us.

Please note: Blog comments are not to be interpreted as a direct endorsement by the Center for the Visually Impaired.

STARS Honors 2014 High School Graduates

Picture of STARS graduates and Alumni membersEarlier this month, the STARS staff celebrated with 6 blind and visually impaired students as they turned their tassels and graduated from high school. The STARS annual Graduation Ceremony, held at CVI, is a way to support and encourage seniors as they transition from high school to college or employment. “Each of the graduates was able to speak on what STARS has meant to them over the years, which was incredibly heart-warming and encouraging,” said Heather Ferro, STARS and Volunteer Services Director. “Seeing the graduates welcomed by the CVI Alumni Association added to the warmness of the celebration.” The students graduated from schools such as the Georgia Academy for the Blind, Pickens County High School, Tucker High School, Kell High School and Drew High School.

CVI staff, Alumni Association members, parents and friends were all in attendance as each student was given an award and a $200 scholarship check from the CVI Alumni Association. The scholarship award started six years ago with a goal of financially giving back to the youth because they wanted to see each graduate leave CVI with a hand up in getting started on their journey in life. During the year the Alumni Association hosts two major fundraising activities to collect monies for the scholarship. They host a Superbowl drawing for a big screen television in January and an Entrepreneurial Showcase and Hot Dog sale in April.

STARS has held this ceremony since 2003. Initially it was called the STARS award brunch and was for any student receiving an award highlighting their accomplishments in the after school program, summer camp and mentoring program. It later blossomed into a ceremony recognizing seniors graduating from high school.

So, hats off to our graduates. We are proud of you and all that you have accomplished. Out of the eight seniors that graduated 6 were in attendance at the ceremony. Below is a listing of their names and their ambitions for the future.

1. Ali Lawson will be attending Young Harris College in the fall majoring in religious studies. She plans to become a minister.
2. Malik Wilson will be attending the National Federation of the Blind training center and then go to college. He wants to pursue a degree in marketing or business.
3. Alexandria Gooch will be attending Bobby Dodd Institute and wants to become a Spanish translator.
4. Kajain Sheppard is hoping to attend Georgia Perimeter College in the fall.
5. Ashley Robinson will be attending Mercer University in August for a work-study program.
6. Julius Lindsey just accepted a job at Kroger and will be working in the produce department.

Giving Back to My Community is Not Just My work But My Passion


When I launched my professional career in May 1995, my mind was set on working for a prestigious company as a public relations practitioner. Working in the non-profit industry was nowhere on the radar and neither was blindness. I had volunteered in the past both during my high school and college years. I had even sat on a collegiate board for the March of Dimes and found the work rewarding and enjoyable. Immediately after college I worked at a local public relations firm where we did pro bono work for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation’s “Bowl for Breath” fundraising campaign. But little did I know that in a few months I would be going blind and that my whole life and career would drastically change.

Empish sitting at Coke exhibit tableI first came in contact with the Center for the Visually Impaired as a client. I was losing my vision to retinal detachment and optical nerve damage. I was currently working at a national corporate company and wanted to continue working but I needed help. CVI assisted me with the education and training that I needed to continue not only working but continue my life as well. I learned about assistive technology, traveling safely with a white cane, reading braille and completing household chores.

After losing my corporate job to downsizing, I was rethinking my career path and decided to volunteer at a non-profit. Since I was now a part of the disability community, I wanted to learn more and give back. I worked on a newsletter for a disability non-profit agency. This led to an AmeriCorps position which led to a resource position which finally led to sub-contract and freelance writing work. Before I knew it I had been working with local non-profits for several years. These opportunities allowed me to use my public relations and journalism experience while serving my own population. Then in 2008 the economy took a major nose dive and I had to rethink my career yet again. A visually impaired friend told me about an opening position at CVI and thought I would be perfect for it. The position included educating the public on vision loss, writing, editing and public speaking. Well, that sounded just like me! So here I am almost 6 years later doing exactly that.

