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Living Independently with Low Vision

Vision Devices Extend Careers

Almost six years ago, Mary LaRue Wells began having problems with her eyesight — she was diagnosed with myopic macular degeneration — and those problems and frustrations found their way into her paintings.

“As I look at older paintings, I’ve noticed that, as I got into trouble, eyes showed up in my work,” Wells said. “Eyes in eyeglasses, rows of eyes, just eyes in general.”

Wells, a portrait artist at the time, thought she would have to give up her profession as she gradually began loosing her sight. Doctors have told her she will not become completely blind, but with the aid of devices that magnify objects, Wells continues with her artistic passion, including having exhibits in Reston, Washington D.C., New York City and in South Carolina.

ACCORDING TO THE NATIONAL Eye Institute, approximately 35,700 Virginians, age 50 and older, have age-related macular degeneration. In the case of Wells and fellow Restonian Gloria Sussman, who both have a rare, nonage-related form, the results are the same. Macular degeneration creates a loss of central vision through a gradually enlarging gray fog in a person’s field of vision. The sufferer still has peripheral vision, but can have problems with distortion and loss of ability to distinguishing colors.

Because of the disease, Wells, 70, had to give up driving six years ago and can have problems doing what many would consider relatively easy things such as walking down the street.

“Friends help me with stairs. Friends will say, ‘Hi Mary, it’s me, Jane’ because I can’t see them well enough to know who it is. I’ve walked up to men who aren’t my husband,” Wells said. “I can walk down the street, but I can’t tell if I’m walking toward a mailbox or a person. Sometimes I can’t tell if it is children or adults, or if a person is walking toward me or away from me. I’m dangerous around coffee cups.”

Wells continues to paint using a device that consists of a video camera on a moveable arm that projects a magnified image on a television monitor. She also makes sure her paint palette is set up the same way each time, making sure similar colors are not near each other.

“There’s not much difference between white and lemon yellow for me,” Wells said. “I also paint the lids so I have a chance.”

Wells said she is lucky because she has a husband who can drive her around and generally help around the house. For Sussman, who was diagnosed with myopic macular degeneration in 1978 and had previously lost the vision in one eye, it is a different story. Her husband died 15 years ago, so she has had to learn to do things on her own.

Both women rely on a network of friends and various visual-aid devices, ranging from magnifying glasses and talking watches to recorded books from the Library of Congress and the Washington Ear, a radio reading service, to computer programs with speech ability and closed-circuit televisions that magnify objects.

“It’s all been within the last 25 years,” Sussman said of the technology that helps her through her daily routine.

BEFORE HER DIAGNOSES, Sussman, 78, had been a piano teacher and an accompanist with the Reston Chorale. At first she gave it all up, but has since begun teaching music appreciation for the Learning in Retirement Institute at George Mason University, with the aid of a music collection consisting of 1,721 compact discs (CDs) and a growing number of digital versatile disks (DVDs), and is playing piano again. She is also the founder of VIP/Reston, a support group for visually impaired people, as well as being active in other similar groups.

Her music collection is categorized on her computer and each CD and DVD case is numbered in dark black ink. Her computers — she uses a lap table upstairs and a computer with large monitor in the basement — has programs that can enlarge the type or even read what appears on the screen, which allows her to read various newspapers on the Internet or create her lesson plans. Sussman also has a machine which enlarges print on a piece of paper or bound pages in books, automatically focuses the image and can create a contrasting background to make it easier to read. In addition, all her stereo equipment and other machinery has tactical points to help her select the correct dial or button. However, it was returning to playing the piano that was one of her biggest obstacles.

“I had stopped playing piano in 1982 and a friend said to me I should be playing. I hadn’t memorized anything since college. I had been relying on my eyes,” Sussman said. “What we did in the beginning was take the music sheets and enlarge them on a Xerox big enough so I could read them. Then placed them on a stand that I can pull over to my face and I put on my magnifying glasses. We would memorize a measure or two measures at a time.”

Sussman and her friend, who also memorized her music, give recitals at retirement homes, in Sussman’s house and even for her class. The pair practice their duets once a week even though her friend had since moved to Annapolis, Md.

“Last year we made a CD for our friends,” Sussman said.

WHILE TECHNOLOGY can help a person with low vision live a more independent life, it is not always in the budget.

“Insurance doesn’t cover low vision devices. Medicare doesn’t cover low vision devices,” said Bob Burton, deputy commissioner of services delivery for the Virginia Department for the Blind and Visually Impaired. “But if a person has low vision, it doesn’t automatically mean assistance has to be computer-based and expensive. It can mean a Xerox enlargement.”

Burton said in most cases all a person needs is to change the contrast of what they are reading or changing the lighting in their home. The department, he said, does have programs that if a person meets the requirement qualifications, can provide aid in securing devices ranging from low technology to high technology, all on a case-by-case basis.

In addition, the department offers educational programs, services that retrain people to function in the work force and teaching people to maintain their independent living skills.