LAB Clients Get the Latest Word on Technology
By Suzanne Wilson
Most of the time, LAB’s program for blind and visually impaired adults meets on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10:00 am until noon. However, we took a walk on the wild side and departed from the norm a couple of months ago on Friday, March 15. Why, you ask. Were we commemorating the assassination of Julius Caesar? Were we having a pre-St. Patrick’s Day blow-out? While both of these are certainly legitimate reasons—particularly the latter—our departure from the norm had everything to do with our special guest, Gayle Yarnell.
If Gayle’s name sounds familiar to you, it is probably because she has been involved in the field of technology and reading access for blind, visually impaired, and print impaired people on the North Shore since the late ‘80s. Gayle is herself a regular user of numerous forms of assistive technology, including but not limited to the many services offered through the Braille and Talking Book Library. She is the mother of three grown children and the grandmother of four. If they hadn’t already known it, the 15 program participants who crowded into the office that morning soon learned just what an excellent speaker and fund of knowledge Gayle is.
The story begins way back in 1978, when Gayle moved to Massachusetts to take a job at Kurzweil, a company which produced the first reading machine for the blind. The inaugural models weighed at least 50 pounds and were anything but portable; however, they paved the way for the amazing technology of today. For about eight years, Gayle worked for that company, and then moved on to do technical support and then sales at Telesensory Systems, another giant in the field. Then in 1994, she took a leap and started her own business, known as Adaptive Technology Consulting, located in Salisbury, MA.
“I got to do things the way I liked and hire the people I wanted,” she explained. “It was a great company.” For the next 14 years, the business prospered and Gayle’s name and reputation for excellence became known throughout the North Shore.
All good things must come to an end though, and Gayle chose to sell her company to Perkins in 2008. It is now known as Perkins Products. Until the summer of 2012, Gayle remained as a part of the firm to help with the transition. Then opportunity knocked once again.
These days, Gayle has become an ambassador for the Braille and Talking Book Library by virtue of a grant. Thanks to this support, she is now able to travel far and wide throughout the North Shore to spread the word about the library’s various offerings. In some ways, it “has been a struggle,” Gayle conceded. Many of the senior centers, residential facilities, councils on aging and libraries that she approaches are hesitant to hear her presentation, probably under the mistaken impression that her goal is to sell products. In spite of these obstacles, she still manages to do about three presentations a week. In particular, she has found support groups for people with Parkinson’s disease to be receptive to this information. After all, the Braille and Talking Book Library provides materials and services not only to those with vision loss, but also to people who cannot read for other reasons, including learning and physical disabilities.
“The other piece that we really have been explaining to people is that everybody knows about the talking books . . . and the players. But they don’t necessarily know that there is a huge collection of large print books that are delivered in the same way through the mail at no cost,” Gayle stated. “And they don’t always know about Newsline.” As it turned out, some of our attendees were also unaware of some of these resources, particularly Newsline.
This free service enables subscribers to listen to magazines, newspapers and television listings read by a synthesized voice, either over a land line or mobile phone. Functions within Newsline enable subscribers to save their favorite publications, search by subject and skip by section, article or paragraph. In addition, the TV listings section describes what all local and cable channels are offering by time and date, also letting the subscriber know which shows are audio described.
Anyone listening to Gayle’s presentation will tell you that she is passionate about audio description, a technology that places verbalized description within a DVD or broadcast program. As a result, someone who is blind can understand nuances of action that are not spoken. “While you’re actually watching the process of the movie, it’s really nice to have it just be you and the movie and not somebody else deciding when they think it’s something they should tell you,” Gayle explained. To illustrate, she played a short segment from “Gunsmoke,” a well-known Western television series. Even in that two or three-minute clip, the added narration enhanced listeners’ understanding of the plot of the show without compromising the dialogue. The Braille and Talking Book Library offers its patrons the ability to borrow DVD’s with descriptive video at no charge, mailed directly to their homes. Hard copies of the catalog are available from the Library upon request. Alternatively, patrons can call and speak to a staff member to find out what is available. Selections are being updated on a regular basis. In conclusion, Gayle shared information about a resource called the Blind Mice Movie Vault, available free over the Internet, that enables members to download the audio portion only of described movies and television shows to their own computers.
If you would like to speak to Gayle directly to ask a question or schedule a presentation to your group, she can be reached at 978-973-7188 or at the Braille and Talking Book Library at 617-924-3434. All of those who attended her discussion were impressed by the depth of knowledge and understanding of the full spectrum of adaptive technologies available today. Chances are, this will not be the last time Gayle is asked to grace us with her presence and valuable information.
LAB Prepares to Celebrate a Very Special Birthday
Do you remember when you were four, five, six, even thirteen? When asked for your age, you proclaimed it to the world with pride. Then as adulthood set in, you may have started to become a bit more reticent. Perhaps there even have been times when you hemmed and hawed, even subtracted a year or three when that question of age came up. Then something interesting happens as youth turns to middle age and full maturity: We get to the point where we once again want to tell the world how old we are. It is, after all, proof of all we have accomplished. What is true for us as people is also true for LAB as an agency. 2013 marks our 90th year! And we plan to make it the best ever!
Recently, our own Jim Barrett sat down with LAB’s Executive Director, Elizabeth Cannon, and with Board of Directors President Bruce Macaulay to chat about this organization that is such an integral part of the fabric of Lowell: its history, its current accomplishments, and the exciting events that we look forward to in this milestone year.