What makes working at CVI so rewarding and fulfilling is I am not just a blind person representing my community but that I use my skills and talents every day. Through my speaking engagements, writing and editing the SightSeeing Blog, that you are reading, maintaining a blind community events calendar called InfoLink and more, I am able to promote our mission-independence with dignity. My visual disability enhances my position here because when I interact with the public I am a walking, live example of what a blind and visually impaired person is capable of doing. I am like the guy on the Hair Club for Men commercial. He says that he is not just the president but a user of the product. I find this motivating because people get a better understanding of the blind community when they interact with me. Seeing the reactions from people is encouraging and inspiring. It helps me to believe that what I am doing and the agency I represent are making differences in the world and in the lives of those with vision loss.

Being a Blind Father is Not a Different Experience


We often hear adults identify the birth of their child as one of the most meaningful and impactful events of their lives. This is certainly not any different for parents who are blind or visually impaired. Blind parents experience the same kind of emotions, both of anticipation and later of joy and ecstasy upon hearing that first baby cry which often signifies a successful delivery. Yet, for some people, it always comes as a surprise and a shock when they realize, together with my wife, I have been able to raise a beautiful and successful young lady.

Picture of Anisio, Julia and Agnes at Julia's graduation.This is not to say that I was not nervous the first time I had to change her diaper or give her a bath. But then, what father has not really felt a bit nervous and apprehensive the first time he was called to handle his seemingly frail and beautiful baby! Fortunately, while in the hospital where my wife delivered, I encountered a nurse who observed me handle my baby daughter with such careful movements. She reassured me of her durability and resiliency. I think that observation, more than anything, helped me begin to realize that all I had to do was use my fatherly instincts and develop adaptive ways to accomplish the various baby care tasks, as I had always done in other situations.

And so, I quickly discovered ways to, yes, change her diaper and ensure she was clean. Give her a bath; feed her the bottle and later solid food. Take her outside for a walk in her stroller and holding my hand; help her practice her first written words. And later help her gain the confidence to let go of her training wheels.

So, you see, besides perhaps doing some of these things in a slightly different way, being a father as a blind person is not a different experience from the one enjoyed by every dad. We experience the same joys and excitement with every milestone achieved and, of course, we also agonize about their safety and their ability to make the right decisions as they grow and we begin to let go.

Each Father’s Day has been special, including those when my daughter would write her own poems to me and often managed to include a message in braille. She always knew what gift would make me smile! Seeing her progress through elementary, middle and later high school, I often marvel at those times when she reminds me so much of myself and/or my wife. Observing first-hand the impact we have had in the formation of her values and norms is obviously a huge responsibility. It is also obvious and reassuring to see how she is her own person, not so different but rather complementing us.

This Father’s Day marks my daughter’s graduation from high school. It also marks the incoming preparations for her moving from home to her college dorm, far away! My wife and I will miss her, but we also know she has the tools and the smarts to succeed and we are very proud of her.


Editor’s note: As Father’s Day quickly approaches On June 15th; we encourage you to take the time to honor the special men who are fathers, grandfathers and stepfathers in your life.

Bookshare Offers Another Option to Accessible Books


Picture of CVI staff member, Empish, reading brailleMany people who are blind and visually impaired know that books can be accessed in Braille, large print and audio. These alternative options can be found at your local community library and/or the NLS Talking Book Library. Some might even purchase books through on-line resources like Audable.com or Amazon.com. Traditional book stores like Borders and Barnes & Noble are good choices too. But another option that people may not be fully aware of is Bookshare. For several years Bookshare has been offering the world’s largest library of
on-line copywrited books, magazines, newspapers, textbooks and periodicals to people with print impairments.

According to a recent Hadley School webinar I participated in, Bookshare has more than 268,000 Student Members. More than 10,000 schools and other organizations participate. More than 216,000 titles are available. More than 1,000 new books are added every month. These large numbers clearly show that Bookshare is another great option to access books for those who have vision loss.

