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11 May 2015

Offering Independence: The Braille Institute's Goal—to Eliminate Barriers in the Lives of Blind and Visually Impaired People

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Offering Independence: The Braille Institute's Goal—to Eliminate Barriers in the Lives of Blind and Visually Impaired People Brian Blueskye

Felice Chiapperini, a manager and field-services coordinator for the Braille Institute, doesn’t think his organization gets the publicity it needs.

“We’re the best-kept secret in the Coachella Valley,” he said.

The Rancho Mirage location is one of five Braille Institute centers in California. The organization was founded in 1919 by J. Robert Atkinson after he lost his sight. Atkinson learned to read Braille and managed to transcribe 250 books.

“We like to say that we offer services to those with low-vision to no-vision, and everybody in between,” Chiapperini said. “A lot of people have misunderstandings about who we serve, and our name is a bit misleading. ‘Braille Institute’ invokes in people’s minds images of people who are totally blind—images of Helen Keller, and things like that. While we do serve that community, the majority of the people we serve fall into the category of low-vision.”

Who qualifies as low-vision?

“Anyone who has been diagnosed with any type of degenerative eye condition to where corrective lenses will no longer work,” he answered. “That means the person has been to their doctor or eye doctor; they are given the strongest glasses that they make, and they still can’t see their face or the words on a page. We can provide those people the tools, the training and the adaptive devices they need so that they can continue to do whatever it is they want to do, despite the vision loss.”

How many people are visually impaired in the region?

“From this center, we serve the Riverside, Imperial and San Bernardino counties,” Chiapperini said. “In that three-county radius, the census says there are some 80,000-plus visually impaired people. That’s a huge number, and it’s equal to the city population of Indio. We only see about 4,000 to 5,000 of those people on an annual basis.”

Chiapperini said the institute started primarily as a Braille printing press and Braille lending library. “We still are a Braille press and Braille lending library, but nowadays, less than 10 percent of visually impaired people can read Braille. The majority of our clients, 90 percent, can’t read Braille.”

I was a bit taken back by that piece of information.

“Years ago, it was 50 percent,” Chiapperini said. “Back in the 1960s, the federal government mandated that students with physical disabilities be brought into the mainstream education system. Prior to that, there were dedicated schools for the blind and dedicated schools for the deaf. When the students were brought into the mainstream schools, (teachers) weren’t equipped to teach them Braille. … What did they do? They taught them audio. It was at the time when audio and cassette learning was being introduced.”

Chiapperini also shared another reason why a lot of visually impaired adults don’t know Braille. “Many of the people who become visually impaired today become visually impaired as older adults, and it’s not feasible to teach older adults Braille—the reason being is because as we grow older, we lose sensitivity in our fingertips. It becomes impractical.”

Chiapperini said the Braille Institute is leading a campaign to reintroduce Braille into the learning system. The organization also works to help all visually impaired people live independent lives—even though many people in need at first resist help.

“Going to senior health fairs or to assisted-living facilities, the ladies shuffle up to me and say, ‘Braille Institute? I don’t need your services, and I’m not blind!’ One of the frustrating things is a lot of older people won’t self-identify as having vision loss because of vanity and fear. They don’t want to admit they have as much vision loss as they do, because then the DMV will take away their license. … It’s frustrating for us, because we can provide them the tools to make their lives much more enjoyable and easier, if only they would understand. … Inevitably, they take a few classes, and we give them some adaptive devices, and they make a remarkable turnaround, because there’s a sense of independence coming back.”

What services does the Braille Institute provide?

“Think of us as a community college for the visually impaired,” he said. “This is a place where they can come and take classes. We offer two types of courses. One is the core-skills class; that’s where you learn the basics—cooking, dressing yourself and handling money. The second are enrichment classes, where you can take art classes, photography classes, arts and crafts, horticulture and all sorts of things.”

Chiapperini noted that advances in technology have changed the ways in which visually impaired people live and interact

“You can be totally blind and use a smartphone as well as you or I use it,” Chiapperini said. “There are more than 200 applications for visually impaired people that are free or 99 cents. (Handling) money is always an issue for visually impaired people, so we teach people how to fold their money according to the denominations so they know what they have in their wallet. … There’s an app out there called EyeNote that works through the camera and tells you how much money you have. There are apps that recognize color as well.”

Chiapperini showed me a device that measures liquid in a cup and beeps once the cup is filled to the appropriate level.

“When someone has macular degeneration, they have a hard time distinguishing color and depth. If they were in the kitchen, and they had a white cup, and they were going to pour milk into this cup, it would be very challenging,” he said.

The Braille Institute’s Rancho Mirage Center is located at 70251 Ramon Road, in Rancho Mirage. For more information, call 760-321-1111, or visit www.brailleinstitute.org/ranchomirage.html.

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