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Training program can aid blind vets But director must persuade VA to help

Ron Maier has a vision for helping veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars who have suffered blindness or visual impairments.

A loss of sight, he believes, doesn't need to be a life sentence of menial jobs or unemployment.

But in order for his plan to see the light of day, the president of the Olmsted Center for the Visually Impaired said he will need allies in Veterans Affairs and veterans service organizations.

Maier wants to fling open the doors of the Olmsted Center's highly specialized training program that is already giving others who are sight impaired a chance to step into the mainstream economy.

"Forty years ago if you lost your vision, you came to a place like the Olmsted Center and you were here for life in a sheltered workshop. Now a place like the Olmsted Center is an interlude because of technology," Maier said.

He said training on computers with special software, in a sense, allows the blind and those with diminished vision to "see" with their ears in the workplace.

The software reads aloud electronic correspondence, and the sight-impaired worker at a computer station responds on a keyboard by inputting data, which is also made audible.

The training often leads to careers in the hospitality industry, booking hotel rooms, auditing ledgers and performing front-desk duties.

With the help of a $700,000 Statler Foundation grant 10 years ago and grants from the Conrad Hilton Foundation, the Olmsted campus opened its specialized job-training Statler Center in a refurbished mansion in the 1100 block of Main Street in Buffalo.

There, students receive 10 to 13 weeks of customized training with the follow-up guarantee of help at their places of employment, if they experience difficulties.

And the training goes beyond high-tech to simple details such as grooming, dress codes and observing punctuality. Three absences and you're out.

"It builds character and work ethic, which is what employers look for," said Renee DiFlavio, the Statler Center's vice president for employment and education.

In his quest to broaden and make a case for the training of visually disabled veterans, Maier boasts that 85 percent of the center's students graduate and get jobs.

"Whatever your feelings are about the conflicts, this is about helping people and doing the right thing," he said.

To that end, he has met with local and national Department of Veterans Affairs officials and representatives of veterans service organizations.

Next month, he is scheduled to meet again with VA officials to outline the Statler Center's approach in assisting the sight impaired.

Veterans advocates are already sold on the Statler Center's program, saying the need for it is increasing as the wars continue. Nationwide, advocates say, there are as many as 160 veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan who are considered legally blind.

In addition, 1,600 service members have suffered battle-related eye injuries that required surgery. And many of the more than 8,000 veterans diagnosed with traumatic brain injuries have complained of visual problems.

"Concussions from explosions are more numerous and can have an effect on the cornea and retina," said Patrick W. Welch, director of Erie County Veterans Services.

Another disturbing trend, according to Tom Zampieri of the Blinded Veterans Association (BVA) in Washington, D.C., is that young wounded veterans are developing eye problems often associated with older Americans. "We're seeing traumatic cataracts in 24-year-olds and glaucoma, which is astounding to me," Zampieri said.

DiFlavio, who recently addressed the BVA's national convention, said there was one overriding message: Blind and visually impaired veterans want meaningful careers.

"I heard loud and clear they want to be with mainstream employers," DiFlavio said.

e-mail: lmichel@buffnews.com

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