I had known about Bookshare for a while but never participated in its offerings because I was accessing my books from other sources. It was not until a few months ago when I participated in a book discussion group at my local community library that I started to use Bookshare. I got a copy of the list of books in advance but was disappointed when most of the books on the list were not available through the NLS/Talking Book Library. A friend suggested Bookshare because they list mostly academic books and books recommended by their readers. I went to their website to search for the titles. After doing a very simple search I found just about all the titles except two and decided to subscribe and become a member.

The membership process was very easy. First I created a user name, password, and my profile. Next I had to gather documents to prove that I had a print impairment. When completing this step you can either use your eye doctor, a vision rehabilitation center like CVI or your membership at the NLS/Talking Book Library. Bookshare will then send you a confirmation e-mail when they have gotten your verification of your disability. After that you just pay your membership fee and you are set. The annual membership fee is currently $50 and there is a $25 one-time startup fee.

One very cool feature of Bookshare that I liked was that I could create a folder to store all the books associated with the book discussion I was attending. This is a great feature because as you select and download the books you can immediately place them in that folder. This helps with keeping your books organized and in one place. Many school teachers and students use this feature as well. When a teacher selects books for the students to read they are placed in a folder where the student can just go to that particular folder for their book assignments. Other nice features include tutorials and easy ways to search for books. You can go to the training section and find a variety of tutorials from getting started to informational webinars, videos and quick guides. You can search by title, author or ISBN number.

Once I had my books downloaded, I transferred them to my accessible book reader. I use the Humanware Victor Reader Stream; but MP3 Players, phones and tablets are also devices that can be used with Bookshare. Or if you don’t have access to a book reader, like the ones I have mentioned, Bookshare allows you to read the book immediately on your computer through an Internet browser. IT is called the Bookshare Web Reader and is a fairly recent feature. All you have to do is select a book and click on the link that says “read now.” The current version is optimized for Google Chrome and provides text-to-text speech, word highlights and more.

One small challenge I found is that all Bookshare books are in text-to-text speech. This format does take getting use to as it is not a human voice but a computerized voice. I was able to work around it by decreasing my speed on my reading device and not multi-tasking while reading. But getting access to the books I needed for my discussion, which allowed me to fully participate, was well worth enduring the speech quality. So, if you are looking to expand your library and reading options Bookshare might be an excellent option for you. For more information go to Bookshare’s website at www.bookshare.org.

So, let’s talk about reading books. Do you use Bookshare? Have you found it helpful when accessing books not found through other sources? Would you recommend Bookshare to a visually impaired friend?

Me, Braille and the Heart of Applebutter Hill

Picture of Donna Hill with her guide dog in the woodsIt was a steaming July day in Smithtown, New York. I sat at the dining room table at the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind examining a Braille slate. "This is a stylus," said my classmate Marian Edson, placing a strange object into my hand, "Start from the right side. We write each letter backwards. Place the point inside the first cell and see if you can feel where the six dots go."

Marian and I were from East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania. I had just bluffed and blundered my way through college. She had a teenage daughter. We were part of GDF's grand experiment in 1971 to determine whether guide dogs were appropriate for people with some usable vision.

Marian learned Braille as a young child at the Overbrook School for the Blind. I was the first blind child mainstreamed in Pennsylvania's Easton Area School District. Despite being legally blind from retinitis pigmentosa or more commonly known as RP, Braille was never discussed.

Was this a mistake? My experiences doing without it and then trying to learn it as an adult suggest that it was. When I met Marian, I had already fallen through the cracks. If it hadn't been for six dots and a dog, both of which allowed me to focus on something other than physical sight, I may have never found my way.

In 2010, I wrote articles on Braille literacy for the online magazine American Chronicle. Mothers of blind kids told me horror stories about trying to get Braille education for their legally but not totally blind kids. The children were spending far more time on their homework than their peers and often had chronic headaches. As they grew older without Braille, their love of reading diminished, and they were falling behind socially as well as academically.

