During Vision Rehabilitation Therapy Awareness Week: Considering the Increasing Role of Technology

By Steve Kelley, CVRT, CRC

Celebrating Vision Rehabilitation Therapy Awareness Week

Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan playing chess

The week of April 9-15, 2017 is Vision Rehabilitation Therapist Awareness Week. The week commemorates the birthday of Anne Sullivan, who was Helen Keller’s teacher (both pictured at left).

With this celebration comes the question of “How has the role of a Vision Rehabilitation Therapist (VRT) changed with the advent of more technology?”

The agency I work for, in Portland, Maine, like many others across the country, has been asking this same question. A critical issue is trying to ascertain what level of competence VRTs should be expected to have, and with which technology.

Vision Rehabilitation Therapists: A Question of Competency

Haven’t VRTs always been expected to maintain a certain level of competency, in a wide variety of adapted daily living skills, including the latest technology? As the profession of “Home Teachers” (the earliest description of blindness professionals or vision rehabilitation therapists) developed through the mid to late 1800s, these teachers, often visually impaired themselves, were training students to use a wide variety of technologies.

For the time, “finger reading,” adapted crafting techniques, signing, and using a cane for travel were certainly new techniques for independent living, often involving some new technology. In fact, Lynda Jones, CVRT, in her article From Home Teacher to Vision Rehabilitation Therapist: A Legacy, recounts the persistent legend of a Home Teacher packing the hatchet one might need to prepare a free-range chicken for the stew pot! How’s that for cutting edge technology?

The Vision Rehabilitation Therapist Model

learning to cook with a VRT

Learning to cook with the help of a Vision Rehabilitation Therapist

Consider for a moment the following excerpt from the primary textbook for the field of Vision Rehabilitation Therapy (called “Rehabilitation Teaching” at the original time of publication), Foundations of Rehabilitation Teaching With Persons Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired, by Susan V. Ponchillia and Paul E. Ponchillia:

A rehabilitation teacher is a professional whose primary goal is the rehabilitation of individuals who are visually impaired — that is, the provision of instruction and guidance to help individuals to acquire the skills and knowledge to manage their daily lives (Asenjo, 1975b) and to achieve self-confidence and self-sufficiency at their highest attainable level (LaGrow, 1992).

Regardless of the changing skills used to manage a client’s daily life — prepping a hen for supper, or placing an online supper order at a local restaurant for an Uber pickup and delivery — these are the sorts of skills and accompanying technologies the VRT teaches.

What’s Changed? A Veteran VRT Remembers

To get a better understanding of how the scope of teaching technology skills has changed more recently, I spoke with a co-worker and mentor, Laura Vittorioso, CVRT, CLVT, who began working in the profession in 1977, in Southern Maine.

Laura’s Viewpoint

Laura reported that during that time, her work was focused on connecting people with services, teaching various craft activities, braille alphabet training, optical magnification, and Talking Books, which were then recorded on flexible vinyl records.

reading with a CCTV
Reading with a modern CCTV

“We knew there were devices out there,” she said, “like the Aladdin CCTV (closed circuit television, now called an electronic video magnifier, pictured at left), and the Optacon (or OPtical to TActile CONverter) that people were using, but we didn’t have anything like that — we had so little to work with.”

By the late 1980s, Vittorioso reported that there was a greater influx of State funding into the agency, and with it, training on the technology that was being used at the time, such as the new video magnifiers.

Technology Was Lower-Tech

“In those days,” she said, “there was technology, but it was more a lower-tech device that we were learning to use. Those of us who have been around for awhile are particularly more challenged by how quickly technology has advanced. Not growing up with it as many of the younger people have, it’s not as intuitive for us.”

A Shift in Training Focus

Vittorioso also reported a dramatic shift in training focus. During the past 10 years, clients’ goals have shifted from what was primarily training in independent household management skills, such as cooking, cleaning, and bill-paying, to more of a technology focus.

