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Blind trust

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Blind Trust
Photography by Lucky Wenzel

Robert Stevenson hopes to regain his independence through a mobility training program for the blind.

When you’ve lost your sight and are re-learning how to navigate the world in ways small (handling money) and large (fighting your fears), it’s good to have a little help 

Robert Stevenson is nervous about riding the bus.

Even though his vision had been declining for six years, the 45-year-old Las Vegas resident became legally blind less than a year ago. This is just his third week relying on his cane, and his first time using public transit. But when he began mobility training in May, he had a goal in mind: “I hope I get more confident getting around to different places without a guide,” he says. “I hope this is as easy as it sounds.”

Stevenson stands outside of the bus trying to figure out how to board. Using his cane, he finds a ramp, which was lowered to let a passenger with a wheelchair on before him. But the cane snags on the groove between the ramp and the platform, which makes Stevenson hesitate. He doesn’t want to make a wrong step. Eventually, he trusts his instrument, steps onto the bus, swipes his pass and takes a seat in an open row on the right-hand side. Holding his fluorescent-green backpack with his right hand and his cane with his left, he sits and listens for his stop.

He’s going to get some groceries.

It’s fortunate for Stevenson that he found BlindConnect, a nonprofit that provides mobility training and helps visually impaired and blind individuals connect to resources. It’s not always that easy. While there are a number of agencies here you can turn to when you become blind or visually impaired — Nevada Council of the Blind, the Blind Center of Southern Nevada, Easter Seals, and the Nevada Bureau of Services to the Blind and Visually Impaired — Nevada isn’t as progressive as some other states when it comes to providing services, says Rick Kuhlmey, president of the Nevada

Support comes from

Council of the Blind. “I get calls all the time from people who want to move to Nevada and wonder if we have places or homes specifically for the blind,” he says. “We have none of that.”

To be  legally blind, a person must have his or her vision diagnosed at 20/200 or have a visual field of 20 degrees or less. Visual impairment is often defined clinically as a visual acuity of 20/70 or worse, or a total field loss of 140 degrees.

“According to the last census, there are about 40,000 people in Nevada who are blind, visually impaired, or losing their sight,” says Janna Velasco, program director at the Blind Center of Nevada. “Let’s say that 5,000 people are blind (in Las Vegas). We have 200 to 300 people on the books (at the Blind Center) and 100 people who participate on a weekly basis. Where is everyone else? I think some services are hard to find.”

Not to mention that just getting started with the basics can be tiresome, Kuhlmey says. Most people he has talked to have a hard time getting Social Security disability income, and become confused by the process. According to Velasco, most of the Blind Center’s clients live near the poverty level, making between $700 and $800 a month from supplemental Social Security income. As a result, the organization provides free meals throughout the week for members and also offers a food pantry.

She says in the last year the various organizations have joined forces to help create better awareness and promote each others’ services. “We created a collaborative effort,” she says. “We have a handshake agreement. So when I tell somebody about the resources here, I tell them about all the other resources.”

But knowing assistance is out there doesn’t mean people will walk through the door right away. “We have found, on average, that a person who has become blind will spend one to two years at home,” Velasco says. “They are depressed. They are fearful of not knowing what to do.”

 

A HELPFUL FAKE HOME

Jean Payton

BlindConnect President Jean Peyton partnered with RTC to launch the Mobility Training Center.

“I was depressed for a long time,” says Stevenson, who developed diabetic neuropathy. “I thought I was going to have to spend the rest of my life relying on others.” But he wanted to take care of himself, and, more importantly, be able to find a job. Most who seek these resources have felt the same way.

“We know if we can get them through the door, we can help with that,” says Jean Peyton, president of BlindConnect, who is legally blind. The nonprofit, founded in 1998, has been offering mobility training since 2013 through its Angela’s House program. The organization began by using classrooms at the College of Southern Nevada to train the visually impaired how to perform everyday tasks, such as using a cane or handling money. Around the same time BlindConnect began looking for a permanent place to house the program, the Regional Transportation Commission was looking to open a Mobility Training Center to train people who have a variety of disabilities. A partnership was born. 

The training center includes a similated street complete with traffic lights and city noise.

The training center includes a simulated street complete with traffic lights and city noise.

The training center opened near Decatur Boulevard and Sunset Road in January 2016 and became home to Angela’s House. Walking through the center, the hallways and business offices lead into the back where an unusual facility awaits: a simulated street with traffic lights, intersections, and the ambient city noise you would hear while walking down a street. This is where people with disabilities learn to negotiate public transit. Tucked away nearby is the 1,270-square-foot Angela’s House, which is set up like an actual two-bedroom home. “It’s fully equipped,” Peyton says.

During the 90-hour training over a three-week period, visually impaired participants learn how to do normal household chores, such as cleaning the floors and making the bed, as well as such life skills as Braille lessons and money management. “It’s like a boot camp,” Peyton says. “We’re not going to make it easy for you. We are going to challenge you, but we are here to support you through it.”

