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Breaking down barriers for people with sight challenges

By Scott Scanlon / Refresh Editor

Ray Zylinski might be blind but that hasn’t stopped him from working full time, playing cards some evenings and roller blading on weekends with his buddies.

Limited vision forced Keith Harvey out of three jobs during the last two decades, but today he runs a warehouse.

Florence Lipscomb woke up nearly blind about 2½ years ago and didn’t want to get out of bed for two months. Today, she has a new apartment in the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and is back to cooking for herself, dining out, and reading the Bible first thing every morning.

All three – and hundreds of others like them across Western New York – have learned to overcome many of their limitations with help from the Olmsted Center for Sight.

“This agency breaks down barriers, and the people we serve can do everything they used to do,” Olmsted President and CEO Tammy Owen said. “They just do it a little differently, through some accommodations.

“We just wish more people knew about us.”

Olmsted services include three low-vision optometry clinics, as well as educational classes, adaptive living counseling, job training and senior vision services. The Main Street headquarters also has a resource center that offers a variety of products including:

• A “liquid leveler” that vibrates when a glass is nearly full.

• Long oven mitts to prevent burns.

• Phones and other devices with large numbers.

• Large-print weekly pillboxes.

• Magnifying glasses, lights and software that can dramatically boost the size of shapes, letters and numbers, including on computer and television screens.

Lipscomb has marveled at much of the available technology – some complex, much of it very simple – since availing herself of Olmsted services last year.

“I have never walked into a place where everybody I came in contact with was so humble and patient and caring. It was awesome. You know how you get your first ride on a merry-go-round and you’re all excited? That’s the way I felt. When I walked out of there, I was crying.”

She, Harvey and Zylinski talked recently about how Olmsted has transformed their lives.

THE 2-1-1

In this 25th anniversary year of the Americans with Disability Act, the unemployment rate for those with disabilities is twice that of the general public and only 17 percent of those with disabilities are employed full time, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Zylinski, 27, of Hamburg, is among those full-timers. He lost his eyesight at age 1. He learned Braille and other skills at the Olmsted Center Pre-School so he could attend elementary, middle and high school in the Pioneer school district.

He has spent weekdays the last 2½ years taking paratransit – curb-to-curb – to and from Olmsted. He spends half his time working the phones in the 2-1-1 call center, connecting callers to human service agencies they might need. He spends the other half in the Statler Center – a Statler Foundation-launched, Olmsted-run job-training program – helping teach veterans and those with vision and other challenges. Students take a 10-week course of study in the Olmsted-based school learning how to use JAWS voice-activated screen readers to create Microsoft Word, spreadsheet and other computer-generated information. Some students spend part of the sessions working externships in a variety of jobs that include various roles at Visit Buffalo Niagara and the Millennium, Hampton Inn and Adams Mark hotels. Some graduates go on to work in those spots, others in banks or the Olmsted-contracted switchboard centers in Veterans Administration medical centers in Buffalo and Erie, Pa.

Evenings and weekends, Zylinski likes to go out for Mexican food, work out at World Gym and play poker or football with his old high school buddies. He also bikes and roller blades.

“I’m better off following somebody when I’m roller blading and biking,” he said. “When we play football, I’m the running back. I’m not going out for passes. Still, I’m involved, and that’s important to me. I learned that at a very early age. Your parents have to be willing to let you take that fall, let you get that scrape. If it doesn’t happen, you can’t learn.”

He was living on Social Security before he went to work.

“The Statler offers me the opportunity to live independently and bring (money) home,” he said, “but through Statler, I’ve helped people, too. When I go home, I have no problem sleeping at night.”

LEVELING THE FIELD

Harvey, 60, of Wheatfield, used to work in the phone industry, driving a truck, climbing utility poles and stringing wire. That changed when his eyesight began to fade after sinus surgery in 1994, when he was 39. His company let him go. He worked on the loading dock at a department store for a while, then landed a job with his town recreation department. He quit in 2009 when his trifocals and other vision strategies failed him to the point that he no longer could drive. Today, his eyesight is about 20/200, much worse than the 20/70 vision needed to renew a driver’s license.

A state Department of Labor counselor helped him look for a job while Harvey spent a couple of years collecting unemployment. “When it became apparent that I could not even fill out an application without assistance, he told me about the Statler Center,” Harvey said. “The school helped me use adaptive technology and practice interviewing skills. I got my confidence back, learned I could do things with the right equipment.”

Harvey is one of 16 workers in the Olmsted Center’s second-floor manufacturing facility, which seeks more help, facility director Dan Genco said. Workers in the program make high-visibility safety vests; sort, label and compile kits; ship flags; and break apart goggles, sponges and other bulk items for packaging. The state preferred source program requires municipalities to buy certain products from the center and similar facilities, but that’s not always how it works. “There’s no preferred source police,” Genco said.

Harvey has spent workdays the last four years tucked into a small office in a warehouse filled with boxes of toiletries, uniforms, clothing, shoes, mattresses, pillows and sheets that regularly get shipped to the New York City Department of Juvenile Justice. He handles much of the packing and almost all of the ordering and record keeping using ZoomText software that blows up the paperwork on his computer to five times or more its original size. On weekends, he bowls in sighted and blind leagues in Erie County and rides his bike at a bike path near his house.

“It used to be a roller-coaster ride” dealing with life, he said, “but I’m not the kind of person to quit. It’s a challenge, and I kind of love challenges. Without the Department of Labor and Olmsted, I would still be sitting at home. They’ve given me an opportunity here to show what I can do.”

A BUSY LIFE REDEFINED

Lipscomb, 59, of Buffalo, has spent most of the last 35 years working as a certified nursing aide in hospitals and homes – often on the same days, piling up 50 to 60 hours a week. She moved to Los Angeles in 2003, driving from workplace to workplace in her red Dodge Stratus coupe and went back to school in 2007 to become a registered nurse. Then, five years ago, she learned she had rheumatoid arthritis. She was diagnosed a year later with a resting tremor, and woke up nearly blind on March 13, 2013. Doctors couldn’t figure out exactly why but determined she suffered optic nerve damage.

She tried for more than a year to address the problem on her own. “I had isolated myself,” she said, “and started falling into depression.” By then, her jobs and her Stratus became parts of her past. Last year, her three grown children, all of whom live in Western New York, urged her to come home. The family worked with Olmsted to set up Lipscomb in a house in Cheektowaga.

Meanwhile, a rehab and mobility therapist and social worker helped her become increasingly independent. Lipscomb moved several weeks ago into what she lovingly refers to as a “penthouse apartment” at the Roosevelt Apartments on Main Street, not far from the Olmsted Center. Her mobility therapist put several raised, orange stickers on her stove and toaster to make sure her temperature settings are correct. Center staff also set her up with splatter-proof cookware, a liquid leveler and other tools to improve her self-sufficiency.

She’s always been an avid reader – Danielle Steel, James Patterson and Nora Roberts are among her favorites – and new magnifiers will help her get to the pile of books in her closet. Meanwhile, she continues to read her Bible – a large-print version – every morning.

Lipscomb looks to start taking classes later this year at the Statler Center. Meanwhile, she cooks for herself four or five nights a week, can take the transit system or walk to city restaurants, and looks to join the William-Emslie Family YMCA a short distance away. She walks with a cane to help guide her, but said many of her new neighbors aren’t even aware she has limited vision.

“Sometimes when you’re visually impaired, you’re in denial,” she said. “Now I’m at the point where I don’t fear anything anymore.

“Olmsted gave me my life back.”

email: refresh@buffnews.com