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Focus on Multiple Sclerosis

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By Suzanne Wilson

When Maria Martin was diagnosed with relapse-remission multiple sclerosis, the news was actually a relief. At last, after a long period of not knowing, she finally had a name to attach and a reason for the visual changes she had been experiencing. In order to share with others some of the important information she has learned throughout her MS journey, she conducted an interview recently for the Talking Information Center with Dr. Arthur Safran, a neurologist specializing in MS and a member of the MS Society of Greater New England who sits on its Clinical Advisory Committee. Also joining them was David Young-Hong, The MS Society of Greater New England’s Associate Vice President of Clinical Programs and Direct Services. It proved to be 30 minutes chockfull of information—with a liberal dash of inspiration as well.

First, it’s important to understand the definition of MS. It is a chronic, usually progressive disorder affecting the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord, not the peripheral nerves in the arms and legs). Although the cause is unknown, there is an immune system component.

There are several types of MS:

• Relapsing-remitting.  This is characterized by an attack and then some level of recovery.

• Progressive. This form gradually worsens over time.

• Relapsing-progressive.  This is a progressive illness interrupted by bouts of attacks from which patients make partial or complete recoveries.

• Secondary progressive.  Characterized by a series of attacks and remissions which eventually evolves into the progressive form.

• Neuromyelitis optica:  found mostly in Asia, this form of the disease does not affect the brain and is focused in the spinal cord and optic nerves.

Although it’s important to be aware of these different types, Dr. Safran stated that this should not be our primary concern:  “The most important thing isn’t the kind of MS that you have, but rather what it has done to you and what limits it may produce. Those are measured by a Kurtzke Scale, named after the person who described it. . . . As an average, it takes about 25 to 30 years to develop what’s called a Kurtzke Scale Six, that is to say the point where someone might have to use a cane to get around.”

When Dr. Safran graduated from medical school 52 years ago, the MS prognosis was grim and treatment options simply didn’t exist. Part of the reason is the tricky nature of the disease, which can present itself in numerous ways. Even today, there is no specific test that will tell you whether you have MS.

It is the initial symptoms that bring people to their doctors’ offices. Potential signs of MS include sharp pains, numbness, walking problems, bladder control and emptying difficulties (especially in women), weakness, clumsiness and visual changes. 

The visual changes that occur with MS are called optic neuritis, an inflammation of the optic nerve. This can be one of the first symptoms a patient notices, or it can occur long after an MS diagnosis. It is characterized by a visual loss that comes on quickly, usually in a day or two, and can be very uncomfortable. The majority of patients see improvement over time, but it can recur. Immediate treatment with a cortisone derivative steroid can be very effective in minimizing current symptoms and lowering the likelihood of future recurrence.

Many of these symptoms, including visual changes, are things that all of us experience to some extent or another throughout our lives. That can lead us to either dismiss things we should pay attention to or become overly worried about something that’s actually normal. Dr. Safran elaborates:  “One of the great troubles with this illness when someone has developed it is the series of false alarms that people get. All of us every day have neurologic symptoms. Numbness someplace, you scratch it and it goes away. Or you don’t see something sharply then you blink your eyes a couple of times and it tends to come back. If someone has multiple sclerosis, it’s very common for them to think that they’re having a whole lot of attacks when really they’re just living a normal life. But their attention to it is so great; they’re hyper-vigilant, and it causes a lot of difficulty for people.”

Back in the days when there were no medical treatments for MS, doctors generally adopted a paternalistic attitude towards diagnosis, often not telling their patients for many years that they actually had the disease. That is no longer the case. Patients are now at the center of their own care, partnering with their doctors and other resources to learn as much and gain the highest possible quality of life. 

“It’s important to let people know that just because they have been told that they have multiple sclerosis, it doesn’t mean that they’re going to be disabled,” Dr. Safran explains. “And it certainly doesn’t mean that they are going to be disabled in some way that’s going to prevent them from living a good life. The depression that can ensue from a poorly delivered message is something that we all have to be aware of.”

If a patient and her doctor suspect MS, the strategy is to rule out other possibilities. An MRI is done, and there may also be blood tests to check for certain antibodies that show up in about half of all MS patients. Dr. Safran stresses the importance of having an MRI done and read by someone who knows the proper techniques for spotting MS indicators.

Once a diagnosis of MS has been made, there are several treatment possibilities. What is ultimately prescribed depends on the way the disease is manifesting itself and on what side effects the patient is willing to put up with. In particular, there are several options to treat the relapsing-remitting form of MS. These interventions can reduce the frequency of attacks and can even delay the onset of full-blown symptoms. In some instances, future attacks can be totally prevented. Today, medications can be either injectible or oral. It is very important for the patient to discuss all of the options and their side effects with the neurologist. This is also where speaking to other MS patients can be an invaluable tool.

