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Local Blind Association Provides Guidance

Pictured is the Chautauqua Blind Association sign in front of its office located at 510 W. Fifth St. in Jamestown. The association provides vision rehabilitation services across Chautauqua and Cattaraugus counties. P-J photo by Breanna Nelson

Functioning with a team of only four women, the Chautauqua Blind Association provides vision rehabilitation services across Chautauqua and Cattaraugus counties. With such a small group, the organization’s employees find themselves with busy schedules.

“It’s quite the feat, I mean there’s only four of us here,” said Lisa Goodell, association executive director. “So it’s a very small organization, which makes it easier for us to put most of our money into programming instead of staff. But that means two of our staff are vision rehab therapists, and they do all of the services in the community for all of Chautauqua and Cattaraugus. So it keeps them very, very busy.”

The Chautauqua Blind Association was established in 1921 and was known at the time as Southern Tier Association for the Blind. The association used to provide vision aid services throughout Chautauqua, Cattaraugus and Allegany counties. However, when it came to realize that this range was too broad a spectrum for it to cover, they reduced their services to just Chautauqua County.

Goodell, who has been with the association for 13 years, explained why their services expanded outside of Chautauqua County again.

“When I started back in, there was no one doing services in Cattaraugus County unless somebody came out of Buffalo. So that became an issue that we became aware of. There used to be an Olean Blind Association, and they went out of business so nobody was doing services out there. We started to do services in Cattaraugus County when I started again, so that’s been 13 years now we do all of Cattaraugus County and all of Chautauqua County.”

Pictured is a piece of artwork done by a client that hangs in the Chautauqua Blind Association’s office. P-J photo by Breanna Nelson

The association can provide its services to any individual with vision impairment. Goodell said vision rehabilitation therapists will sit in their offices and work with individuals to teach techniques that would supplement their daily lives. However, for those who are declared legally blind by their ophthalmologist or optometrist, the association can provide its services for free.

The association has multiple programs and services that it currently provides. Helping over 370 individuals between the two counties is its Vision Rehabilitation program, in which the association provides assistance to individuals who have been declared legally blind. The association has clients in all walks of life: some who are still working, some who are stay-at-home individuals and some who are in school. They provide services in homes, schools and workplaces. Goodell said through adaptive equipment, adaptive techniques and working with their therapists, the association employees do as much as they can to help legally blind individuals live the life they wish, and they do it for free.

“They’ll go in and do an assessment of someone and find out where they are in their life– what they do, what their goals are, what their activities are, are they a stay-at-home retired individual, do they still work, do they have hobbies, what do they want to do? And then my staff’s job is to find ways to make that happen,” Goodell said.

From a beach scene to red tulips, pieces of artwork hanging in the association’s office at 510 W. Fifth St. in Jamestown that show being legally blind doesn’t diminish an individual’s options for hobbies. The pieces on display were all done by clients of the association. Resting on a table at the entrance also sits a painted piece of shale depicting a trail that leads into a treeline that was donated by a client who regularly collects pieces of shale and paints landscapes onto them.

“We’ve got clients that still do woodworking. We’ve got a guy, he donates stuff to us all the time, legally blind and he’s still working with major power tools. Our job is to find him ways to continue to do that safely. It’s really kind of amazing,” Goodell said.

The association also works with people through its Orientation and Mobility services. That means how individuals move around in their environment and how they orient themselves to an environment when they don’t have a lot of vision. Whether it be a house, a community, a school or a business setting, the association will work with them through any environment or setting that may be needed. They often also teach these individuals how to utilize a long guidestick, a white cane or a guide dog. Beyond just how to interact and move in an environment, the association teaches legally blind individuals how to get on public transportation.

The association works with these individuals, providing not only the vision rehabilitation and mobility services, but different tools they can utilize to become more independent, Goodell said. This varies from handheld magnifiers with basic lenses and digital playback screens, to page readers, to an electronic pen. The magnifiers allow an individual to read more printed materials, as they can magnify it and make it easier to read. The page readers have a camera held above a base that allows the machine to scan a page and read it out loud. The electronic pen coordinates with programmable stickers to help improve independence even further. The pen will play out loud whatever information has been programmed onto a sticker when contact is made between the pen and one of the stickers.

This could let individuals have the instructions for boxed food, such as macaroni and cheese, read out loud to them. Or, like Goodell also explained, the tool can be used to label clothing items so a blind individual can dress in an appropriate manner, “it helps them avoid walking outside wearing a striped sweater and polka dot pants.”

The association also provides vision screening to students in preschool through kindergarten throughout both counties. To date, the association is screening 3,200 children a year on average.

“We use a spot vision screener and that can detect vision problems in kids as young as 6 months. Its an amazing piece of equipment,” Goodell said. “So we’ll screen their eyes, and the nice thing about the piece of equipment we have now is it can screen young babies, it can screen kids from special education classes, you know, kids that don’t speak or can’t speak or don’t use English as their main language. It can screen anybody and it can find problems and then we refer them to eye care professionals for a comprehensive exam.”

The screening program has been ongoing for 40 years.

The association began to see a pattern from year to year when doing the children’s screenings.

“We would have the same kids year after year that did not pass the vision screening and their parents weren’t getting that addressed for one reason or another. Then in discussions with the schools, we found out that a lot of these kids are from lower income families in the area,” Goodell said.

In response to this need, the association started a program this year called Children’s Sight for Success. When children don’t pass the vision screening, they are referred on to an eye care professional. If the child is from a low-income family, the association will help fund up to $225 for them to get an exam and glasses or treatment, whatever the child is in need of. Goodell said they have already had families start to take advantage of this opportunity, and they are excited to watch the program grow. She added that seeing other issues with children and glasses. While some needed glasses, others had them but are not good at managing them yet.

“Teachers will tell us a lot of the kids have glasses, but they never bring them to school, they lose them, they break them — it just doesn’t work. So we’ll get them a second pair of glasses that they can leave at school. Teachers will hold on to them so they can wear them during school, so they’re safe, and they’ll be there the next time the kids come,” Goodell said.

The association isn’t associated with county offices, though they do work together. It receives funding from being a United Way partner, hosting fundraiser events, and donations. The main fundraisers the association hosts are an art auction and a “Dining in the Dark” fundraiser. Goodell said when hosting an art auction, anywhere between 30% to 40% of the art they sell is donated by clients.

“We have a client that writes books and she donates all the time. The client that does woodworking, he donates all the time. It is really amazing.”

When the association hosts its “Dining in the Dark” fundraiser, in which individuals pay to experience a meal with no vision, it is also held as a sort of awareness fundraiser, as a way of helping people understand how much a challenge basic activities can be for those without sight.

“When I brought that idea to my board 10 years ago, they looked at me and said ‘you’re out of your mind, nobody will come and let you blindfold them and feed them a meal.’ So we agreed we would do it once and see if it worked. And we’ve done it now for nine years,” Goodell said. This event has grown in success over the years, now including anywhere from 130 to 170 people at each event.

For more information on the association or its services visit chautauquablind.org/ or call 664-6660.

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