More than ever, older Californians are facing the threat of blindness from age-related eye diseases such as diabetic retinopathy, macular degeneration, cataracts and glaucoma. According to the American Foundation for the Blind, close to 800,000 individuals in California have visual impairment, a majority of whom are 55 years of age and older. Recognizing the gravity of these statistics, the Independent Living Center of Kern County (ILCKC) took action in October 2014 and paved the way for these individuals to live and work independently by implementing an Older Individuals who are Blind (OIB) program.
"Our OIB Program focuses on what each individual wants to accomplish," explained April Garrett, ILCKC's OIB Program Specialist. "With a grant from the California Department of Rehabilitation, we offer our consumers low-vision training, communication and independent living skills training, self-advocacy, peer counseling and transportation assistance to improve their independence."
Although there are similar OIB programs in Kern County, ILCKC's program is unique in that it's open to the public. Other programs require financial or medical records for eligibility before consumers receive services. ILCKC's program eliminates daunting qualification processes for individuals seeking assistance.
ILCKC also incorporated its successful Assistive Technology Program into the OIB Program to train individuals on navigating computer software and programs. Consumers can learn voice-over programs and screen touch commands; how to use e-mail programs, braille dot location, smartphones and iPads; and various types of adaptive equipment and assistive technology devices specifically designed for visual impairment and blindness.
"For many people, technology can be overwhelming and challenging," noted Jimmie Soto, ILCKC's Executive Director and California State Independent Living Council member. "Both sighted and non-sighted older individuals are bombarded with technical language and products they may not understand. This can be a deterrent for them to compete in the workforce and live independently. Our goal is to address those challenges, so they can be successful."
For example, a retired teacher of the blind, who qualified for the OIB Program, asked ILCKC for help with the speech-recognition software, Dragon Naturally Speaking, to write her memoir. She was familiar with many products and programs for the blind; however, she didn't know how the software worked. After a few months of training, she created and saved several chapters of her memoir.
"Her excitement about achieving her goal was phenomenal," noted Garrett. "It's gratifying to witness such excitement and observe firsthand the positive results of our OIB Program."
ILCKC's serves all of Kern County, which covers 8,063 miles. Most service organizations and public-assistance offices are in Bakersfield. This presents a real challenge for residents who could benefit from ILCKC's programs and services. To address this challenge, ILCKC is spreading the word about the OIB Program by partnering with other agencies such as the Kern County Area Agency on Aging, the California Department of Rehabilitation and the California Alliance for Retired Americans.
"We also actively promote the program on social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest," said Garrett, "and we'll continue to leverage the power of the Internet and word-of-mouth referrals to reach more individuals and help them achieve their goals."
California State Independent Living Council (SILC)