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. If you have any questions or comments regarding the blog posts, please send them to Angie Clawson at aclawson@cviga.org.

Volunteer/Donor Gives Hope

BEGIN student using Tomato Chair in class

Volunteer/Donor Gives Hope to CVI Families

By Emily Pack, TVI in the BEGIN Program at the Center for the Visually Impaired

Before this school year, a classroom specifically designed for students with Cortical Visual Impairments (CVI) was merely an idea we hoped to set in to place - a hope that would take a lot of time and resources that weren't readily available. However, we decided that the Center needed to be that place for hope and inclusion for all of our students. One of the biggest needs we had were adaptive chairs called Tomato Chairs that were mobile. This would allow all of the children to participate in all of the activities, and with the help of one generous volunteer and donor, Mr. Ed, we were able to bring this idea to reality.

For the families participating in our CVI 1 & CVI 2 programs, the first day of class brought anxiety about how their child would be included, when so many times before, their child faced difficulties even while in an "inclusive environment." As quickly as class invitations to families were sent out, questions came streaming in. Many of the questions we received were "would the activities be too hard for my child with motor impairments," "will there be any students like my child attending," and "does my child need to be walking to participate?" We did all we could to reassure the families that this class was truly meant to be inclusive.

In early September, our families took their first steps into a brand-new class, and with a sigh of relief, found that for once their child was the norm and not the exception. With a fleet of mobile Special Tomato Chairs, our students were able to dance during circle time, sit with their peers at the art table, and freely move from center to center during learning station. This would not have been possible without the support of Mr. Ed.

When asked about his connection to CVI, Ed said “I was introduced to the Center for the Visually Impaired while serving as President of the Lions Club Camp and began volunteering in the STARS program. I think what CVI does is important for the kids and want to support that in whatever way I can.”

Thankful doesn't begin to describe how I felt watching the children gain independence and their families make connections. While the time spent in class was short, the impact the class has already made is lasting!

Former STARS Student Succeeds On & Off the Goalball Court

Former CVI STARS student Matt Simpson poses in USA Goalball uniform.

Former STARS participant Matt Simpson is living his best life and credits at least part of that success to what he learned at the Center for the Visually Impaired (CVI).

“CVI showed me from a very early age that living life with a visual impairment did not have to be anything less; less fulfilling, less adventurous, less ambitious,” says Simpson.

Simpson’s first experience with CVI was around the age of four. He was diagnosed with Leber hereditary optic neuropathy, an extremely rare condition (1 in 25,000) that occurs mostly in young males. He spent his formative years participating in the STARS (Social, Therapeutic, Academic, Recreational Services) program gaining the skills and self-confidence to be successful in whatever he wanted to do despite his vision loss.

“I found my first role models through CVI,” says Simpson. “The STARS program for school-aged individuals showed me that life was about getting out and doing things, even when someone tells you it’s impossible. That’s a good lesson for anyone blind or not.”

Baseball was his first love, but eventually he turned his focus to sports that didn’t rely on vision as much until one day he was introduced to goalball at summer camp. He had found a sport that provided the same kind of thrill that baseball did and was specifically designed for athletes with vision impairment. He put his all into becoming one of the best goalball players and made it all the way to the 2016 Rio Paralympics where he was part of the Silver Medal winning Men’s USA National Goalball Team.

Since then Simpson has worked for the U.S. Association of Blind Athletes (USABA) and currently serves as the Secretary of the Board for the USABA, as an athlete representative to the Athlete Advisory Counsel of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee and as a member of the Paralympic Advisory Committee to the USOPC. Simpson graduated from Washington and Lee University in 2012 as a Johnson Scholarship recipient for leadership and academic excellence and will graduate with a law degree from the University of Virginia in May 2020.

CVI is excited that Simpson will serve as this year’s keynote speaker at Dining in the Dark. Learn more of his story here. And to hear him tell his story in person join us for Dining in the Dark on September 28 at the Georgia Tech Hotel & Conference Center. Get your tickets today!

Sensory Garden Brings Nature to CVI Clients

How a Volunteer's Love of Gardening Inspired her to Create a Sensory Garden for CVI Clients to Enjoy

by CVI Volunteer Kelly Spetalnick

As a suggestion from Abra Lee during my interview to apply for the Central Fulton Master Gardener program in 2018, I combined my career as an optometrist and my new-found community garden service to begin designing a garden for the visually impaired. After consulting with the administration at the Center for the Visually Impaired (CVI), where I have volunteered in the past, they invited me to install a new garden in front of the building along West Peachtree Street in Midtown Atlanta and teach a gardening class to the after-school kids one afternoon a week. From a gentle suggestion, I found a new part-time volunteer job.