That’s where the National MS Society comes in. Founded in 1946, its mission is to work toward a world free of MS. To that end, this organization mobilizes resources to drive research, addresses the challenges experienced by MS patients, raises funds, works closely with neurologists and clinics and increases public awareness about the disease. Even as recently as 1993, there were no FDA-approved treatments for MS. Today, thanks at least in part to the efforts of the MS Society, there are ten.

The New England chapter of the MS Society consists of the states of Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. They provide information and referral, furnish small financial assistance for patients needing short-term help, and offer educational and social programming. In addition, they have a small care management program aimed at helping people with MS to maintain safety and autonomy in their communities. Currently, there are about 1,800 members who have contacted the MS Society of Greater New England and reported that they have this condition.

One of the ways the MS Society raises public awareness is through MS walks. David elaborates:  “Our walk season is coming up. We have walks starting as early as April, running through to probably mid-June. Then we have a series of fall walks that happen in September all throughout our chapter area of Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. It’s a great way for people to come out and participate in something that will directly impact, through the funds that you raise, the mission and put money toward the programs and services as well as the research that the society funds. And it’s also a great way to come out and network with other people, kind of get some social connections going on and meet some of the MS Society staff.” 

David also talked a bit about himself and what brought him to this field. An occupational therapist by training, he did some work at The Boston Home, a facility in Dorchester specializing in long-term care for patients with progressive MS. When the MS Society position became available, he jumped at the opportunity.

“Somebody in one of the conferences I attended said . . . “MS is a really crappy way to meet some really fantastic people.” And it really is the truth,” David enthused. “I really have met so many people who have showed so much resilience, and also professionals like Dr. Safran who are very dedicated beyond their work day.”

For his part, Dr. Safran has much to say about how focusing on MS and how it has affected his patients has changed his life:  “It caused me to make much deeper personal relationships with patients and staff because you care for people and care with people over a long period of years and they become your close friends. . . It also engenders an enormous amount of hope because the changes that we’ve seen over the last 15 years are breathtaking. And one hopes that people will continue to make this kind of progress.”

If you would like more information on MS for yourself or for someone you know, contact the MS Society New England Chapter by calling 600-344-1867. You will be connected to an MS navigator who will answer your general questions and put you in touch with resources in your local area.

Click to hear the full broadcast of Maria’s interview with Dr. Safran and Mr. Young-Hong:" />

Bernie Petruziello: an Artist in the Moment

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Written Suzanne Wilson

As children, one of the first things we learned about the classical music composer Ludwig van Beethoven was that he lost his hearing as an adult. What a hardship, what a burden, we thought. And while that is certainly true on one level, it may never have occurred to us that Beethoven’s deafness added an additional complexity and uniqueness to his later works.

Renowned Lowell artist Bernie Petruziello is a living example of how what might seem on the surface to be a career-ending loss can be transformed, over time and with patience, commitment and love, into an immeasurable gain. Our own Jim Barrett sat down with Bernie recently to discuss his fascinating life and the part that his art has played in it.

Bernie was born in January, 1936 in the predominantly Italian North End neighborhood of Boston. “It was a wonderful place to grow up in. It was very boisterous, noisy, everybody was a Caruso. It was a wonderful time. I really enjoyed it,” Bernie recounted with obvious pleasure. Part of a close-knit family and community, he had four siblings. As a boy, he strolled the winding streets and alleyways of the North End, noticing the fishing boats, butcher shops, the markets and the harbor. Although he might not have realized it then, these strolls were his first lessons in noticing and capturing in his mind the various scenes around him. Later in his life, it was these very skills that would gel to form the foundation of his art.

Even as a tiny boy of four or five, the urge to draw was a strong presence in Bernie’s life. Perhaps it was inherited from his famous artist Uncle Victor, known to many as the Michelangelo of the North End. Victor’s work graces the Hall of Flags in the State House and can be seen elsewhere in Boston as well. And yet, in spite of his fame, he took the time to become little Bernie’s mentor. They spent countless hours roaming the streets and galleries of Boston, discussing the visual details of the streets and architecture. They also went to the Boston Museum of Art and spent countless hours looking at the various paintings. “He would dissect them for me, tell me how to look at a painting, what to see in it, how the painter painted from left to right or right to left, how the strokes made the painting even more visual,” Bernie explained. “I learned an awful lot from Victor.” He began to focus on drawing the people and places with which he was most familiar, focusing on the North End in many of his drawings.