Jim began by getting brief biographies of his two interviewees. Elizabeth, who has held her position at LAB for over 12 years, has worked in the nonprofit sector for most of her career. A native of Lowell, she still lives on the street where she grew up. A lifetime of work and service in Lowell has given her an extensive knowledge of our city.
Bruce Macaulay grew up in Melrose, MA and has spent the past 17 years working at Winchester Hospital. His field of expertise is food services management, and he is directly involved in retail, catering, and large event planning for the institution. He has resided in Lowell for about 15 years and feels very much at home here.
Both Elizabeth and Bruce have inherited a legacy here at LAB that stretches back for nearly a century. The organization was started in 1923 by the Middlesex Women’s Club. Its mission was to assist blind Lowellians and their families by providing transportation to medical appointments and furnishing food and other resources to people with visual impairments and their families. Over the years, LAB changed with the times and with the evolving perceptions of blindness in our society. In due course, it became a professional organization. This transformation can be accredited in large part to a woman named Mary Lou Doherty, a longtime LAB supporter and board member who hired the first Executive Director and grew the organization in countless ways. If her surname rings a bell, it’s because we are proud to have Mary Lou’s daughter, Shelagh, as a valued part-time staff member.
LAB has come a very long way in the past nine decades. We are the only Massachusetts nonprofit agency north of Boston dedicated to serving people who are blind or visually impaired. Our services address the needs of people aged five and up. We offer a youth program for kids aged five to 14, a senior youth program for people aged 15 to 22, mentoring, computer and Braille instruction, and an adult program that meets two days per week. Several of our active participants are in their eighties and nineties. In addition, we are proud to have a legion of volunteers who truly are the beating heart of LAB. Each week, anywhere from 15 to 18 dedicated people read local news articles on our radio station. Last year, we produced over 600 hours of local programming, lovingly brought to the community by volunteers from all walks of life. Other members of our volunteer family assist with the adult program or help us in a myriad of other ways.
The Board of Directors is a diverse group of 18 dedicated and multi-talented men and women who are committed to the on-going success of this vital organization. Once a month, members of the board meet to take care of the business of running this busy nonprofit. Terms are two or three years in duration, although many members have been with us for much longer.
One of these is Bruce, who has been President of the Board for two years now. “I feel that my role is to inspire the talent of the Board,” Bruce commented when asked to describe his role in the success of LAB. “I feel that we have a tremendous diversity of talent that really runs itself. I’m very, very proud of the accomplishments that we’re able to make.” I know when I first started, we started in a bank on Central Street with paneling and a 1960s green shag rug with a leaking roof and power going out and no heat. Today, we’re in this fabulous prime downtown location offering over 3000 square feet of usable space where we’ve been able to expand programs. I’m very, very proud of these accomplishments that we have done together as a team.”
Not to be outdone, Elizabeth quickly added her own words of praise for all of the hard work done by our Board. “We have a very active board. We have people from the banking community, attorneys, we have Michelle Mitchell, who is a former volunteer. We have Ed Hess, who is a client. So we try . . . to have the Board have all different types of skills. Bruce’s skill in food services management is such a big asset to us when we do our annual spring house party. His skills are really pressed into service in the spring . . . and we have other folks who have skills that are used at various times during the year. It’s just a really collegial group that . . . works well together.”
When the Board gathers each month, they have the opportunity to learn firsthand how the organization they are supporting with their time and money is providing vital services to the blind and visually impaired community in the Merrimack Valley. Through the insights of Ed Hess and Michelle Mitchell, our client and volunteer liaisons, the Board gains a unique perspective of how LAB is making a real difference in people’s lives. “Ed has given us terrific stories,” Bruce emphasized. “We are providing a safe zone for those that are dealing with something so difficult in life. And often they refer to Elizabeth as their mother or as their therapist. I think you have so many different roles at lab and that is special.”
It is these personal stories that have encouraged the Board to continue to strive for LAB’s growth and success. When Bruce joined the Board, he was on a committee responsible for exploring how to find a more suitable space that could provide a home to expanded and updated services. Sure enough, just a few years later, that is a reality. Thanks to the support and generous donations of numerous individuals and businesses inLowell, LAB not only survives, it is thriving. Bruce summed it up nicely: “In this day and age, people are getting swallowed up all the time. We stand on our own and Lowell definitely stands behind us.”
What is ahead for LAB? We have certainly jumped into the digital age. Because of the tireless work of our volunteers, we now host a Facebook page, a Youtube channel, and an updated website. A snazzy new logo celebrates our 90th birthday, and we now proudly offer an e-newsletter. But behind all of the glitz and splash, our mission is as steadfast and clear as it has always been: to provide services to the blind and visually impaired community.
One of the best avenues to get the word out about our special organization is an annual event that will soon be upon us. Each spring, the Board of Directors hosts an open house. Held in one of Lowell’s lovely historic homes, it offers the friends and supporters of LAB a place to come together, nibble on appetizers and sip beverages, bid on auction items and participate in raffle drawings, and enjoy live entertainment. The delicious food and drinks are donated by generous members of the community, and the gala provides a terrific way to get together with everyone who is everyone in Lowell, have a good time, and support LAB in the process. In addition, we will be awarding the George Zermas Memorial Scholarship to a deserving blind or visually impaired student or adult learner who is continuing his or her education and to professionals studying to work with the blind. In past years, we have sometimes also helped with the purchase of assistive technology which can help the student to succeed in school. This year, our house party will be held on May 30 from 7:00 p.m. until 9:00 p.m. at the Andover Street home of State Senator Eileen Donoghue.