"You can't expect the same thing of him as you would if he were sighted." Why not? Some blind kids have already become doctors, lawyers and engineers. "If you teach him Braille, you are going to make him blind." Excuse me? These were medically-certified legally blind kids. Braille is still the only system that provides true literacy on a par with print; spelling, punctuation and sentence structure are observed as you read.

My "aha" moment came in 2006. I'd been using contracted Braille for to-do lists, journals and song lyrics. I was an atrocious reader, but Braille allowed me to live alone for decades. That independence, however, did not include being employable. I supported myself as a musician, and I lived on the fringes of society.

I finally got a computer and wanted to write about the Harry Potter series. I submitted an essay to the fan site Mugglenet. The editor was not happy. The quotes I included were from the audio version. How could my interpretation of Rowling's sentence structure have been that off-base? I fessed up about being blind. My editor helped me with the quotes, and I wrote several essays on the boy wizard.

I improved my Braille skills, but I am slow. My spelling and grasp of homophones is better than it was, but I'm always double-checking and often wrong. I wish I had learned Braille in early childhood. Algebra was deemed necessary, and I've never used it. Why not teach Braille?

My braille journey is reflected in my fictional novel, “The Heart of Applebutter Hill.” A picture of a hand holding a blue heartAbigail, my 14-year-old heroine, is legally blind. She bears the scars of having been forced to use her remaining vision to read print. She's starting to learn Braille and assistive technology, and the reader witnesses her struggles and triumphs as the plot unfolds. An upperclassman, Susan, who learned nonvisual adaptations in early childhood, is far more accomplished. I've tried to include all of this unobtrusively. The point of the book was to place a blind kid in an exciting adventure.

Abigail and her friend Baggy are making their way in a new land, when they learn a dangerous secret. Abigail, a shy songwriter, isn't learning to accept her limitations. Like Rutherford, the animated acorn who acts as her muse, she's learning to stand her ground.

Not everyone will write a novel about braille literacy like I have but we can still share and discuss the journey. So, do you read braille? If so, how has braille enhanced your life? Would you recommend another person with vision loss to learn braille? Share your comments in the section below.

For more information on Donna’s book go to her website or download a copy at Book Share.

Gardening Tips for the Visually Impaired

Small planter filled with flowersAs the saying goes April showers bring May flowers. Now that May is here and spring has officially arrived it is time to go outside and dig in the dirt. But don’t let your visual impairment stop you from enjoying quality time with nature. Whether you like planting beautiful flowers, or growing delicious and healthy veggies or even something smaller like herbs there are a variety of ways to use your green thumb with vision loss.

But before we get started, you might be wondering why anyone with vision loss would want to garden? Some might think that gardening is only for those with good eyesight. Or the only way you can do it and enjoy the fruits of your labor is to be a fully sighted person. But that is not true. Many people garden for the pure pleasure of it. The personal interaction with nature. The physical activity of planting. The tactual experience of digging in the dirt. The ability to be outside in the warm weather. The positive mental and emotional feelings that germinate. And of course the beautiful flowers, plants and foods that can be enjoyed and shared with others. Did I give you enough reasons? Hope so. All of these are excellent motivators to garden even with vision loss. So let’s get started!

First, look at your surroundings so that you can mark the territory. Depending on what you are planting you might need to build your garden in a bright sunny area or a cool shady spot. Check out your location and then you can use tactual supplies to mark the area off. To do this, use commercial edging products such as crushed stones, bricks, or fencing to determine where one area ends and the other begins. You can paint your stones bright bold colors like yellow or use tactual supplies liked crushed shells or wood chips you can decipher when stepped on.