The kids range from five to twenty-one years old, and with the ‘shepherds’ that assist, each week brought over twenty students to the dirt world. We worked indoors and out, planted take home gardens, did show and tell with a variety of plants, cooked with herbs from their herb garden, etc., and we hope to eventually have a raised bed garden in the playground.

As of now, we have the inaugural sensory garden in place along West Peachtree Street that touches on a few considerations for the visually impaired and the blind. There are tactile plants such as ‘Frosted Curls’ carex — a soft grass that feels like hair; tiboucina grandiflora — rises large with stiff fuzzy leaves and purple flowers that rise on stalks; various ferns that are feathery or curled or stiff and ragged; cast iron plant — long with flat, waxy leaves that rise and fall like rabbit ears. Scented plants include Royal Standard hosta (summer), paper bush (winter) and Guacamole hosta and Honesty (spring). Sound comes from Northern sea oats’ seed heads dancing in the wind in the fall. Contrast is used to surround plants and divide areas with chocolate chip ajuga, creeping Jenny, vinca major, Solomon Seal and hellebores. There are large pots that elevate plants for clients that cannot bend to the ground and are filled with a variety of native perennials, colorful annuals and succulents. Over forty-six plants are labelled with their scientific name, common name, a QR code that can be scanned for additional plant information and Braille labels with the common name. We even added a doggie poo station for the guide dogs.

With no budget for this project, I had to rely on generous donations to bring this garden to life. The overall effort cost about $6,000 and benefitted from in kind donations of advice, labor, plants, pottery and money from Ameer Mackoul, owner of Green Season Landscaping; Bobby Saul and Dave Smith of Saul Nursery; AW Pottery; Central Fulton Master Gardeners; Comcast and their employees, and a number of local optometrists (Drs. Barr, Grosswald, Carter, Forsche and more). The support of the staff and clients at CVI ensured it was successful, and area Master Gardeners helped in the garden and classroom (thanks, Bob Ruprecht).

As any gardener will tell you, the design is never finished, and we hope to improve on our outreach to the visually impaired population in Atlanta to make sure that they recognize how they, and we, can enjoy nature using all of our senses.

High Museum of Art Provides Engaging Experience for STARS Participants

By Kate McLeod - High Museum
Head of School and Teacher Services

“You mean an artist made this for us?” A child with a visual impairment is seeing a work of art for the first time at an art museum and had just been told that a visual artist recreated Native American on Horseback by Ronald Lockett for their group especially.

The group is part of a program called STARS (Social, Therapeutic, Academic and Recreational Services) at the Center for the Visually Impaired in Atlanta, Georgia. This year-round program is for school-aged children with visual impairments and helps them “gain the self-confidence and skills necessary to thrive.” The Center for the Visually Impaired (CVI) is located in Midtown, less than two miles from the High Museum of Art. CVI and the High officially began a partnership in 2016 through a Museum Access for Kids contract from the Kennedy Center VSA. One of the High’s overarching goals in the past few years is to grow and expand inclusive programming for all visitors, including students on the autism spectrum and students with visual impairments. And who better to partner with then our next-door neighbors, CVI?

Through this partnership and others, High Museum staff has received training on how to work with visitors with various abilities. For the program with the Center for the Visually Impaired, the High consulted with educators who have previous experience in working with students with visual impairments, including one High Museum docent who earned her doctorate in art education and wrote her dissertation on best practices around students with visual impairments in museum settings. Part of this museum educator’s dissertation was to provide replicas of four works of art from the High’s collection. She learned through her research that each replica should have large font text and Braille text about the art and the artist, a “visual legend” that went along with the replica, a visual reproduction of the work of art, and additional touch objects for students to experience. The docent then trained museum education staff on these best practices. Our path was also paved through generous support from CVI on training education staff on how to work with students with visual impairments, creating Braille text and providing additional best practices on working with all visitors with visual impairments.

From this starting place, the High collaborated with and commissioned four teaching artists to create replicas of four works of art from the High’s collection. The replicas were partnered with the appropriate text and visual legends. On the day of the STARS group’s first visit to the Museum, the objects were placed by the works of art and the tour allowed the STARS participants to see the objects and feel connected to the Museum in a way they had never experienced. Participants also worked with professional teaching artists to create wearable art, inspired by one of the works of art on the tour.