As in past years, Janet Lambert Moore will be hand-painting our lovely house party invitations, which are works of art in themselves. If you don’t get one and you want to attend this lovely event, you are more than welcome. Just call us at 978-454-5704 to be added to our mailing list. Tickets cost $90 and will also be available at the door.
If you have ever attended a 90th birthday celebration, you already know just how much fun it will be. And if you have never had the chance to be a part of such a milestone, don’t miss this once in a lifetime opportunity. Here at LAB, we’re 90 and we’re proud of it! We have only just begun to kick up our heels and show the world what we, our Board of Directors, our staff, volunteers and clients can do when we all work together!
May Adult Program Schedule
Date: Thursday, May 2
Event: Breakfast Club
Location: Comet’s, Tyngsboro
Cost: You are responsible for the cost of your own food.
Description: Join us for a delicious breakfast at Comet’s in Tyngsboro.
Date: Tuesday, May 7
Event: Jordan’s Furniture
Cost: You are responsible for the cost of your own purchases.
Description: By special request, we’re making another trip to Jordan’s Furniture in Reading. You can surely shop for furniture if you like, but I confess that this is often a gluttonous trip consisting of ice cream sundaes, Jelly Belly jelly beans and Fuddrucker’s hamburgers. You certainly don’t have to partake in all of these things, but you can if you want!
Date: Thursday, May 9
Event: Breakfast Club
Location: LAB office
Description: Join us for a delicious breakfast cooked in the LAB office. We’ll be having Belgian waffles with fruit topping!
Date: Thursday, May 9
Event: Christie’s Craft Clinic
Location: LAB Office
Description: This month we’ll return to some jewelry making. I have some new projects for us to try!
Date: Tuesday, May 14
Event: A Different Vision tactile art show
Location: Plymouth Center for the Arts
Cost: FREE – Bring a lunch or money for lunch
Description: This is a “please touch!” show for visitors who are blind or low vision, and the general public, featuring the work of sighted and non-sighted artists. Categories of art include 3-D work in metal, wood, cloth, glass, clay, etc.; 2-D art with high contrast and/or textural qualities and multi-sensory art. Please be aware that this is a long drive and a bit of an experiment on our part. We’ve never taken the Adult Program to an activity this far away. Activities specifically for the blind like this are so few and far between that we just had to give it a shot.
Date: Thursday, May 16
Event: Breakfast Club
Location: Vic’s, Lowell
Cost: You are responsible for the cost of your own food.
Description: Join us for a delicious breakfast at Vic’s in Lowell!
Date: Tuesday, May 21
Location: Good Thymes, Lowell
Cost: You are responsible for the cost of your lunch.
Description: By request, we’re going to try out a new lunch destination – Good Thymes in Lowell!
Date: Thursday, May 23
Event: Breakfast Club
Location: LAB office
Description: Join us for a delicious breakfast cooked in the Lab office. We’ll be having breakfast sandwiches.
Date: Tuesday, May 28
Location: Lowell, MA
Description: Come join us for bowling at Brunswick Lanes in Lowell, MA!
Date: Thursday, May 30
Event: Breakfast Club
Location: Vic’s Waffle House, Tewksbury
Cost: You are responsible for the cost of your own food.
Description: Join us for a delicious breakfast at Vic’s Waffle House in Tewksbury!
Sounds of Success: The VOICE Program at LABArticle by Suzanne Wilson
A little over two years ago, the affiliates of the Talking Information Center (TIC) met, as they do on a regular basis. Perhaps it seemed like just another normal get-together of the various agencies involved in disseminating news and information to visually impaired Massachusetts residents, but an idea was born on that day that is continuing to grow and resonate throughout the state. A single thought brought forth by our own Executive Director, Elizabeth Cannon, to create a program that teaches broadcasting and communications skills to further the careers of visually impaired job seekers, has now become a reality. Today, it is known as the Vocational Opportunities in Communications Education program, more commonly known as VOICE.
Recently, this exciting 16-week class was featured on Horizons, a TIC show that highlights various services provided by the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind (MCB). Our own VOICE graduate and instructor Jim Barrett sat down with LAB Executive Director Elizabeth Cannon and Steve Bears, who is the first student to successfully complete VOICE here at LAB.
Any time someone has a good idea such as this program surely was, there are many steps that go into the process of bringing it to fruition. VOICE is no exception. Over the past two years and with funding help from the Greater Lowell Community Foundation and MCB, we constructed a new studio space here at our office. As a result, the equipment has been upgraded and is now state of the art, improving the students’ learning experience, as well as the quality of the programs that result. As Elizabeth so eloquently stated, this program gives “an opportunity for people to learn how to use the technology and think about jobs in the communications field.” And because of careful planning mixed with a heaping portion of generosity and hard work, we now have a space and a curriculum we can all be proud of.
Word got around about this exciting opportunity. One of the many who heard about it was MCB Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor Darren Black. He just happened to mention VOICE to Steve Bears, one of his visually impaired clients, and the rest is history. Although he had a vision problem even as a child, Steve was relatively new to the so-called “blindness system.” “Most of my life was spent in the sighted world,” he explained. “I had never had a lot of contact with other blind people, to be honest with you. . . I was always kind of out there and fending for myself as far as trying to figure things out. . . I never had any examples of people who didn’t have much or any vision . . . so I always had to kind of blaze my own trail.” Steve had spent virtually all of his adult life employed in the music industry. He worked at and owned music stores, sold musical instruments, and did live sound. When Darren approached him about the VOICE program, however, he had been unemployed for a period of time and needed to find a new direction that would still enable him to take advantage of his skills and interests. VOICE filled the bill very nicely.
