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Supervisor at DC VAMC Helps Vision Impaired See Possibilities for Their Lives

by U.S. Medicine

August 1, 2011

WASHINGTON—Lillie Kennedy’s office is a testament to what she helps teach veterans as the Vision Rehabilitation Supervisor at the DC VA Medical Center. Her computer is equipped with software that tells her what programs are open and can read aloud documents on the screen. Next to her computer is a closed-circuit television screen. By sliding a document on the tray at the bottom, she can illuminate and enlarge it on the screen to a manageable size.

Even her iPhone is equipped with technology for the blind. A speaking application will tell her what “apps” are available. And one new app allows her to take a photo of a dollar bill with the phone, then scans it and tells her in a crisp, clear voice what denomination it is.

The purpose of all of this technology mirrors the purpose of the DCVAMC’s Vision Rehabilitation Clinic, Kennedy said. “The main purpose is to maintain and enhance self-reliance.”

Legally blind herself, Kennedy understands the challenges of veterans who have  returned from recent conflicts with vision problems, or older veterans who have lost sight due to  macular degeneration or diabetic retinopathy.

“I went through a similar program years ago,” she said. “I still have to work, I have to eat, I have to support myself. And I was motivated to take advantage of rehabilitation. I knew I had to take care of myself. Blindness is secondary to me.”

Kennedy knew that, not only did she have to overcome her own impairment, she had to make people see that she was independent and capable. “I decided that if I went to college, people would believe I’d be able to do things,” she said.

After receiving her M.A. in vocational rehabilitation counseling, she went on to work as a special education teacher in Detroit, working with blind adults. From there, she moved to post-rehabilitation counseling at the Michigan Commission for the Blind. In the 1970s,  she worked at VA as a medical transcriptionist, later becoming a case manager. 

Supervisor at DC VAMC Helps Vision Impaired See Possibilities for Their Lives Cont.

A little more than three years ago, prompted by Congress and veterans service organizations, VA began opening more vision rehabilitation clinics and blinded vet centers across the country. Lillie became the supervisor of the DCVAMC clinic and moved to her tiny office in the basement of the building. There, she and her team have been working with vision-impaired veterans for three years now, sharing space with physical medicine and rehabilitative services, as they await construction of new space above the nearby community living center.

Her clinic covers DC, Maryland, and Virginia, and takes referrals from VAMCs in Martinsburg, W.V. and Baltimore. Although the caseload is more than 500, only a handful come through the clinic’s two-week rehabilitation program at any one time.

Many veterans, during their first visit, don’t believe they need help, or are embarrassed to ask for it.

“But they come in for an assessment and, after the meeting they say, ‘Yeah, I really do need this help,’” Kennedy said. “No one has ever talked to them about it. And they had no idea these wonderful gadgets were available.”

Those wonderful gadgets include a talking glucose reader for diabetics, a talking blood pressure meter so patients can manage their hypertension, and even a machine that scans barcodes on pill bottles and reads off all the relevant information about the medication.

“Our goal is always independence, because you just can’t rely on others to do things for you,” Kennedy said. She said she is fortunate to be able to  surround herself with a team of highly competent colleagues who she relies on unconditionally.

A veteran coming to the clinic will be seen by an ophthalmologist and then work with therapists who will teach them living skills, both inside and outside the home, how to use adaptive technology, and how to use computers adapted for the vision-impaired. Most of it will be technology that, once the veteran learns how to use it, will be sent home with them with VA footing the bill.

Veterans are even able to take a judo class—something that might not seem entirely necessary until you hear Kennedy explain its benefits. “A lot of these guys say they’re scared to go out because they feel vulnerable. They don’t want to carry the white cane because [it points out that vulnerability],” Kennedy said. “But once they started with judo, they felt a lot better.”

One 89-year old blind veteran told Kennedy that judo classes also taught him how to fall so he didn’t hurt himself.

“We teach them to adjust. We teach them to adapt. We teach them how to navigate the environment,” Kennedy said. “And once they learn, it’s such a difference in their self-confidence.”

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