“It has changed dramatically,” she said. “Rarely am I teaching the traditional homemaking skills now. Most often, we’re teaching technology: “How do I use my iPad?” “How do I use my iPhone?” “I want to get on a computer!” “I want an ebook!” And of course, clients want to learn the low vision tools.”

A Training Supervisor Concurs: Boomers Love Tech!

Vittorioso’s observations were similar to those made by B.J. LeJeune, CVRT, CRC, Training Supervisor at the National Research and Training Center on Blindness and Low Vision, at the recent American Foundation for the Blind Leadership Conference. B.J remarked that as Boomers acquire vision loss from aging, they will be seeking services and training to support the continued use of the gadgets they have come to enjoy.

The Boomers’ love affair with gadgets reflects the degree to which technology has become a vital part of our daily living activities, and how prevalent accessibility is becoming as an integrated part of mainstream technology.

An Example of Tech Transformation

the National Library Service Digital Talking Book Player
The NLS Digital Talking
Book Player and cartridge

Consider for a moment the transformation that took place in the past several years with the National Library Service Talking Book Player and services. It has gone from a cassette player to a completely digital media player, capable of playing a variety of file formats, using a flash drive as well as the more standard cartridges, and allowing more advanced users to download books and magazines to their computers and transfer them to a cartridge or flash drive.

Patrons may do away with the player altogether by installing the BARD Mobile app on a smart device. Teaching consumers how to use what was once a relatively low tech device has suddenly become much more high tech — including computer and tablet skills at the more advanced level. Not only that, but BARD Mobile can be downloaded and operated on a $49 Kindle Fire HD available from Amazon with a screen reader already built in!

Suddenly, the old reliable, simple Talking Book player includes a computer, a tablet, flash drives, and digital cartridges — enough to make a technophobe very anxious indeed!

The Tech May Be More Familiar Than You Think!

In many ways, although there is a great deal more mainstream technology coming out at a dizzying pace, some aspects of the technology learning acquisition will remain similar to what professional VRTs have experienced over the years: learning the basics of the technologies in vogue, and relying on some specialists for less popular or higher-tech items.

For example, the Talking Book Player remains a standard, and training is readily available. Tablets and smartphones as a category of devices are now a standard, and training for the basic screen magnification and screen reader gestures has become more standardized with training resources available.

The Orbit Reader 20 braille book reader will, no doubt, also become a standard device with many training opportunities. Of course these devices may include a bit of a learning curve between upgrades and models, but once you learn the basics, the changes are minor.

Referring to a Technology Specialist

On the other hand, there will most likely be increasing demand for more specialized trainers —VRTs who are familiar with several screen readers and operating systems, more specialized braille note takers, advanced skills, such as editing documents using VoiceOver with a keyboard, and scripting for customization.

A New Technology Certification

The vision rehabilitation field’s certifying body, the Academy for Certification of Vision Rehabilitation & Education Professionals, recognized this with their latest certification: Certified Assistive Technology Instructional Specialist for People with Visual Impairments (CATIS).

This new certification seems to be a recognition that there will continue to be a need for a higher level of training for some specialists, and that the standard knowledge base for VRT certification may include more technology, although not at the level of a certified specialist.

Vision Rehabilitation Therapists Remain Versatile

As in so many other professions, the technology we are using changed, and the speed at which it is changing is even faster today. We are all using smartphones and tablets instead of DayTimers and paper calendars. We tap on tablets of all shapes and sizes rather than scribble on paper or braille with a stylus.

We ask Siri to take a memo or remind us to take our medication. In a few years, we may be adding bump dots or braille labels to flat panel consoles in self-driving cars for owners and travelers who are visually impaired.

It is just this sort of versatility that Vision Rehabilitation Therapists have demonstrated historically as a profession, as teachers, and as trainers that will enable them to manage and embrace new technology as it develops!

Additional Information about Vision Rehabilitation Therapists