As the eye doctor at Spectrum Eyecare in Peachtree City, Dr. John Henahan has worked with many patients who are going blind during his career. “The hardest part of my job is telling someone that they have a serious eye disease that will result in permanent vision impairment or blindness”, says Dr. Henahan. “First, there is the emotional devastation that can result from learning that you or someone you love is losing their sight. Then there are many practical questions about leading a meaningful life despite the loss of our most precious sense.”
Until recently getting the information and help needed has been nearly impossible in Fayette and Coweta counties. All of that has changed with the formation of a community based support group called Envision. Envision was started by Audrey Demmitt. Ms. Demmitt is the legally blind school nurse at JC Booth middle school and Adjustment to Blindness Counselor at Vision Rehabilitation Services . VRS serves Fayette and surrounding counties. Envision meets the first Tuesday of each month from 6:30p – 8:30p at the Towne Club on Crosstown Road in Peachtree City. This group is a treasure trove of valuable resources and information. Members share tips and strategies with each other on how to manage and adjust to vision loss.
Depending upon whether the visually impaired person is a K-12 student, adult (including college students) or a senior citizen, there are different paths and services available. The purpose of this article is to help build awareness of these services and how to access them. It was the struggle that Ms. Demmitt experienced in her own quest for services that lead to the formation of Envision as a resource for the visually impaired in our community.
Blind and Visually Impaired K-12 Students
If you or your loved one is a child, services are typically accessed through the school system. Parent requests for services must be accompanied by an eye exam report that elaborates the nature of the visual impairment. This report would be provided by an eye doctor. Dr. Henahan can perform these exams if needed.
Once your child qualifies with a medical eye report, you will work with the school’s vision impairment program to plan necessary accommodations and school services. In Fayette county the coordinator for the Vision Program under Special Education is Rosemary Hartung. In Coweta county, Tracy Fitch is the coordinator. In the elementary grades, some parents elect to have their child enrolled in the dedicated class for vision impairment at Sara Harp Minter Elementary (Fayette) or Elm Street Elementary (Coweta). Some prefer that their child remain in their local elementary in which case the school system will assign a teacher of the visually impaired (TVI) to facilitate the child’s learning in that environment. The TVI will assist the student and their teachers from K-12.
There are additional programs and services offered by the Center for the Visually Impaired (CVI) in Atlanta for visually impaired children as well as the Georgia Academy for the Blind in Macon. The school in Macon provides residential education.
Visually Impaired and Blind Adults / College Students
Students leaving high school or working age adults with vision impairment can find a wide array of state funded services to assist them to further their education, find work, or stay in a job. These services are coordinated through the Georgia Vocational Rehabilitation Agency (GVRA). This agency has vision rehabilitation counselors in all of Georgia’s counties. In Fayette and Coweta counties, the counselors are Miranda Baldwin and Mary Jo Spitznagel-White respectively. An eye exam report will be required to qualify for any services or training.
The best strategy is to first attend an Envision meeting (see above) to learn about services. Ms. Demmitt and the other group members can provide assistance in navigating the process. Members of the group can also help with strategies and support to help cope with vision loss.
Once someone applies for GVRA services, a series of evaluations are performed to assess their needs. Services provided may include: a low vision exam, low vision devices and aids, mobility training and access technology training to help clients use computers, smart phones and other devices. Strategies for daily living tasks (cooking, hygiene, etc.) are also taught to clients. These services are typically provided at no cost to the client.
There is even a program for homemakers if the visually impaired person is not in the work force.
Blind or Visually Impaired Seniors/Retirees
Older individuals represent the largest group of visually impaired persons. Georgia has a program called Project independence that is coordinated through VRS. Ms. Demmitt is the Fayette/Coweta advocate for this population and can help facilitate entry into this wonderful program. Since many seniors have less ability to travel to appointments, the majority of services provided through Project Independence are carried out in the home. These services include home safety, cooking skills for the visually impaired, home environment modifications, and adjustment counseling.
When someone is given a diagnosis of serious vision impairment, the effects can be emotionally devastating. It also has major implications for the ability to live independently, keep/find work or complete an educational goal. The good news is that there are many programs and services designed to help.
Start by getting a complete report from an eye doctor, such as Dr. Henahan. Then, join the Envision support group so a strategy for living a full life can be developed. The wonderful people in the group have lived through this difficult transition and want to help others find ways to do the same.
Dr. John Henahan is the former head of low vision at LSU School of Medicine and is an optometrist living and practicing at Spectrum Eyecare in Peachtree City. He provides routine eye exams as well as providing low vision evaluations to patients with vision impairment. You can reach his office at 770-487-0667 or online at www.SpecEye.com Audrey Demmitt is the Fayette/Coweta adjustment to blindness counselor for Vision Rehab Services and can be reached at 770-631-6455 or firstname.lastname@example.org.