"I really did enjoy the program,” Steve enthused. “It’s a great setup. There’s some great equipment to work with here at LAB. Probably the biggest thing I learned was having to listen to and actually edit my own voice on tape. I learned a lot about the way I really spoke as opposed to what I thought in my head, and it was an eye-opening experience. . . I did learn a lot about my articulation and the way that I spoke. It was great to learn how to do reach-outs for interviews, to write interview questions and set that whole thing up as well.” Because of his prior interest and expertise, Steve particularly enjoyed the technological aspects of the training. Specifically, all of the post-production editing, program assembly, finding just the right music, and watching it morph into a polished program were highlights for Steve.
Capitalizing on his prior strengths was only a part of what he gained. In addition, Steve accumulated a great deal of knowledge about adaptive software, including the MAGIC and JAWS programs that provide screen magnification and speech respectively for the computers used in the program. Upon successfully graduating, Steve walked away not only with these new and enhanced skills, but also with a recent, concrete accomplishment to place on his resume. “Steve’s experience is really what we had hoped for when we were putting this program together,” Elizabeth concluded.
To discuss VOICE in more depth, the Horizons program that day also featured two other people who have proven to be integral to its growth. Jay Rufo heads up the VOICE program in Boston and is the primary instructor at MCB. Katie Crocker was one of the original program participants in the 2010 charter class and is now a co-instructor with Jay, as well as a production assistant at TIC in Marshfield, MA.
Like Steve Bears, Jay came to VOICE after many years of experience as a musician and music lover. As a member of various bands, he had interviews with several college radio stations over the years. “I never really had any thoughts about the interviewer,” he added. His professional evolution was gradual. He started his radio career in 2005 as the Outreach and Development Coordinator at the Worcester affiliate of TIC, but it wasn’t long before he began to feel pulled toward the production and interviewing that went on at the station. After expressing his interest to his supervisor, he was given the chance to host a program called Out of Sight. “I white-knuckled my way through that, I was sweating,” he confessed. “I got out of the studio and realized that was the coolest thing I had ever done and I wanted to dedicate my time to learning how to be the best I could be at interviewing and learning how to use all of the equipment.” Thus began a career trajectory that led, four years later, to Jay’s accepting the position as head trainer for VOICE.
Although it originally consisted of twelve weeks of instruction, VOICE is now a full sixteen weeks long, Monday through Thursday from 9:00 a.m. until 3:00 p.m. The overall goal of the class is to assist students in enhancing communications skills that are ultimately transferrable across many occupations and jobs. During the four-month class, students get a comprehensive overview of radio broadcasting: how to book guests, research program topics, conduct interviews in a professional manner, how to edit those interviews and form them into a final, polished product that is then aired on TIC. “We’re really using radio broadcasting as a vehicle to hone in on those communications skills that people can use in jobs like public relations, advertising, marketing and radio broadcasting or webcasting,” Jay summarized.
What does it take to be considered as a candidate for the VOICE program? You must be able to type. In addition, you should have good computer skills, particularly in the use of programs such as Microsoft Word and Internet Explorer, since you will be conducting a good deal of research online about show topics. You need to be an independent traveler with the mobility skills to successfully navigate to and from the training site on your own. Finally, you should have a vocational goal that is based in the communications field.
When Katie Crocker heard about VOICE and the qualifications for the program, she decided that it fit her skill set and goals quite nicely. She was one of the original four students to be accepted, and she found the diversity of her classmates to be both interesting and exciting. Some, like Katie herself, were fresh out of college; others had more life experience. “It was a lot of fun to kind of get to know everybody else, get to know the office environment here at MCB, meet some of the other people that work here, have that office experience,” Katie elaborated. “I had always been interested in communications. Radio, on the other hand, I didn’t know too much about. Well, by day two or three, I was completely sold that radio was a lot of fun.” As her knowledge and skills grew, she became especially fond of doing live radio. Just knowing that her words were going over the air at that very moment was a thrill. Another highlight of her new career was conducting a brief meet and greet interview with Governor Patrick himself.
“The one thing I will say is this course has done wonders for my confidence,” Katie concluded. Expanding her skills while challenging herself has enabled her to make huge strides, both in her confidence in her own abilities and in her professionalism. She loves being part of a dynamic course that is continuing to evolve and improve with each passing graduating class. “I don’t know who learns more: the people who come through this program or me,” Jay added, “but I’ll tell you, it’s great!”
If you want to learn more about the VOICE program and think you might like to join our next class, contact your MCB Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor. We hope to start a new class of two students in March or April.
LAB’s Horizons Program Focuses on Exciting Initiative for People with DiabetesBy Suzanne Wilson
You may already know about LAB’s “Horizons”, which is broadcast on the radio reading service and highlights people and programs of interest to the blind and visually impaired community. You may also be aware of LAB’s VOICE program, an exciting, grant-funded initiative that is furnishing qualified consumers with a chance to gain direct experience in producing and recording shows for our radio station. Combine these ground-breaking efforts and what do you get? An hour-long show by Steve Bears, the first graduate of our VOICE program, that focuses on enhancing services to people with diabetes.
This condition is quickly becoming one of our country’s greatest health challenges. Today, one in ten Americans has diabetes. However, if nothing is done to put a damper on the current progression, one in three will have it by 2050. One of the best ways to ensure that the trend is slowed is preventive care, both to avoid becoming diabetic in the first place and to minimize the complications once it has been diagnosed.
