VisionExchange: A Support Group for Support Group Leaders by Guest Blogger Polly Abbott, CVRT

Polly Abbott, CVRT

In honor of Vision Rehabilitation Therapist (VRT) Appreciation Week (June 23-29), VisionAware is featuring the work of talented VRTs throughout the United States.

Polly Abbott is a Certified Vision Rehabilitation Therapist (CVRT), an Orientation and Mobility Specialist with a background in education, and Director of Rehabilitation Services at Second Sense in Chicago, Illinois.

Prior to Second Sense, Polly spent six years at CNIB as a VRT and Case Manager and worked in a variety of teaching positions in England and France. In 2010, Polly received the Excellence in Rehabilitation Award from the Illinois Chapter of the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired.

How VisionExchange Began

I started working for Second Sense in 2005. Back then, my position focused on providing education and training, primarily to seniors with vision loss at community locations. The programs were free and I was invited to a variety of community sites, such as retirement communities, public libraries, senior and community centers, and churches. I partnered with many different professionals who had an interest in, commitment to, providing an opportunity for the seniors and adults with low vision they served to come together, learn, and share their experiences about living with vision loss.

Some were members of pre-existing low vision support groups and others decided to keep on meeting as a group long after I had completed three or four programs. For many of the professionals (as well as their group members), I was the first CVRT they had ever heard of or met.

To this day, I have never had a single person speak up and say, “Oh, yes. I know what vision rehabilitation is.” Even fewer have expressed any knowledge of vision rehabilitation services in general—and the handful that did say they received rehabilitation services (from sources other than Second Sense) were unable to articulate what sort of professional had provided the services they felt they had received.

I tell people about professionals in our field all the time, but in the end, it is the help and resources that matter. The support group leaders were bringing lots of good information to their group members. I wanted to help them be even better, if I could. About five years ago, having traveled to what felt like every single vision loss support group, and then some, in the Chicago and suburban area, I had the idea for VisionExchange.

The VisionExchange Listserv

I had developed a great admiration for the nurses, social workers, librarians, activity therapists and a variety of residential senior home professionals who, without any background in the blindness and low vision world, were running excellent low vision support groups in addition to their other job duties. They were extremely receptive to any information that could benefit their group members.

However, I noticed I was spending a lot of phone and email time expounding the virtues of the same resources over and over. I was the common link. I wanted to connect them all so that everyone could benefit from each other’s experiences and ideas for running the support groups. I wanted a forum for sharing information with them and, by extension, their group members. I wanted experienced group leaders to provide encouragement and support to the newer ones.

I created the VisionExchange Listserv and invited all the support group leaders to join. It started with about 40 people and now has grown to 60. The purpose of the Listserv is to exchange ideas and information about devices and community resources to help adults with low vision to be more independent. Currently, the majority of Listserv members lead vision loss support groups for older adults in Illinois, but any vision loss support group leader is welcome.

VisionExchange Day: Face-to-Face Networking

It was great to be able to communicate together, but then I said, “If only they could all meet each other!” I began planning for the first face-to-face Vision Exchange Day of professional development and networking.

VisionExchange Day is held each year on the first Friday in June. We just had our fifth anniversary. It is always hosted at a different location to give the different group leaders a chance to see where another group meets. It is a full day of networking and training. The program is usually a balance of vision rehabilitation-related education and, thanks to having a licensed clinical professional counselor on staff, a number of issues and topics specifically related to helping people emotionally and facilitating groups.

The goals of VisionExchange Day are the following:

  • Provide useful knowledge about helpful products and tips the leaders can suggest to their group members to promote independence for activities of daily living.
  • Raise awareness of other services, such as other non-profits in the area who serve people with vision loss, state-funded services for the blind, services for veterans, and talking book programs, for example.
  • Increase understanding of the process of adjustment to vision loss.
  • Provide strategies for handling all aspects of group facilitation.
  • Facilitate networking and communication for mutual support, encouragement, inspiration, and resource-sharing.

Comments from VisionExchange Participants

“This was a great experience and I cannot wait to attend next year. This is something that I was missing since I have been facilitating the low vision group.”

“I am trying to start a group so it was helpful to learn what other groups do. The ideas and suggestions on how they handle situations were very helpful. I need all the help I can get.”

“I just escorted a resident last week on a trip to the Goodman Theater and we practiced the techniques I learned on how to guide someone. It worked very well in the crowded theater and was very helpful to both of us.”

More about VisionExchange

I believe that VisionExchange is accomplishing what I originally hoped it would do. It has given interested potential leaders the confidence to start a group and continued support to keep it going. Leaders have shared many resources and there have even been groups who have traveled to visit each other. Going forward, my hope is that VisionExchange will continue to grow and provide education and support for vision loss support group leaders.

To learn more about, and join, VisionExchange, visit the VisionExchange Listserv page and follow the instructions to subscribe. You can also send an email to Polly Abbott at