Photo of STARS student experiencing the specially made artwork through touch.

STARS students making artwork with beads and other materials with help from High Museum staff.

Group of STARS participants being guided through the High Museum galleries.

This initial program has been so successful, both CVI and the High Museum are committed to working together in upcoming years to provide access to museums, art, and artists for all children who are blind or visually impaired.

School's Out!

4 young BEGIN students wearing graduation gowns

The unofficial start of summer is here! In the past couple of weeks, CVI’s BEGIN and STARS students have all celebrated the end of the school year with a fun get together and brief ceremony. Many STARS students will join CVI for the Summer Enrichment Program throughout the month of June, and some BEGIN students will be moving up or “graduating” to the STARS program next school year and one will be moving from the Toddler Class that was new this year to the new Preschool Class that will start in the Fall, both in partnership with the Georgia Department of Education (GaDOE), Division of State Schools along with the Georgia Parent Infant Network for Educational Services (Georgia PINES).

Participants in the STARS program experienced several new activities this year including learning about gardening from Master Gardener Kelly Spetalnick, art through a partnership with the High Museum of Art and theatre through a partnership with Alliance Theatre and The Shakespeare Tavern. The older STARS students even learned a Shakespeare play from members of the Shakespeare Tavern to perform at their end of year celebration. They also attended the annual Red and White Ball hosted by the Delta Gamma Atlanta Chapter, and a few of the older students participated in the Anthem/USABA National Fitness Challenge!

A photograph of Henry and Grace, the King and Queen of the Red & White Ball

In addition to participating in classes that focus on developing skills that will help each of them be successful in the classroom, the BEGIN students were treated to fun activities such as Trick or Treating, a Holiday Party and an Easter Egg Hunt at CVI. The parents of the BEGIN students also had the opportunity to learn through several educational sessions hosted at CVI. Topics included learning about the importance of learning Braille for them and their children from Jackie Anders, a teacher of the visually impaired, learning more about their child’s educational rights from Zelma Murray from the Department of Education, learning orientation and mobility techniques they can help their child with from Ernest Burton, a CVI staff member who teaches Orientation and Mobility, and they had the chance to ask Dr. Amy Hutchison from Emory University School of Medicine questions about their child’s diagnosis.

This year was full of exciting new things and we look forward to a great summer and exciting new things in the Fall of 2019!

CVI: Wine Stoppers

Stumbling on the Extraordinary

When a video production team goes on a shoot, there are certain expectations. They know their subjects, the location, the footage they need to capture, and the broad strokes of the story they’re trying to tell. But, as anyone in the video production industry will tell you, shoots have a way of surprising you, no matter how much you prepare.

For ECG Productions’ joint producers-and-directors from ECG Productions, Sebastian Chamaca and Alessandro Graci, their shoot at the Center for the Visually Impaired offered the best kind of surprise: A chance to help tell a genuinely inspiring story about some remarkable people.

An Unexpected Calling

CVI performs an important task, creating initiatives to help people navigate living with blindness, whether they became blind, or were born that way. For ECG, the gig was pro-bono, unpaid and for charity. The focus was on a project called Woodworking for the Blind. Specifically, the focus of the piece was on spinning pins and making wine stoppers. Sebastian and Alessando were happy to help out, but they didn’t know exactly what to expect. As it turned out, it was the context of this seemingly innocuous activity that made it so special. When Sebastian and Alessandro met with volunteer coordinator and woodworker, Steve Pritchard, and CVI client, Laurie Cannon, they were immediately drawn into this story. It was a mission to inspire visually impaired people through woodworking.

Originally started in Tampa, Florida, the Woodworking for the Blind project has helped blind individuals and volunteers like Steve find fulfillment. In addition, it’s actually proved to be a conduit for more than one visually impaired person to start a woodworking business themselves. In her interview, Laurie describes a hobby that’s not only productive, but also healthy, as it improves her dexterity and spatial awareness.

That’s where the wine stoppers come in. This program has driven Laurie and others to hone their skills. Laurie, who started woodworking about a month before the video was made, hopes to expand her repertoire to include other products, too. Items like bottle openers, candlesticks, and peppermills. She’s donated several items back to CVI, and sold many others to a growing clientele.

Spreading Inspiration

The story of the Woodworking for the Blind project is a remarkable example of determination being rewarded. It’s a great reminder to never count anyone out. We can all learn new things, get involved in unique activities, and contribute to our communities in unexpected ways.