Along with kidney and circulatory problems, diabetes frequently causes damage to the eyes, specifically the retinas. As blood sugar levels rise and circulation is affected, the eye becomes starved for oxygen and blood vessels die. To combat this, the body creates new, fragile ones that often break, causing bleeding. In the most severe cases, particularly when preventive measures have not been taken, blindness can result.
Recognizing this fact, specialists at New England Eye, Network Health, and Neighborhood Diabetes have begun to collaborate on a pilot project. Several of them sat down with recent VOICE Program graduate Steve Bears to discuss the initiative. They included Dr. Pano Yeracaris, the Vice President and Chief Medical Officer at Network Health, Dr. Gary Chu, Vice President of Community Collaborations and Associate Professor at New England Eye, and Elizabeth Bean, a Quality Specialist at Network Health.
Steve began by obtaining some fascinating information about Dr. Yeracaris’s background. After spending 28 years in a family practice, he decided to change his career focus. To this end, he came to Massachusetts and obtained a Master’s degree in public health from Harvard. Much to the gain of the Bay State, he decided to move here permanently. The next several years of his life were spent working in community health centers in Dorchester. Then, eight years ago he took his current position at Network Health. “It’s been an exciting time to be here in Massachusetts both with all the opportunity for innovation and bringing in healthcare reform both in 2006 and now with all the changes that are occurring,” he enthused. Dr. Yeracaris is also on the Board of the New England College of Optometry, which is the parent company of the New England Eye Institute. Both in his direct practice and his work at Network Health, he has long been interested in improving services for people with diabetes in order to prevent the complications that can make this disease so difficult. In Massachusetts alone, 215,000 Network Health members have been diagnosed with this condition.
The challenge that makes diabetic care daunting is that patients frequently have a hard time getting to their appointments. And when it comes to eye check-ups, many are reluctant to have the full exam, since it includes dilation and makes it harder for them to see for a period of time afterwards. That is where Dr. Chu and the New England Eye Van come into the picture.
In recent years, thanks to the tireless work of Dr. Chu and his associates, the Eye Van has traveled throughout the state, making it much easier for people to obtain eye and low vision testing. During this same time period, the Veterans Administration has implemented a mobile eye screening program, distributing about 600 cameras to veterans’ centers across the country. Why not use this type of mobile model to enable diabetics here in Massachusetts to get full retinal screenings? At the moment that Dr. Yeracaris and Dr. Chu asked that question, the Mobile Eye Van for diabetics pilot project was born.
Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, it is now possible to look at both the front and the back of the eye with the traditional slit lamp and to take images of it using a digital camera. Right in the mobile van within seconds, a patient can actually look at his or her retina and see how diabetes is affecting it. If it so happens that a lot of bleeding is occurring, the patient can be immediately referred to a specialist. In addition, these images can pinpoint other serious eye conditions including macular degeneration, cataracts and glaucoma.
The van also boasts another technical advancement that gives the patient and his or her doctors further insight into diabetic management. With a simple finger stick, the patient can receive an A1C hemoglobin test. After a brief, ten-minute wait, this test provides data that reveals how the body has been processing sugar over the past 90 days. Although it is only a snapshot, it gives a better idea of a person’s ability to manage diabetes than does a simple glucose check.
That information, combined with what has been learned during the eye screening, allows for a much more detailed picture of a patient’s overall diabetic health. It is sent to the primary care physician, who can then discuss further treatment options with the patient.
Dr. Yeracaris expressed a great deal of excitement about the potential growth of this project. Once funding has been secured, he can even imagine it going directly to people’s homes, making it even easier for them to access services. “It is hard to reach folks,” he explained. “We do find in our population a lot of people’s phone numbers are incorrect, up to a third. Of the people we do reach, there certainly is a good response and an interest. But then getting us to get people scheduled to come at a specific time and in a specific place is a little bit more challenging. So I think we’ll need to put our heads together and look at the lessons learned. I’m committed to trying again and having us see what we can do to improve our capture rate.”
He also cautioned that this mobile service should not be seen as a replacement for receiving a comprehensive eye examination from an eye care professional. Instead, it is a screening tool designed to monitor diabetic care and alert patients and their physicians to possible complications.
The outlook for this project’s future seems bright. While it is in its infancy now, similar initiatives in the United Kingdom have become the standard of care throughout the country. Here in the US, the VA’s efforts have also been very successful. Although long-term funding has not yet been found, Dr. Yeracaris stated that Network Health would cover the cost of reading the retinal image. The cameras that are now being used on the van are on loan for several more months, enabling project co-coordinators to have some time to come to decisions about their next move.
It seems clear that the Eye Van is moving diabetic care in the right direction. For Elizabeth Bean, this couldn’t be better news. Her focus is on ensuring that Network Health members receive the highest standard of care and that it is within state and federal quality guidelines. One of these standards involves providing eye examinations to patients with diabetes. The Eye Van provides an innovative way to help patients obtain the care they need and are currently often unable to receive.
One additional reason for the success of mobile diabetic eye screenings was described by Dr. Chu: “What the VA has been finding is when an individual sees the image of their eye because that’s the only place that you can see live blood vessels, . . . things begin to click (regarding) the importance of controlling blood sugar. So that adds value to this.” Combine that with the benefits of the A1C hemoglobin test, and it is no wonder that all of these health specialists are singing the praises of this project.
Who is eligible to benefit from this mobile diabetes eye van? Patients must be Network Health members through Mass Health. In most cases, Network Health will contact members who have been diagnosed with diabetes, particularly people who have found it difficult to comply with treatment goals. Conversations will focus on ways to enhance health and improve diabetic management, and the mobile eye van may be an option. If you are a Network Health member and have further questions about how this program might benefit you or someone you know, call them at 1-888-257-1985. Their website is www.network-health.org.