Other than receiving invaluable advice from his uncle, Bernie remained largely self-taught as an artist until high school. On a particular day, his class was asked to draw what they saw in a photograph of their choosing. Instead of following this instruction, Bernie drew a scene from out of his vivid imagination. When the teacher asked to see the photograph and he explained that he had none, she knew she had stumbled upon true talent. For the next two years, she mentored Bernie and helped him compile a portfolio to be used in applying to art school. Thanks to her support and to his hard work, he was accepted and studied at the Museum School in Boston where his uncle had gone years before.bernie

His time at art school provided him with the opportunity to refine his skills. He also spent untold hours gazing at the many paintings housed in the museum, studying their technical details and integrating the knowledge into his unique style. While a student, he focused on graphic arts. Specifically, he did etchings on stone via lithography. The process consists of drawing the image backwards on stone, etching the stone with acid, placing a damp piece of paper on the acid-treated stone and running it through a press. In the end, the picture is right side-up.

Lithograph is only one of a wide variety of mediums in which Bernie has worked. He has used oil, water colors, acrylics, pastels, charcoal, and pencil mediums.  Now that he is totally blind, he prefers working in acrylics, since they are easier to mix and they dry quickly.

All of this is fascinating, you may be thinking, but how can a blind person possibly paint and draw? It is obvious that Bernie has spent a great deal of time and energy grappling with this issue, moving from incredulity to depression and ultimately to much more than acceptance. Bernie first learned that he was losing vision in the 1970s, when he was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa. He knew that the day would come when he would be totally blind, and he struggled a great deal at times. “When I first lost my sight, it was rather depressing,” he said in his quiet, understated way. “But I have such a wonderful wife and great kids and they brought me over the hump. As a result, I don’t really think about my blindness at all. I think about just moving ahead. . . . I do this for my own satisfaction; I don’t really care what it looks like in the end.”

After his sobering diagnosis, Bernie and his wife, Kay, decided to make the most of the time he had left as a sighted person. They traveled to Italy, the British Isles, Greece and even to China where Bernie’s daughter and husband were living. Throughout their voyages, Bernie drank up the sights and captured them for permanent retrieval in his memory. From Roman cathedrals to Greek architecture, Celtic designs to the elaborate scroll painting of China, he used every bit of his powers of observation to notice and remember what he saw.

Since 1997, Bernie has been totally blind, but don’t believe for a minute that his lack of eyesight has stilled his hands or stopped his constantly curious mind. Yes, he has had to make some definite changes in the way he works and the media he uses. But he still mixes his own paints, using a fingertip to take a dab of color, dropping it into a small bowl, adding water and another color or two and blending his concoction with a brush. His colors are meticulously laid out in front of him, always in the same pattern so that he can simply count around the wheel to get the shade he wants. Then he uses the 20/20 vision of his mind’s eye to direct his hand. Often, he will play music to assist in this process:  jazz for a more colorful piece, classical music if he is in a more subdued frame of mind. No longer able to draw intricate detail, he instead focuses on doing abstracts and landscapes according to the dictates of his internal muse.

Bernie describes his approach to his work this way:  “When I was painting when I could see what I was doing—in my own mind; I never said this to anybody—I was a humanist because I was doing figures. It was people doing things. I was always feeling like I was close to earth. Then as I progressed and lost my vision, I did a lot of series of prints and paintings. . . People said some of them worked out pretty well. . . Then I got to a point where I started thinking about what I was doing, and I said ‘You really don’t need to have vision if you want to be a painter. You might not be able to see what you’re doing, but you can sense it and feel it.’,”

These days, Bernie’s blindness has given him an unexpected gift, forcing him to draw outside the lines, so to speak. His paintings are, by necessity, creations of the moment. He cannot see what he has drawn; therefore, making corrections and tweaks is not an option. Just as he glories in each member of his family, including his wife, four children and eight grandchildren, and appreciates them for exactly who they are with all of their flaws and qualities, the same is true of his paintings. He credits an old friend from the Brush Gallery here in Lowell for helping him to reach that profound insight.

Last September, Bernie had a show of some of his earlier pieces at the Brush Gallery, the most recent of many shows that he has done in various galleries over the years. Although he thinks that may have been his last public exhibition, he isn’t ruling it out in the future. These days, he continues to draw the abstracts and landscapes he loves, keeping a sketchpad close at hand to capture his inspirations. You might also find him speaking to students at UMass Lowell or Middlesex Community College or spending time with his close-knit extended family. If you’re interested in viewing images of some of Bernie Petruziello’s work, visit the following website: He can also be reached at the following email address:  This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

If you would like to hear the complete audio version of Jim Barrett’s interview with Bernie, please see below:

Listen Here: 

Part 1:
Part 2:

April Adult Program Schedule

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Date:            Tuesday, April 1bigapplecircus

