News Column

Vision rehab group prepares for move

June 9, 2014

By Kaitlynn Riely, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette



June 09--A few months ago, after her vision worsened to the point where she could see very little, Diane Faust said she was "petrified."

Her sight had been fading for years, but by November, she could not see enough to continue her longtime job as a business manager for a Wexford insurance company, said Ms. Faust, 52, of West Mifflin.

She arrived in late February at Blind & Vision Rehabilitation Services of Pittsburgh with about 90 percent of her vision gone, she estimates.

She signed up for the Homestead organization's adjustment to blindness training because she would have to learn how to do all she had done before -- cooking, cleaning, using the computer, crossing the street -- without being able to see.

"That is basically the whole purpose of this, to find new ways to do things that I used to do before," she said one morning last week, as an instructor guided her through the process of using Microsoft Word.

The mission of the rehab center, which serves more than 900 people, is staying the same, but next year the location will change.

Last month, Allegheny County Council gave the go-ahead to an Authority for Improvements in Municipalities request to issue bond notes not to exceed $7 million to allow the nonprofit to buy and renovate a building in Uptown.

The step will not involve county funds, but it will allow the rehab center to receive tax-exempt bonds, and it will help finance an $11.5 million project that will consolidate the Homestead rehab center and a separate North Side facility into one location.

"We're really excited about this move," said Erika Arbogast, president of Blind & Vision Rehabilitation Services.

The center has been on West Street in Homestead for about a decade, she said. Many clients rely on public transportation, and as the years passed, public transit became less reliable. A few years ago, Port Authority said it might take away a bus stop near the rehab center, and though the change didn't occur, it was "the straw that broke the camel's back" for Ms. Arbogast and her staff.

"We really needed to find a place that the individuals we serve can get to," she said.

She thinks they've found it in Uptown.

The agency's new space, an 87,000-square-foot building that formerly housed used store fixtures, will be at 1819 Boulevard of the Allies, a location with ample bus service.

The building will have enough space to house the center's North Side facility, where individuals who are blind or visually impaired work on projects such as constructing road signs, Ms. Arbogast said. It also will have enhanced services for people such as Ms. Faust who are adjusting to vision loss.

There will be a garden on the roof with an orientation and mobility course so the rehab center's clients can learn how different structures -- such as grass versus a sidewalk -- feel when using a cane.

While the Homestead location has nine dormitory-style beds for people who participate in the adjustment to blindness training and sometimes come from outside the region, the Uptown site will have 10 hotel-like rooms, a situation that will offer more privacy during what can be "tough training," Ms. Arbogast said.

There also will be two apartments at the site, so that when a person is nearing the end of adjustment training they can better experience what they will need to do at home, such as cleaning and cooking. For commuter students such as Ms. Faust, there will be a lounge area and lockers for belongings.

Ms. Arbogast hopes to see construction start mid-summer, with a tentative move-in date between April and July 2015.

Ms. Faust said she likely will return to Blind & Vision Rehabilitation Services in the future for help learning to use new technology for the blind or to receive guidance on re-entering the workforce, but her personal adjustment to blindness training -- five days a week since late February of learning skills such as reading Braille, learning to take notes and give herself reminders with a tape recorder instead of a pencil and paper and learning how to walk with a cane -- ended last week.

Ms. Faust, who lives with her father and two daughters, has been coming to the rehab center for a few years, receiving more help as her vision loss increased.

On a recent morning, she practiced crossing a busy intersection at The Waterfront, where an instructor from the rehab center told her to listen to the sound of the traffic to tell in which direction cars are moving so she knows when she can cross. Even after a few months of training, it is still a scary thing to do, she said.

Her self-described "biggest challenge" -- and the task that took up most of a morning -- is re-learning how to use a computer. Martha Burgoon, a rehabilitation teacher, patiently sat with Ms. Faust as she used a voice-guidance system to help her create and open folders so she could transfer the files on her voice recorder to the computer.

"It was so much easier to click and drag: Two seconds, and it was done," she said at one point.

It will get easier, Ms. Burgoon told her. And Ms. Faust said that it has. She has gotten better at cleaning and cooking at home and at organizing and arranging things, such as her clothes so she knows she is putting on items that match.

"I have noticed I'm a lot more comfortable than I was on the first day I was here," she said.

Kaitlynn Riely: kriely@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1707.

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Source: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (PA)