Exciting Doings at LAB
Commissioner Janet LaBreck during her presentation at LAB.
Article by Suzanne Wilson
We all know that LAB is a busy place, humming with programs for youth and adults and home to the exciting voice program. Sometimes though, we may tend to forget that we’re part of a larger network of services available to the blind and visually impaired community here in Massachusetts. Fortunately, we hosted an event on October 19 that reminded everyone of the numerous resources and opportunities that exist.
On that day, the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind, in conjunction with the Regional Advisory Council, sponsored an open house at our Merrimack Street offices. It proved to be a day of information, social networking, and, of course, delicious refreshments. The purpose was to give those who attended a chance to learn about the wide variety of social, technology, and orientation and mobility services provided by the Commission for the Blind. Also available by appointment was the New England Eye On-Sight mobile low vision van.
Before attendees visited the numerous displays and learned about various programs and innovations, everyone listened to a short presentation given by several members of our community who had helped to make this exciting day possible. First to speak was Janet LaBreck, the Massachusetts Commissioner for the Blind. Ms. LaBreck has held this position since August of 2007 after serving as the Regional Administrator for Central Mass. As it happens, she began her career as a consumer advocate. She praised LAB for consistently being willing to partner with the Commission in offering programs and activities for the blind and visually impaired community. In particular, she expressed excitement about our Vocational Opportunities In Communications Education (VOICE) program, which furnishes a way for people who are interested in working in communications or a similar field to obtain tangible experience. “I encourage consumers to come in and take advantage of the programs and services that are offered here,” Ms. LaBreck concluded. We couldn’t have said it better ourselves!
Next up to the podium was Mr. John Oliveira, the Assistant Commissioner for Programs and Services. Over the years, he has also run the Commission’s technology and vending programs, as well as served as the Director of Training. “I get to review all the statements and the documentation that the Lowell Association supplies to me, and . . . to read about all the programs. It’s great to have a community partner,” Mr. Oliveira said with enthusiasm. He also expressed excitement about touring our state-of-the-art radio studio at the conclusion of his speech.
After listening to these Commission luminaries, the audience was given a chance to hear from two people who help to make the LAB the special place we all love and support. First came Ms. Elizabeth Cannon, LAB’s Executive Director, who has given us her committed service and bountiful skills and community connections for the past twelve years. Some of you may not realize that LAB turns 90 years old in 2013, and Elizabeth noted that this event can be viewed as a partial kickoff to the year-long birthday celebration to come. Elizabeth offered her heart-felt thanks to all of the staff, volunteers, and LAB Board of Directors members who had worked together to make this event possible. In conclusion, she offered a warm invitation to everyone in the area: “If you can’t come in and you have a question, we’re a great resource because we do provide a lot of information and referral. . . If you have an issue, we can give you some direction.”
Mr. Brian Leahey, a current member of LAB’s Board of Directors, then underscored what Elizabeth had said. “LAB really appreciates its relationship with the Commonwealth on all aspects, the main office and the regional office, in all that we do.” This partnership makes it possible for us to provide a variety of programs and services to clients of all ages, and that includes making it possible for people to have fun in ways that might otherwise be inaccessible to them. This past summer, for example, our adult program visited Newburyport. “For some people, that was the first time they ever went to the beach. And we all know what a wonderful experience that is between all the sounds and the smells . . . and they just came back from apple-picking.. . It’s the complete life experience,” he added, “and if there is anything we can do to facilitate that, it’s just as rewarding for the Board members as it is for the actual clients.”
Our next presenter was Mr. Robert Cox, who serves as a member of the Regional Advisory Council. This volunteer body is made up of clients, professionals, and other stakeholders in the field of blindness and visual impairment. The Council meets on a monthly basis and is a vital link between the community and the Commission. Mr. Cox eloquently summed up this group’s purpose, as well as the role people can play in its future: “I’m hoping that people like me who, after an active employed life, found that sitting at home was not a good idea and couldn’t do it. . . maybe they would be willing to give some of their time to working with the RAC. . . It would be most appreciated and you would be welcomed. What we do is come up with ideas and pull them off. That’s who we are and that’s what we would like to do.”
Last but not least on the podium was Ms. Thelma Williams, Director of Northeast Region III at the Commission for the Blind. She has been working in this capacity for the past four years, and has been instrumental in helping the Regional Advisory Council to grow in both numbers and commitment. She now says with pride that it is one of the best RAC’s of all. Because our open house was so well attended and such a great success, Ms. Williams expressed the hope that a similar event can be organized in the spring. It will be held in another venue within the Northeast Region in order to give people further away from Lowell a similar opportunity to learn about everything that is available to them through the Commission for the Blind and its cooperating agencies.
The LAB Goes Green: a Morning at Joppa FlatsArticle by Suzanne Wilson
Last spring, a group of blind and visually impaired LAB clients took the short trip to Newburyport to visit the Joppa Flats Education Center, part of the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge. This semi-annual event gives everyone the opportunity to commune with nature while learning about the many species of birds and plants that live in New England.
The tour guide for the day was Bill Getty. It is safe to say that he has an encyclopedic knowledge of the approximately 300 species of birds that spend their springs, summers and autumns in this sanctuary. Their New England home is the 4600-acre Parker River Wildlife Refuge. It contains forest land, as well as salt water marshes. Because of our often inclement winters, most of these birds head south for the colder months.