From the program’s humble beginnings, it has changed lives, allowing people to gain new skills and foster new relationships, like that between Steve and the Cannon family. It might seem like a lot to stem from something so simple as a pin, but, as Steve says in the video, “If they could make a pin, they could do anything.”

Perseverance brought the program to life. It’s helped draw awareness to CVI, and bring joy to the people involved. For the ECG team, the message was clear: We shouldn’t let our limitations define us. “Something that really stuck with us,” said Sebastian, “was how they put it. They said, ‘Just because you’ve lost your sight, it doesn’t mean you lose your vision.’”

As a result of their time on this project, Seb and Alesso (as they’re known around the office) have become the chief advocates for ECG’s involvement in more charity projects. As if there was any doubt as to the effect that making this video had on the pair, they’ve now got a plan of their own back at ECG Productions headquarters. The goal? Granting future interns the opportunity to seek out worthy causes and choose to make mini-documentaries themselves. It’s an opportunity for them to refine their real-world skills and find fulfillment in their work at the same time. Sound familiar?

About ECG Productions

ECG Productions is a script-to-screen production house located in Atlanta, GA. From music videos, to corporate explainers, to documentaries and narrative film, they do it all. Dynamic, engaging video content is the name of the game, and there’s nothing they love more than bringing great stories (like this one) to light. To see more of their work, or contact the team, check out their website!

Parents Learn Value of Braille Literacy

Parents Learn the Value of Braille Literacy
by Jazmine Wilson, Children & Youth Services Support Coordinator

Mother reading Braille with daughter

During the month of April, CVI hosted a two-part series called Braille & Dual Media Workshop. Led by Jackie Anderson, a Teacher for the Blind and Visually Impaired, this program was hosted by the Children and Youth Services Department at CVI as a part of the regular parent group activities.

Ms. Anderson is a member of the National Federation of the Blind and works with the Georgia Organization of Parents of Blind Children. For years Ms. Anderson has served as an educator in the school system working with parents and children with vision impairments and is committed to working with families to understand the value of pre-braille literacy.

“Braille is a vital literacy tool for blind or visually impaired individuals,” said Anderson. “Parents are the first and primary teachers for their young children. A parent who knows Braille will be able to introduce and reinforce in the home Braille skills learned at school. Based on research, we know the positive impact that early exposure to print plays in life long literacy skill development of children and it is the same for children who are blind or visually impaired.”

Ms. Anderson’s passion for her work shines through her ability to present information in a way that is practical but also engaging. Her presentation stresses the fact that not only is Braille important for children to learn so they can live an independent life, but also for parents to learn so they can support their children in their independence.

One of the parents who attend the workshop said “Everything Ms. Anderson covered during the workshop was so valuable. I have been working to learn Braille and trying to teach my daughter and I now feel more confident and have the skills to do so.”

Parent classes are provided to parents of children who are blind or visually impaired and are enrolled in the Thursday class. The parent group meets every Thursday at CVI from 10: 30 am to 1:00 pm. Topics for parents include information on their child’s visual diagnosis and possible effects on access to the environment, IEP information, early childhood development, technology, advocacy, and resources for parenting a child who is blind or visually impaired.

To learn more about the BEGIN program and the Parent Support Group, click here.

Q&A with USABA/Anthem Fitness Challenge Participant Shlisha Gillins

A photograph of Shlisha Gillins walking on a treadmill

Now that we are more than half way through the USABA/Anthem Fitness Challenge, we thought it would be great to get an update from one of the participants.

What motivated you to commit to a fitness challenge?

I have an 11-year-old daughter, who is very active. So in order to keep up with her, I needed to increase my energy level and lose weight, and so far I’ve lost 21 pounds!

How have your exercise and food habits changed since joining the USABA Fitness Challenge?

Every day I try to move as much as I can. The challenges with my friends definitely helps to keep me motivated. When the weather is good, I walk and other times I get on the treadmill. While exercising is great, I am also learning how to make better food choices. For example, I do meal prep, I make sure that I have a snack in my bag when I go out and I drink plenty of water.

What has been your favorite part about participating in the fitness challenge?

My favorite is the sports activities CVI has offered, because it has allowed me to explore different kinds of sports that I can do while being visually impaired.

Upcoming Fitness Challenge Event:

Don’t miss our last big fitness related event on April 27! CVI will host a Field Day at Coan Park for anyone who is interested in learning more about and trying their hand at adaptive sports. We’ll even have two medal-winning Paralympians there to share their stories and host a demo of Goalball.

Register here by April 19.