Once you have determined your garden location, decide what you want to plant. Do you like flowers? Vegetables or herbs? Do you want to plant your items in the ground outside or in containers housed on the back porch? Using your senses can help make a determination. Think about various textures and scents. Do you want roses? Geraniums? Daisies? Tulips? Or other flowers? For a vegetable garden you can think about the sensory differences in tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers or green beans. Thinking things through and answering these questions beforehand will help you get started in the right direction and have a successful garden.

Next, get your supplies organized and labeled in a way that you can use independently. You might want to keep all your metal gardening tools in a caddy where they are all in one place. Labeling your seed packets might be helpful but it will depend on your vision level. Those that are totally blind and use braille might want to use braille dymo tape adhesive labels. Or if you are low vision, you might want to use address labels and write with a 20/20 pen the name of the seeds. Some might want to keep a written or audio gardening journal where you can track the type of seeds use, location of the seeds and their progress.

A row of various flowers planted in the ground The next step is the actual planting. Creating your rows of plants and the precise place to plant your seeds can be a little tricky with vision loss. Read the directions on your seed package to determine how deep to plant the seed and how far apart each seed should be placed. You might have to get some sighted help in order to accomplish this. But knowing this information will help you to plant your seeds properly. If you don’t want to do all of that, using seed tape is an easier option. Seed tape is two thin sheets of paper with seeds glued in between. They are already proportionally spaced out so it is just a matter of planting it. Just lay the tape on the ground and cover with top soil and add water. Once you have your rows of seeds planted, use tactual items to mark off the rows. Using support tresses for vegetables like tomato vines, plastic tubes that run along the rows of seeds, recycled popsicle sticks and other wood or metal items found at gardening stores can help mark the location of your plants and vegetables. Once things are growing, feeling the leaves and the actual vegetable or noticing the scent can help determine where things are located in your garden. For example feeling lettuce leaves, touching cucumbers or tomatoes or smelling herbs like mint and basil are all distinctive enough to determine differences.

The tips above are just a sampling of the things that a person with a visual impairment can do to grow a garden. To learn even more check out the resources below:

  1. VisionAware list resources and tips on visually impaired gardening. You can go to www.visionaware.org and do a search for gardening to find a listing of articles and blog posts on the topic.
  2. The Hadley School for the Blind lists webinars on container herbal gardening and basic gardening tips. Go to www.hadley.edu for more information.
  3. The NLS/Talking Book Library lists various audio books and magazines on gardening and horticulture. You can call the Atlanta Metro Library for Accessible Services at 404-657-1452 for more information.

So, how does your garden grow? Do you currently have a garden? Have you gardened before losing your vision? Would you like to start gardening again or for the first time? Share your comments with us and let’s go dig in the dirt!

The Low Vision Clinic Comes to Your Home

Magnifying glassThe Florence Maxwell Low Vision Clinic is excited to share that we have added 2 new low vision occupational therapists to our staff. This addition to our staff now allows the low vision clinic to provide services within the home. An individual must initially be seen in the low vision clinic, either in Atlanta or Gainesville, by the low vision optometrist. Following the on-site appointment, the occupational therapist can come to your home and mark your appliances, address lighting, safety concerns and your challenges with all aspects of daily living. Difficulties such as using your phone, light cooking, managing your medication or writing a check. Working within the home ensures that you will not only be able to learn new skills, but also affirm that you can use any optical aids or devices independently within your own environment. Success, independence and empowerment are the goals and the best place to achieve that is within your own home.

It is also important to remember, as an adult, you are your own best advocate. If you’re struggling with problems at home or in the community, related to your vision loss, talk with your eye doctor regarding your concerns. Be as specific as possible. Try to stay away from statements such as, “I can’t see” or “I am going blind”. Often these statements will be disregarded. However use statements such as, “I can’t read my bills or write a check” or “my television is blurry and I can’t see my family member’s faces”. These specific examples allow for better insight. If your doctor does not recommend low vision services, take the first step, tell your doctor you are interested in low vision services and ask for a referral.