Along with giving them an overview of what’s to come, on the first day Peyton and mobility trainers teach how to use a cane. “That is a really big sign of independence,” she says. “You can get around your home, your community —the world, really — once you learn to use a cane.” But many are reluctant to do so. “They are afraid they will be seen as vulnerable and don’t want to be identified as blind,” Peyton adds.

People usually begin by finding their way through the halls of the mobility center, banging on walls and doors along the way. “We give them auditory cues to help them figure it out,” Peyton says.

 

AISLE TO AISLE

Even though it’s near the end of his time with the program, Stevenson is still getting comfortable with his cane. With a flick of his wrist, he moves the cane across the ground left to right to left to right. “The cane does the talking for me,” he says. It knocks against the curb, telling him he is too close to the sidewalk. It bangs against a metal post, revealing an object in front of him. “I always thought it would be easy,” Stevenson says. “Others make it seem easy.” Out on the street, he has also learned to pay attention to every noise, such as whether a car is stopped or in motion, and the direction in which traffic is flowing. With his cane, he has realized the slightest difference between the pavement on a sidewalk and street or even how the painted lines on an intersection have a different feeling. 

Peyton says along with cane work, learning to cook is intimidating. “They come into the program with fear, but then they get more comfortable,” she says. “And then on the first day you give them a knife, they freak out again. We assure them they will be safe and they can do this.”

Peyton says before Angela’s House opened, participants would go into the homes of their blind mentors to learn the ins and outs of working in a kitchen. She prefers the Angela’s House kitchen.

At least once in the program, participants — who are accompanied by training specialists — leave the mobility center, board a bus and head seven exits down to a Smith’s near Desert Inn Road to do a little grocery shopping. Stevenson’s list of ingredients includes ground turkey, taco seasoning, green onions, and sour cream for the enchiladas he will make that week.

He enters the store flanked by Ryan O’Neil, a mentor with Angela’s House, who is also blind. “Listen to the beeps, and you know you’re getting closer to a checkout counter,” he says. In compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, O’Neil says, stores have a customer service associate who will assist blind people.

Stevenson pilots a shopping cart with the customer service associate guiding him through the aisles. As they pull up to a particular item on his list, she asks him about preferred brands and quantity. “You can just get a generic brand of sour cream,” he says to her. The trip around the store takes Stevenson down two aisles, toward the back of the store where the meat and dairy are located, and up front to the produce section. He has everything he needs.

After Stevenson pulls up to the checkout station, his helper unloads each item onto the conveyor belt; “$16.17,” the cashier says. He reaches into an envelope and feels for the $20 bill (he’d previously learned how to tell the difference by folding bills in certain ways). Stevenson thanks the associate for assisting him, and heads back to the bus not only with all his items in a reusable grocery bag, but with a little more confidence in his abilities.

 

THE BEAT GOES ON

Live music echoes through the halls and cafeteria at the Blind Center of Nevada this afternoon. It’s Broken Spectacles, a band made up of visually impaired and blind members who frequent
the center; they’re rehearsing “When We Were Young” by The Killers for an upcoming show.

The Blind Center provides mobility training and Braille classes, though the mobility training is on hold as the organization has already exceeded its budget for that program this year. In addition to teaching independence, the facility also offers classes such as yoga, a fitness center with weight machines specifically for the blind, a bowling alley — there are bumpers on the lanes — and arts and crafts. “Once people are able to get out of the house, they progress in their lives by leaps and bounds,” Velasco says. The center recently broke ground on an expanded building that will also feature a training kitchen. It’s expected to open early next year.

Back in the rehearsal room, 26-year-old Ivan Delgado is on the drums. He’s been coming to the center for 10 years. “I love how tight the community is here,” he says.

Delgado was born with severe conditional glaucoma, which prompted his parents to leave Mexico and come to the United States for better healthcare. He has been in Las Vegas since 1995. After a friend invited him to the center, Delgado began connecting with other blind musicians. He’s been playing the drums since he was 14, even after music teachers told him not to pursue entertainment. “Playing in front of an audience gives me such a high,” he says.

“Just because you lose your sight doesn’t mean you lose your desire to be great,” says Cory Nelson, the Blind Center’s executive director.

Even beyond music, Delgado knew he was capable of more. In 2013, he joined the Business Enterprise Program through the Nevada Bureau of Services to the Blind and Visually Impaired. It provides training and classes in business management and opens opportunities for them to eventually own snack bars and vending machines placed in public buildings. Delgado has operated vending machines since 2015, but these days he is most proud of the food cart he opened this year in the Clark County Family Court. “It’s a small snack bar that sells hot dogs, nachos, popcorn, and personal pizzas,” he says. “I already have my sights on another location.”

Delgado says that while some other owners take on sighted employees or partners to help run the cash register, he runs his mostly solo (his cousin helps out on occasion). “I purchased a register that speaks to me,” he says. “I keep all my inventory on my phone so I know what’s going in and out.”

Delgado knows there are challenges that the blind and visually impaired face, especially those who start the journey later in life. He also knows people can learn to work within their limitations, especially with the right resources. “I’m proud to say I operate my business alone sometimes,” he says. “I do get nervous when I have to man the cash register by myself, but I have enough confidence to believe in myself. Other than driving a car, there is nothing we can’t do.” 

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