Time:           9:30am-3pm

Event:          Circus of the Senses

Location:     City Hall Plaza, Boston

Cost:            FREE – Bring a lunch or money for lunch

Description: Welcome to Big Apple Circus!
It’s LUMINOCITY — celebrate the vitality of life at the Crossroads of the World! Catch the high-spirits and pulse-racing thrills of the World’s Greatest Circus Artists in one ring under our Big Top!  Watch rowdy pups perform amazing tricks, double trapeze artists soaring high above, a bashful clown, an irrepressible flimflam man, and a juggler extraordinaire; teeter-board acrobats flying through the air, a cavalcade of magnificent steeds, and a couple of amazing wire-walkers suspended in mid-air.  Wireless audio headsets, which use a state-of-the-art infrared transmission system, are distributed to allow visually impaired audience members to hear Circus Founders Paul Binder and Michael Christensen deliver a live play-by-play description of the action in the ring.  We have a limited number of tickets to the Circus.  Pre-registration is required.  Call Christie at 978-454-5704 to reserve your spot!


Date:            Thursday, April 3vic

Time:          10am-1pm

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! 


Date:           Tuesday, April 8shopping

Time:          10am-2pm

Event:           Shopping Extravaganza

Location:    TBD

Cost:            You are responsible for the cost of your own purchases.

Description: It’s time again for our shopping free-for-all!  Bring your list and a willingness to compromise and we’ll visit as many of the requested shopping destinations as possible. 


Date:            Thursday, April 10waffles

Time:           10am-12pm

Event:          Breakfast Club

Location:     LAB office

Cost:            $2

Description: Join us for a delicious breakfast cooked in the LAB office.  We’ll be having Belgian waffles!


Date:            Thursday, April 10craft

Time:           12-2pm

Event:         Christie’s Craft Clinic

Location:     LAB Office

Cost:            FREE

Description:  We did Spring crafts last month, but there’s still a lot of Easter crafts to be done!

Date:           Tuesday, April 15easter

Time:           10am-12pm

Event:          Easter Party

Location:     Lowell, MA

Cost:            Free

Description: If there’s going to be a holiday, you know we have to have a party!  This month, it’s Easter!  Feel free to bring a dish to share.  Just let me know what you’re bringing so we can plan accordingly!


Date:            Thursday, April 17              bobolas                                                    
Time:          10am-12pm

Event:         Breakfast Club

Location:     Bobola’s, Dracut

Cost:            You are responsible for the cost of your own food.

Description:  Join us for a delicious breakfast at Bobola’s in Dracut! 


 Date:           Tuesday, April 22goingblind

Time:           10am-12pm

Event:          GOING BLIND Screening

Location:     LAB Office

Cost:            Free

Description: By request, we’re going to re-screen Joseph Lovett’s documentary, GOING BLIND. This is a unique documentary film that increases public awareness of sight loss and low vision issues profoundly affecting the lives of more and more people and those who love them. Given our aging population and the increasing prevalence of low vision in our society, it is of paramount importance that we understand sight loss and work towards a better future. GOING BLIND encourages and inspires people to take action to preserve, prolong, and maximize the precious gift of sight -- for themselves, their loved ones, and society.  A group discussion will follow the screening.


Date:            Thursday, April 24celebchef

Time:           10am-12pm

Event:          Breakfast Club

Location:     LAB office

Cost:            $2

Description: Join us for a surprise breakfast with our Celebrity Guest Chef, Elizabeth!


Date:            Tuesday, April 29bowling

Time:           10am-12pm

Event:          Bowling

Location:     Lowell, MA

Cost:            $2

Description: Come join us for bowling at Brunswick Lanes in Lowell, MA!


Meet Suzanne Wilson

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Written by Suzanne Wilson

Each month, we use the pages of this publication to share information that is of interest to our supporters, volunteers and staff, as well as to the blind and visually impaired community as a whole. It might be an interview; it could be a description of a special event that was held at LAB. This month, we decided to take a slight departure from the norm and begin a two-part series that gives you a behind-the-scenes introduction to two of the people who work to make this newsletter possible. This month, we spotlight Suzanne Wilson, our feature writer and editor. Suzanne was interviewed by Joe LeBlanc as part of the VOICE program curriculum.

Suzanne is a native of Grand Rapids, Michigan, a mid-sized community in the southwestern lower part of the state. When she was born in May of 1964, she was three and a half months premature, weighing only two pounds and one ounce. In order to keep her alive and protect her fragile lungs, doctors placed her in an oxygen-rich, heated bed called an isolet, where she stayed for nearly three months until she was deemed strong enough to be discharged. As it turned out, the very oxygen that had saved her life caused permanent damage to her eyes. Consequently, Suzanne could only see light and shadows as a child and had no light perception by the time she was in her late teens.

She was part of a very small family. Although her sister was less than a year younger than she was, people often assumed that Suzanne was the younger of the two. As is typical of most siblings, they “fought like cats and dogs” but also supported each other in numerous ways. Nevertheless, her sister often grumbled that Suzanne’s disability was causing her to get all the attention.