Low vision services provide you the opportunity for increased independence in the areas that you are having specific challenges. Although your doctor may tell you there is nothing that can be done, they are more specifically referring to their services. However, there is much that can be done at CVI to promote education and independence through training on devices and compensatory/adaptive strategies which you can learn safely in your home environment.

May is Senior/Older American Awareness Month. It is important as a senior to remember aging does not have to mean a decrease in independence or inactive lifestyle. Low vision creates challenges that were not present previously however just like other obstacles there are ways to learn to maintain the lifestyle you seek. So, are you a senior having challenges with your vision? Is reading the newspaper or your medication bottles difficult? Are you having problems operating home appliances, cooking or preforming other household duties because of vision? Do you want to maintain an independent life in your home? If so, please call CVI’s Florence Maxwell Low Vision Clinic and schedule an appointment. For more information call 404-875-9011 or log on at www.cviga.org.

We Are All Beginners Here: Mothering a Visually Impaired Child

Editor’s note: In celebration of Mother’s Day this coming Sunday, we at CVI thought it would be very fitting to have a mother of a visually impaired child share her story. We hope that you enjoy reading this week’s post and happy Mother’s Day to all our moms.

Picture of Christina and JessieI don't often write about my daughter's visual impairment and, when I do, I always find the subject somewhat difficult to address. This is not because the topic is associated with anything negative but because my child's visual impairment is so far from what defines her or my relationship with her. My primary identity is not “the mother of a visually impaired child” any more than my daughter’s is “a visually impaired child.” I am Christina James, mother to Jessica James: a smart, outgoing, energetic, slightly-out-of-the-ordinary girl that just happens to have a visual impairment. Still, she does have a visual impairment and it has shaped our lives from the get-go...in the best of all possible ways:

When Jessica was born, she didn't open her eyes until we left the bright lights of the hospital three days later. Having no experience with newborn humans but a lot of experience with newborn puppies, I simply assumed that humans were more like puppies than I thought and that this was all normal. Once, when telling this story, I was told that I should somehow be embarrassed of this incorrect assumption I had made. I'm not. I wear my early motherhood ignorance like a badge of honor.

Why? When you have a visually-impaired child (or any child for that matter), every single one of us is a beginner and not only is it ok that we are but it is important to be so. Our children’s vision conditions are each unique as is our parenting experience so there's no way we can know what it is we're getting into. We do not experience motherhood in the same ways as each other or anyone else so we cannot rely solely on the advice of others.

What we all have in common, though, is the fact that our children change us. Our children are born with unique needs and differences that teach us new ways of seeing the world and ourselves. Jessica, for instance, has taught me the importance of seeing the world through all of my senses, not just my sight. She has taught me to be aware of my own ignorance and to use that blank slate as fuel to research and learn about her condition...to realize how important it is to say, “I don't know what you're going through but I'm ready to observe and listen and try to understand.” Most importantly, she has taught me that perfection is overrated and there is a special beauty in the process of figuring out what it is you can't see or you don't know with the clues you have available to you.

My experience of motherhood may have been “different” due to Jessica's vision differences but I doubt there is any experience of motherhood that could be considered “normal” and I wouldn't change any of it for the world. Sure, I didn't get to experience breastfeeding because she couldn't see to latch. No, I didn't get to enjoy eye contact until she got her first glasses at 2 years old. Instead, I got to hold my child closer and delight in her joy at being able to see me when I held my forehead up to hers. I watched her learn to lift her head, crawl, and run faster than most children in her excited attempt to get close enough to see the fuzzy images that were just a little bit too far away. As she has gotten older, I've gotten to watch her grow into a supremely practical and self-confident young lady who understands the importance of struggle as only one who has had to surmount obstacles can know.

From her, I have learned a completely different way of seeing motherhood and the world than I had before she came into my life...not because she was visually-impaired but because she taught me the most important lesson of motherhood: We are all beginners here.