However, winter was far from the minds of the participants on this beautiful day. A light spring breeze ruffled the trees and the smells of damp earth and new life were everywhere. The birds also must have appreciated the marvelous weather, since many different species graced everyone with their songs.
Mr. Getty noted that these songs and calls are often the best and most reliable way to take a census of what kinds of birds have come into an area. While many people think of birding as a visual pastime, it is actually the ears that often catch the first clue of a bird’s presence. In less than an hour, everyone became familiar with the calls of willets, mourning doves, eastern kingbirds, song sparrows, yellow warblers, purple finches, towhees, common yellowthroat warblers, catbirds, bobolinks, and redwing blackbirds.
Just as all species of birds have their own distinct appearances, each has a unique song. It often helps to attach a particular word or phrase to these songs to make them easier to remember. Here are just a few that Mr. Getty helped everyone to recognize: the song sparrow says “maids maids, maids put on your teakettle.” The towhee says “drink your tea.” A yellow warbler says “Sweet sweeter than sweet I'm so sweet sweet.” A yellow throat says “witchety witchety witchety.” The call of a kingbird almost reminds one of an electric shock, and a male goldfinch says something that sounds something like “potato chips.”
When they were not learning about and appreciating the various chirps and melodious calls, clients were finding out numerous fascinating facts. For instance, did you know that baby birds escape from their shells by means of a sharp, triangular egg tooth on the top of their bills? As they roll around in the shell, this tooth gradually weakens and eventually breaks the shell, allowing the baby to hatch.
And here is another interesting tidbit: Not all birds migrate in flocks. Species like the Yellow warbler head to the New World tropics one by one.
It is certainly easy to understand why so many birds and plants flourish at the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge. Although populated areas are not far away as the crow flies, this area feels isolated unto itself. As those on the tour smelled the sharp tang of pine trees and felt the hard berries of a sumac, it was undeniable that this is one of Massachusetts’ most precious resources. The name “Joppa Flats” was inspired by the Biblical place of miracles known as Joppa, and it is no stretch to see how this place got its name.
One excellent feature of the sanctuary is that it has several different trails. The one chosen for this particular tour is known as the New Pines trail. Not only does it afford everyone a view of the salt marshes below, but it is wheelchair accessible. Another popular path known as the Hellcat Trail is also popular, and it is one the LAB program participants have taken in past trips to the sanctuary.“It’s hard for me to understand how you could not be interested in nature,” Mr. Getty commented as the tour reached its end. “It's a huge refuge. It's a wonderful place. Nice to take people of all abilities and all interests out and just walk around.”
Considering the success of our most recent trip, it’s a sure bet that the LAB will continue in its collaboration with the Joppa Flats Education Center in years to come. As many participants learned on that spring day, blindness does not prevent anyone from appreciating and enjoying nature. In fact, becoming attuned to what can be heard in the woods is often the best way to make discoveries.
David Govostes - A Biography by Suzanne Wilson
While blindness and vision loss continue to present significant obstacles these days, there have been a great many improvements over the past few decades. For a child growing up in post-World War II America in the 1940s and ‘50s, prospects were quite limited. Just ask Massachusetts’ very own David Govostes. Today, we know him as a long-time Lowell resident and the former Massachusetts Commissioner for the Blind. However, David has worked hard to achieve his goals. His story is both a fascinating illustration of the recent history of blindness and a challenge to each and every one of us to excel.
Born and raised in Winchester as one of five brothers, David was diagnosed with a rare condition called juvenile macular degeneration. In spite of this, he believed himself to be fortunate in many ways. After all, his older brother was also blind and had blazed many trails for his younger sibling.
In those days, educational opportunities for blind children were sparse. Most of the time, kids with a wide range of disabilities were thrown together and expected to cope without the benefit of much specialized instruction. David describes the educators of the day as “just kind of caretakers for kids who had disabilities.”
Undaunted by lowered expectations and minimal opportunities, David seized control of his own education. Starting with the Sight Saving School in Malden and throughout his academic career, he took it upon himself to develop the tools that would enable him to succeed. Of course, the technology we now take for granted didn’t exist. Therefore, his mother became a reader for both visually impaired brothers. David jokes that she was the best-educated woman inMalden. After all, she had spent countless hours reading textbooks to both of her sons, ultimately supporting them as they obtained a total of three college degrees.
In spite of his success, David recalls that things were not always easy for him. As a visually impaired high school student, he sat in the front of the class in order to read what was on the blackboard, and was frequently bombarded with spitballs. In addition, he found math to be particularly challenging.
Nevertheless, he eventually graduated from Boston University and embarked on the job hunt. In 1963, David took and passed the state civil service exam to become a social worker. However, there were still many barriers hindering his success. “In those days, they didn’t want any part of you,” recounts David, recalling his frustrations as a talented applicant who also happened to be blind. Time and time again, he would get a call from an employer expressing an interest in hiring him. However, as soon as he divulged his vision difficulties, doors seemed to slam in his face.
In an early display of the assertive style that would ultimately carry him to the highest position in the Mass. Commission for the Blind, David brought his concerns to one of the supervisors. Why, he asked, was he not even getting the chance to receive an interview? His self-advocacy paid off, and within a few days, David was meeting with Eugene Fitzgerald, who was the Director of Lowell’s Welfare Department at the time. Not long after, David was offered a position as a social worker with the department. This experience formed the foundation for one of David’s most firmly held convictions. If he were to give just one piece of advice to a blind or visually impaired person seeking acceptance, opportunities, and/or employment, it would be this: "You've got to let people know about your blindness and disabilities in general. Let people know what you can do, what you can't do, etc... Work with them and let them work with you.”