Although Suzanne did not attend a school for the blind, she definitely benefited from specialized training, particularly in the early grades. She spent most of kindergarten and first grade in a “resource room” where she learned Braille and spent time developing the use of her other senses. With each succeeding year, she spent less time in this environment so that by the time she left the public school to attend a parochial one in fifth grade, she needed minimal help from a vision teacher. Although she did well with the academic aspects, her interactions with her peers were not as positive as she would have liked. Especially during middle school, she experienced numerous bullying incidents. “It was hard,” she explains, “because I didn’t feel like I had any allies with the adults, which is why I’m so happy now that there is all this attention being paid to bullying and stopping it and having kids alert authorities if things are going on.”In general, however, she enjoyed academics and was a good student. Her memories of her teachers are positive. One, in particular, came to mind: Suzanne had signed up for a world history class and was perplexed when, on the first day, the teacher told her to go to the principal’s office. When he arrived there after the class had ended, he explained in the kindest possible way that he did not believe the class was right for her and asked that she drop out. Suzanne refused, asking the teacher to give her a chance to prove that she could cope with all of the class expectations. He reluctantly agreed. At the end of the year, he apologized for his previous actions and told her what a pleasure it was to have her in his class.

Upon graduating, Suzanne chose to study at Hope College, a small liberal arts school. In the first semester of her senior year there, she attended an urban semester in Philadelphia. As a part of this off-campus program, she and her peers found apartments, obtained internships and took classes. For the first time in her life, Suzanne felt the joy that comes from traveling independently in a big, bustling East Coast city. In addition, her horizons were expanding in other ways. As part of an urban enrichment project, she came into contact with the religious organization that would, just a few months later, offer her an opportunity to live and work in the city after she graduated.

Suzanne sees the next three years volunteering with this religious society as a crucial bridge between her student life and her later identity as a full-time, paid employee. When she decided to seek other work, she became a participant at a job readiness clinic sponsored by Associated Services for the Blind in Philadelphia. Ultimately, she used the job interviewing skills they had taught her to land a job at the very same agency as a case manager. Over the next 14 years, she went from being a case manager to a vocational counselor, intake worker, supervisor and finally a middle manager who headed the agency’s Adjustment to Blindness program.

In the summer of 2000, Suzanne decided to attend a convention of a blindness organization which took place in Atlanta. In a strange twist of fate that must have come directly from Cupid himself, she was introduced to her future husband by an old friend. Although he lived in Massachusetts and she in Pennsylvania, this marked the start of a courtship that eventually culminated in her moving to Lowell and getting married in 2002. A year later, her baby girl, Michaela, was born.

While many people take for granted the fact that they will one day have children, this definitely wasn’t the case for Suzanne. “As a child and a young person,” she explains, “I was given very strong and persistent messages that I could not and should not become a parent, that it was not in my future nor should it be.” She was forbidden to babysit and was not even allowed to hold a baby without close supervision. As a result, she convinced herself that parenthood was not open to her. It wasn’t until she was in her thirties and especially after she was married that she began to question this assumption. Other blind people became wonderful and competent parents, so why couldn’t she? Nevertheless, she had many misgivings about her impending motherhood once she discovered that she was going to have a child. She credits the amazing gift bestowed upon her by two blind friends, who “gave me the gift of their baby” for a weekend. She stayed in their home and was given full responsibility for the baby’s care, with her friends standing at the ready if she had questions. She left when the weekend was over feeling both confident and empowered.

These days, Suzanne’s life is not remarkably different from that of any parent. A normal day involves helping to get Michaela ready for school, doing household chores, assisting with meals and homework and engaging in other family activities. Even so, blindness does enter the equation from time to time. She has adaptive equipment that enables her to use a computer to do her freelance writing and editing jobs, including the work she does on this very newsletter. The fact that no one in the family drives means that trips to out-of-the-way places are a challenge. And that doesn’t always sit well with Michaela, now ten years old. In response, Suzanne tries to emphasize the point that Michaela has countless opportunities that the vast majority of the world’s children do not. When it comes to family responsibilities, Suzanne and her husband have made a conscious effort to put their blindness in perspective. “Both my husband and I are very clear that we don’t want her to have any overly adult responsibilities. I don’t mind having her read something now and then if it’s to help the family . . . but I’m not going to give her the responsibility of reading bills or helping us write out checks or anything like that because I don’t want her to have to take on the role of parenting us, which sometimes can happen in families where parents are disabled. I don’t want to give her that much power, and I also don’t want to give her that much responsibility because she’s a child. She needs to understand that she’s a child.”

