ANCHORAGE — George Rickard drove commercial vehicles for 11 years. Then one day, he could no longer see, and his career came to a halt.
Rickard lost vision due to diabetic retinopathy. But his working days are not behind him. He found the Alaska Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired, which provides education and training to help Alaskans with vision loss lead the best lives they can.
The center’s mission is to provide vision rehabilitation. This means equipping Alaskans who are blind or visually impaired with the training to be successful in life. Executive Director Karla Jutzi said the people who benefit from the services have uncorrectable sight loss that has interfered with daily life or employment. She said this doesn’t always mean complete blindness, but even partial vision loss means new training for life.
Visual impairments can mean anything from glare problems to complete blindness. Low-vision assessment help identify the proper devices patrons need. Jutzi said what works for one person may not work for another.
She said most still have some useable vision but individuals with all levels of vision loss, even total loss, can still be independent, do things they enjoy and have career paths open to them.
“A big part of what we want known is that people can be very successfully employed after vision loss,” Jutzi said.
Jutzi said one of the greatest challenges of vision rehabilitation is that its availability is not common knowledge, so many Alaskans don’t seek help.
This Anchorage center is the only one of its type in the state. Jutzi said there are about 300 patrons each year and have been 2,600 patrons since the center opened in 1977.
Because it serves all of Alaska, there are accommodations for up to five clients to stay there during training. Jutzi said most of the vocational training is often completed within one to two months because those clients want to return to work as soon as possible.
Training can range from computer skills to cooking. Jutzi said it depends on the individual client’s skill level goals and level of vision loss. The center also offers job placement.
The center has a large focus on seniors, which constitute a large part of the visually impaired population. There are two senior support groups here.
“Seniors with vision loss can still live independent, full lives,” Jutzi said.
Patrons range from young adults to seniors. While the center is for adults, it does occasional work with high school students. This includes helping them navigate the University of Alaska Anchorage campus and obtain part-time jobs.
The center is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. It started 35 years ago when a combination of blind individuals, rehabilitation advocates and the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation recognized the need because visually impaired individuals had to leave the state to get these kinds of services.
The Alaska Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired has a partnership with the Alaska Division of Vocational Rehabilitation. Jutzi said the clinic is supported by fees from Medicare plus supporting donations.
She said 30 percent of the center’s revenues come from fees, 40 percent from government grants, 25 percent from community and private grants and the rest comes from other sources. The center also relies heavily on volunteer support.
Jutzi said nonprofits like this couldn’t function without business community support. The center will host a donor presentation event called “Seeing With Our Hearts” on October 9 at Hotel Captain Cook.
The Alaska Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired has a 12-member board. Several members have connections to visual impairment or experience it themselves. CB Brady, a general contractor for Benchmark Construction, serves as president. Brady himself has retinitis pigmentosa. He said the board is comprised of members from all over the state who really believe in the center’s mission.
“What I like to say is it’s truly where magic happens,” he said.
Brady said there have been some recent capital improvements to the buildings and some computer upgrades. Jutzi said keeping up with the latest technology provides invaluable tools for those who have trouble seeing.
There are 14 members of the staff. Certain specialists and therapists require master’s degree level training or national certifications. Jutzi said it can sometimes be hard to attract people of that level to work at a small Alaskan nonprofit.
Sometimes people who have experienced the training here as a client come back as an employee. There are five staff members with visual impairments. In fact, those entering the center often have their first interaction there with a visually impaired woman, although they might not realize it at first.
Technology is also a big part of Michael Babcock’s job. He’s an assistive technology and braille instructor. Babcock grew up blind and is well versed in the latest developments that can be used as aids.
Some of these aids are specially designed pieces of hardware and software, such as braille embossers and the screen reader JAWS. More commonplace devices like cell phones and iPads can also be useful tools. Apps can be used for screen readers, screen magnifiers, bar code readers and more. There is even a social networking program where a phone can take a photo and upload it so people can instantly respond as to what it is.
Babcock can quickly access all the apps he needs without ever seeing the screen. He said this skill can also be used as a security measure for sensitive information. A tablet screen can be blacked out to onlookers while he knows exactly where to touch the screen and get the information that a sighted person couldn’t translate.
Babcock said this technology has been a major change in the visually impaired field.