As the 1960’s drew to a close, David finally had the opportunity to set off on his career path. He married his fiancée and moved to Lowell to take the social work position, a job he held until 1976 when he accepted a job as a policy writer inBoston. Clearly, his talents were being noticed by those in positions of influence; just a year later in 1977, he was offered and accepted a job as Director of Medical Assistance.
In this capacity, David had a number of challenges. He worked hard to organize the unit, get staff on board, and to update many of the policies that badly needed revamping. "We did some incredible things in the time I was there,” he recounts with justifiable pride. “I got the reputation for being a very effective and efficient manager.”
So much so, in fact, that he was urged to apply for a Regional Director position that became available in the following year. Although he did not have a great deal of specific, relevant experience, he got the job. As a result, he was a Regional Director in Boston for the next seven years and then accepted a similar position in the Northeastern Region. In 1988, he was appointed as Assistant Commissioner for the Blind under Charlie Crawford.
Ten years later, David was called into Mr. Crawford’s office for a private meeting, during which he learned that the Commissioner for the Blind position was to become vacant. Mr. Crawford would soon be taking over as national President of the American Council for the Blind. In due course, David was appointed by Governor Paul Salucci in November of 1998 to be the next Massachusetts Commissioner for the Blind.
Over the next seven years, David would serve under four governors. "I enjoyed working for all of them. But you don't really work for the governor; you work for the Secretary of Human Services,” he explains. “I enjoyed all of my days as the Commissioner and all of the interactions I had, with the exception of the last Secretary of Human Services, who failed to re-appoint me.”
The Commission for the Blind had evolved tremendously since its humble beginnings when Helen Keller was an original member of the Advisory Board. In the beginning, it was housed in a colonial building on Newbury Street and boasted a staff of just ten. Its budget was small. Mainly, the Commission helped small towns pay for large print educational materials for blind children and provided financial help for visually impaired college students. Under the direction of Commissioner John Mungolven and with the help of Father John Carroll, another revered pioneer in the blindness field in our state, programs such as social and vocational rehabilitation, medical assistance, and children’s services were initiated.
As Massachusetts Commissioner for the Blind, David continued to carry out his predecessors’ commitment to the blind and visually impaired clients he served. In particular, David is proud that he was able to keep all of the blindness-related services integrated under one agency. Furthermore, he celebrates the advances made under his watch that helped the deaf-blind and “turning 22” populations. Clients who were deaf-blind or developmentally delayed would receive federal Special Education funding until their 22nd birthday, but got no help after that time. David worked hard to correct this situation, and ultimately succeeded in persuading the Department of Public Welfare to support this population’s needs under the Medical Assistance waiver program.
Another of David’s major accomplishments is his role in funding the Talking Information Center, a program very near and dear to our hearts here at the LAB. He and a colleague were responsible for reviewing the request for proposal for the original grant to set up the program. That first budget was a meager $28,000, but it formed the foundation for the vital information program we have to this day. Throughout his tenure as Commissioner, David hosted a bi-weekly radio program in which he discussed current issues involving his agency.
David enjoyed many aspects of his time as Commissioner, but found certain activities to be particularly rewarding: "The things I used to look forward to were... to attend what they called the Senior Connection... They have these self-help groups all over the state. They're elderly blind people and they meet on a monthly basis and they share... and they have invited guests. Every year, they have a celebration... funded by the grant money that they get through the feds. They have... booths with technology providers and guest speakers and... usually someone from the ophthalmological community to discuss research in blindness... and a luncheon and a sing-along. They have a wonderful time.” On one occasion, a well-to-do client even paid for a stretch limousine to transport a number of people to the event.
In addition to these activities, David also was very enthusiastic about the Carroll Awards, an annual event which recognizes outstanding blind employees and those for whom they work. He also looks back fondly on his visits to the eight children’s programs that the Commission sponsored throughout the state.
Although he is retired from his position as Commissioner for the Blind, David continues to be an active and vocal participant in the community he served for so many years. His decades of commitment and hard work have earned him the respect of people from all walks of life across our state. Although David no longer holds a gubernatorial appointment, he continues to act as an inspiring role model. When asked what advice he would give to someone who is newly blind or visually impaired, he offers the following: "Don't lose hope. There's an awful lot going on in the world of blindness... with stem cell research and various other types of things, medications, surgeries... And the world of technology has really opened up. And I would say to people to just be encouraged by the progress that has been made over the years, the people who are involved who are interested in your day-to-day lives and your future who will continue to dedicate themselves... to providing the best services.”
And even though he no longer actively works for the Commission for the Blind, David continues to be one of its most passionate spokespeople: "All you really need to have is one blind person in the family to appreciate the Commission for the Blind,” he says, particularly pleased about the warmth, friendliness and compassion of the staff. He adds that workers come right to a client’s home where he or she feels most comfortable, making transition to life with a disability much easier.
Whether he is recounting his boyhood in a family of active boys, his academic struggles and triumphs, or his far-flung experiences as an advocate for his community, one theme remains clear: David Govostes truly has made a difference for blind and visually impaired Massachusetts residents. Although we can’t exactly call him a native son of Lowell, we’re proud to adopt him as one of the key members of our family here in the Mill City and at the Lowell Association for the Blind. Keep up the great work, David!
Sal Featured on UMass Lowell Website
Our intern for the summer, Sal Kapadia, has been featured on the UMass Lowell website for his involvement at LAB. Click here to take a Look!
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