In addition to sharing her home with Michaela and her husband, there is a fourth member of the family, Suzanne’s guide dog, Fave. Suzanne has been a guide dog user since age 24 and Fave is her seventh canine partner. As someone who felt very confident in her cane skills, it was both daunting and exhilarating to pick up the dog’s harness for the first time. As to whether it is always preferable to use a dog over a cane, Suzanne demurs, explaining that there are advantages in both methods of travel. A cane furnishes a very detailed idea of one’s path, whereas a dog often enables one to walk more quickly and with attention to the “bigger picture.” “Really, it’s a question of what stage of life you’re at, what kind of travel you want to do, what responsibility you want to have . . . what you as a traveler prefer to know and know about. . . For me, at this stage of my life and the kind of traveling that I do, I like to have a dog. That may change down the line.”

If there is one thing Suzanne knows at this point, it is that needs and priorities change over time. And in spite of her difficult start in life and some of the more daunting challenges she has faced, Suzanne is convinced that blindness has also brought with it a number of pluses. “I think it’s important to find benefits in whatever your situation is because it’s obviously one that’s not going to change. . . There are down sides . . . For me, blindness has forced me to be a better advocate for myself and more assertive than I may have been otherwise. Also, it has made me creative in thinking of different ways to solve a problem or how to get out of a situation if, say, I don’t know where I am. How do I figure it out? It also applies to job scenarios where I have to . . . explain to a sighted potential employer how I would do a particular aspect of a job. . . It has also helped me to be confident when I’m really not underneath.” What advice would she give to others who are dealing with blindness and vision loss? “There are some things about it that aren’t great,” she elaborates. “The world isn’t set up for us, things are harder and I think it’s okay to acknowledge that and . . . to say that it takes extra energy to be blind and that it is more stressful. . . It’s fine and healthy to have a safe place where you can just say ‘Oh, this is hard.” But at the same time, we as blind people can’t let it keep us from doing the things that we’re meant to do and want to do in our lives. In most cases, there is more than one way to accomplish something and there is an incredible amount of support and a lot of role models who have already done most things. We don’t have to be pioneers anymore.”

Listen Here: 


Next month, part two of our series introduces you to Salmaan Kapadia, our extremely competent and talented web master and newsletter designer. 

New Beginnings at LAB

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By Suzanne Wilson

August is generally a month when life slows down. We bask in the sun at the beach, vacation with our families and do our best to get every last bit of fun out of the waning summer days. Here at LAB, however, we’re always looking for ways to keep things vital and exciting. We might be 90 this year, but we still like shaking things up a bit. So we decided to depart from the tradition of the August doldrums, and instead turn it into yet another excuse to have a party (with great food, of course), and some of our best friends and most loyal supporters in attendance.

What were we celebrating? On this day, August 22, 2013, we took the time to recognize the accomplishments of Joe LeBlanc and Alex Moore, who successfully graduated from our Vocational Opportunities in Communications Education (VOICE) program and the LAB partners in offering this program the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind (MCB) and the Talking Information Center (TIC).   In addition, we were honored to have as our guest, in his first appearance before a group of his future constituents, the newly appointed Massachusetts Commissioner for the Blind, Mr. Paul Saner.

A lively crowd was on hand to congratulate the graduates and to meet the Commissioner. Guests included staff from the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind (MCB), the Talking Information Center (TIC), the LAB Board of Directors and staff, and several LAB adult program clients.

For Alex and Joe, this day symbolized the end of a challenging 12-week class that focused on many aspects of the communications field. The overall goal of the class was to assist students in enhancing communications skills that are ultimately transferrable across many occupations and jobs.  During the three-month class, Joe and Alex got a comprehensive overview of radio broadcasting:  how to book guests, research program topics, conduct interviews in a professional manner, and how to edit those interviews and form them into a final, polished product. During their time in the VOICE program, both students completed fully edited and interviews ready to broadcast across the state on TIC. Now that they have successfully completed VOICE, they will have a toolbox of skills at their disposal, skills that can be transferred to any number of vocations.

In addition to cheering for Joe and Alex’s success, the audience was anxious to meet and hear from the man who was inspiring so much buzz in the community. Who is this new Commissioner? Does he have the experience and understanding of blindness that is required for such an important position? To answer these and many other questions, Paul Saner stepped up to the microphone and introduced himself.

The youngest of five, Paul grew up in Northampton, MA. At age four, he was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative, hereditary eye condition. “My mother noticed that while I was very rambunctious during the day, at night I became rather docile. That led to the RP diagnosis. I’m the only one in the family to have RP,” Paul explained. “My vision was never a significant issue until my early thirties, with one exception:  the night blindness. Frankly, high school and college years were tough years because I didn’t choose to disclose that I didn’t see at night. So I was socially not as involved as I would have in retrospect liked to be. I, to my good fortune, met my wife in graduate school. In 1991 at the age of 36, I was declared legally blind. . . I was not ready when I was declared legally blind, and I think very few people are without seeking the support and services of MCB and the extraordinary number of nonprofits in Massachusetts, including the Lowell Association for the Blind, that help leverage MCB’s efforts.. . I did immediately seek services, and I particularly got involved in support, and I sought out mentors, older people that were very successful as blind people.”

