Did you know that this week (June 22-28) is Vision Rehabilitation Therapy (VRT) Appreciation Week? Now you do. As a longtime – and proud – Certified Vision Rehabilitation Therapist (CVRT), I have been asked by my colleagues to compose a paean, of sorts, to the “greatest profession.”
What Is a Vision Rehabilitation Therapist?
To learn more about what a VRT does in the course of a day’s work, you can read A Day on the Road with VRT Stephanie Stephens Van, which provides a compelling account of the day-to-day social, psycho-social, and rehabilitation activities that comprise a typical VRT caseload. You can learn more about VRT and the requirements for VRT certification at the Academy for Certification of Vision Rehabilitation & Education Professionals (ACVREP).
The Beginning of My VRT Journey
In some ways, I was the luckiest girl in the world, because I fell into a summer job when I was 20 that – unbeknownst to me – would inform the rest of my professional life.
During that long-ago summer, I worked as a counselor at a camp for blind adults that continues to provide recreational, social, and rehabilitation services today as the VISIONS Center on Blindness. It was my everyday work with older adult campers that provided me with a profound and lifelong intellectual charge and forced me to question my prior (and highly regressive, I admit!) assumptions about disability.
I took the camp counselor job because I wanted to commune with nature and have a final “wild and crazy” summer between my junior and senior years of college; instead I had a life-changing experience. Go figure.
My First Real VRT Job
My first (and most beloved) job was as a community-based VRT at the former Center for Independent Living (now VISIONS Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired) in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx (and sometimes Staten Island when no one else would venture there). I loved everything about the work: taking the subway to parts unknown while carting my bag of VRT adaptive equipment; working with knowledgeable colleagues; and really, truly learning something new every day. (It’s also when I became a hip-hop and rap connoisseur … truth!)
Was I good at it, though? Well, I knew how to teach just about anything to blind adults, but I didn’t yet have a full understanding of human nature, including how adults learn. As a neophyte teacher, I assumed that my adult clients and students would welcome me with open arms and accept, without question, the knowledge I had spent many years acquiring as an undergraduate, majoring in Rehabilitation Teaching (as it was known then).
Uh … no. It didn’t work that way. It took me quite some time to sort it all out. In fact, author Malcolm Gladwell estimates that it takes a minimum of 10 years or 10,000 hours of everyday practice to become a skilled practitioner. Things didn’t fall into place for me until I studied – really studied – the art and science of teaching adults, called andragogy.
Learning about Andragogy
Andragogy tells us that the adult learner experiences a “teachable moment” or “readiness to learn” when she or he experiences an immediate need to know or do something in order to perform more effectively in some aspect of their daily lives. The good teacher will help adults figure out what they need to learn in the present – which may not necessarily be the same as what the teacher expects the adult to learn. Was this the most difficult concept for me to grasp/learn? Oh, yes.
The University Years
What finally turned me into a complete professional was my immersion in the study of low vision at the former Pennsylvania College of Optometry (PCO), now the College of Education and Rehabilitation at Salus University. I learned physiological optics, intensive research techniques, and more about the human eye than I ever thought possible. I remain eternally grateful to my graduate school mentors who saw my promise and always pushed me (hard) to keep achieving: Doctors Audrey Smith, John Ray, and Eileen Schanel-Klitsch.
After graduation, I stayed on and taught at PCO/Salus for 18 years, starting, and then directing, a Master’s program in VRT. It was fascinating to “be on the other side,” so to speak, and I cherished my time at the helm of our highly-regarded program. Was I a taskmaster? For sure – but I was confident that my graduates were among the best practitioners in the country.
A Modern VRT in Today’s World
Now I’m the social media specialist at VisionAware.org, where I do my best to keep readers informed about current issues and emerging vision research, via the VisionAware blog, Twitter, and Facebook. I’m also an Associate Editor of the Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, where I’m responsible for managing a large number of scientific and research manuscripts.
My VRT Journey Continues
What have I learned after all these years? Essentially, that my role is to “get out of the way.” People know what they need to learn. I’m just the facilitator. In truth, I’ve gone from thinking I knew everything about VRT to finally realizing I don’t know very much at all.
But at heart, I’m still that long-ago community-based VRT, traveling the subway, learning about rap, and trying to do my best for my clients and students. That never has changed – and never will. In my wildest dreams, I can never imagine my life without VRT, and I thank everyone who has helped me to persevere along my (at times) circuitous career path. It’s all about the journey, for sure.
Read VisionAware’s special section on VRT, including Peer Advisor Linda Fugate’s blog post on A Day in the Life of a Vision Rehabilitation Therapist, Jackie Bokan’s story about becoming a VRT, an interview with Dr. Ruth Kaarlela, the founder of VRT, and a tribute to the late Dr. Susan Ponchillia, the longtime director of the graduate program in VRT at Western Michigan University.