Paul’s diagnosis of legal blindness occurred during a period of transitions for him. His resume is long and impressive. His first professional position was with a small real estate company servicing investors who were purchasing interests in limited partnerships. The company grew from 11 employees when he was hired to a whopping 500 by the time he left in 1985.
In 1990, he took a job at Bank Boston and stayed for ten years, departing in 2000 as a managing director in the real estate corporate structuring group.

As the new decade began, it became clear to Paul that he needed to enhance his communications and independent living skills, since his central vision was deteriorating markedly. To this end, he attended the Carroll Center for the Blind’s Technology Center, where he learned touch typing and the use of screen reading and magnification software.  In addition, he took classes in daily living skills.

Not one to sit on his laurels, Paul immediately put what he had learned into practice, not only in his own life but to help others. He became a volunteer teacher at the Carroll Center, passing on his own knowledge of touch typing and adaptive computer skills to many of the students. He hosted a retinitis pigmentosa support group in his home, became President of the Massachusetts affiliate of the Foundation Fighting Blindness, and eventually joined the national board and the executive committee.

Paul also freely contributed his sharply honed corporate and management skills to the nonprofit sector, serving on the Commission’s rehabilitation council as well as becoming the Chair of the Perkins Braille and Talking Book Library’s Consumer Advisory Board. In addition, he recently resigned from his position as Vice Chair of the Carroll Center’s Board of Directors in order to free up his time to assume his new position of Commissioner. In Brookline where he resides, he has served on the Board of the Brookline Community Foundation and is a representative at town meeting. Last but not least, he is on the Board of the Metropolitan Waterworks Museum and was instrumental in its inception and founding in 2011.

Without question, Paul brings an impressive skill set to his new role as Commissioner. Now all that is left to wonder is what his goals will be during his tenure. Paul’s answer is both definite and humble:  “I’m not coming into this job with a specific agenda of this has to change, this has to go, this has to be added. So I’m going to be, over the next couple of months, laying out a longer term vision for the agency. I’m obviously aware of demographic trends and limited amount of SR (Social Rehab) funding for elders losing their vision, so that’s a particular area of interest for me. I obviously have been a successful byproduct of the vocational rehabilitation side of MCB. That’s vitally important work that we’re going to continue. I have been made well aware over the last couple of weeks of some of the new initiatives of the agency like the VOICE program, like the internship program. . . The bottom line is that MCB is here to support the thirty thousand blind folks in the Commonwealth, and I intend to do just that.”

As the event came to a close, the mood was buoyant. There was much to celebrate as we acknowledged Alex and Joe’s accomplishments. And there was also much to look forward to in the upcoming months, as Paul Saner learns about his new position and carefully implements improvements and enhancements.

We hope to invite him, as well as all of our other friends and supporters, back for another celebration of accomplishments in the near future. We are currently seeking applicants for the next VOICE class, to be conducted later this fall. If you are interested in learning if this program is right for you, contact your Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor. We hope to see you soon!

If you would like to listen to the recording of the festivities, just click on the link below to hear the TIC broadcast.

LAB Scholarship Winner Hits the Ground Running

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By Suzanne Wilson 

As any seasoned traveler will tell you, it is often the diversions and side trips we take that lead to our most meaningful discoveries. Cheryl Austin, this year’s winner of LAB’s George Zermas Memorial Scholarship, would definitely agree. In an interview which was recently featured on the July 19 edition of “Horizons,” our own Jim Barrett had the opportunity to speak with Cheryl at length about her life, her many accomplishments and the challenging course that lies ahead for her.

It all began conventionally enough. For the first eight years of her life, Cheryl spent an idyllic childhood in the suburbs of Rochester, New York. "I feel like it's different from the childhood that a lot of kids have these days,” she explained. “That was still the time when kids came home from school and just kind of ran out the front door into the neighborhood and didn't come home until things got dark and Mom was yelling to you that it was time for dinner. I really remember a lot of friends in my neighborhood and riding bikes in the streets, jumping rope in the driveway, making forts in people's basements, you know, kind of your typical childhood.”

Cheryl did all she could to downplay her disability. She was born with albinism, a genetic condition that results in reduced pigmentation in a person’s hair, skin and eyes. Specifically, the pigment deficit affects the eyes in three ways:  lower visual acuity, nystagmus (involuntary movements of the eyes) and increased light sensitivity. In spite of the visual impairment that her albinism caused, Cheryl did all she could to fend for herself without the help of low vision devices. "Because I wasn't accepting of my own impairment, I probably didn't use some of the tools I should have. . . I didn't want to use magnification in the classroom but, for the most part, I just wanted to be a normal kid. . . like everyone else. So I honestly might have made my life more difficult than it needed to be. . . Then there's the flip side:  I had a challenge and I knew I had a challenge, but I wasn't going to let anybody stop me."

This determination was the bedrock that formed the foundation for a string of successes for Cheryl. Due to her father’s career changes, she and her family left her childhood home at age eight and ultimately moved to the Bay Area in California. Upon completing high school, she obtained her bachelor’s degree from Northwestern University, where she focused on economics for the majority of her studies. As graduation approached, however, she realized that she did not want to pursue a career in that field. So she shifted gears and entered a three-year program in nutrition. After successfully completing an internship in San Francisco, she became a registered dietician.

When her friends began moving on and she had few ties that bound her to California, Cheryl decided to come back to New England to be closer to family. As a nutritionist, she has been employed at the Greater Boston Food Bank and at elder services in both Cambridge and Summerville. More recently, she worked in nutritional research at Boston University Medical Center and then at a public health research company in Cambridge called Apt Associates.

Without a doubt, Cheryl could have continued along this successful career path indefinitely. However, she started to believe that something was missing. Just as she had not felt the fire of commitment to economics, her research job seemed to lack a crucial element. "When I first started to think about making this career change into education, I had a long heart to heart with my husband about where our financial situation was and whether I could walk away from my well-paying research job that I really didn't enjoy all that much on a day to day basis. . . . It was a great environment, great people and we did great work, but it just wasn't my passion. I was trying to figure out what my passion was. . . He was incredibly supportive and there was an opportunity to take a teaching job at Arlington High School and he said, "Do it. Give them your notice and spend a year in the school and see if education is even for you.",”

With the backing of her husband, Jim, and the determination to find her true vocation, Cheryl took the position as a one-on-one assistant to a ninth-grader with autism during the 2011-12 school year. She spoke in glowing terms of the young man she worked with, and the experience affirmed her determination to pursue her career goal. The next summer, she took on a volunteer job at the Perkins School for the Blind’s summer sports camp. As a visually impaired athlete herself, she was particularly drawn to the idea of helping blind kids to get more in touch with their bodies and to embrace physical fitness. She made such a positive impression on her supervisor that she was offered a permanent position at the school.

These days, Cheryl works in Perkins’s outreach program. Most of her students attend public schools in Massachusetts, New York and Connecticut and receive services from Perkins that address their visual impairment-related needs. "Our programs . . . run all the times that the regular school year does not . . . on school vacations and during the summer. We focus on something called the expanded core curriculum, nine different areas that have been determined as things that students with visual impairments need extra work in.” These areas include non-academic skills such as adaptive technology, social interaction, communication methods, career exploration, sensory efficiency, mobility and others. Each program weekend is based on a theme. This year, she is also supervising the summer employment program, which gives students their first taste of independence while still having adult supervision to fall back on. Program participants find jobs at Perkins or in the local community and live with roommates in their own apartments. Cooking, home and money management and orientation and mobility in the “real world” are the order of the day. While some participants are taking baby steps and others seem to leap quickly forward, Cheryl seems to love watching students come out of their shells in their own unique ways. It’s safe to say that she has definitely found her passion.

Cheryl has undergone another transformation as well. Gone are the days when she spent so much of her energy trying to hide her disability. "It's kind of come full circle. I accept it now, I talk about it now. And I have students who benefit from that and see me as a role model,” she elaborates. And what a role model she is:  successful professional, motivated student of her new career as a teacher of the visually impaired, loving wife and visually impaired marathon runner. Yes, you read that correctly. Since first entering the Vision 5K race in 2005 with the encouragement of a co-worker, Cheryl has embraced the running lifestyle. Ironically, the only reason she chose to run in the visually impaired division of that first 5K event was because the event director encouraged her to go after the division prize, which he thought she was capable of winning. That day in her very first race, she came away with second prize. Since then, she has run several half and full marathons, including the Boston Marathon.

In ways both actual and metaphorical, one thing is clear:  Cheryl Austin is definitely not standing still. LAB is excited to support her as she reaches high to achieve her next goal, that of becoming a fully qualified and certified teacher of the visually impaired. And while in many ways she has traveled a great distance from her suburban childhood, there are core values that remain unchanged. Cheryl, the intrepid traveler, continues to revel in her life’s journey and follow her dreams, wherever they may lead her.


LAB Clients Get the Latest Word on Technology

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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.

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2013 Excellence Award Finalist

LAB Prepares to Celebrate a Very Special Birthday

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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!

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Sounds of Success: The VOICE Program at LAB

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Article 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. 

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