Oh Happy Day! Gettin’ My New Eyes

Oh Happy Day! Gettin’ My New Eyes

When I had to retire my third guide dog, Abby, early for medical reasons, I was full of conflicting emotions. However, I made all of the necessary decisions: where she would live (with me), who would become her primary caregiver (my mom) and how I would meet her needs for special food and extra medical care (with financial help from some amazing friends who adore her, too). The adjustment to retirement was not a smooth transition for either Abby or myself, but I made the best decision for my girl. Abby is much healthier now without the stresses guide dog work put on her body. Abby has a new job: head of Homeland Security, and she makes sure no squirrel, ringing doorbell or knock goes unanswered at home. She enjoys meeting other dogs and still goes to dog-friendly places. Another bonus for her is that she has a younger brother to play with: my new guide dog, Fonzi.

Training with a new guide dog is an adventure, full of emotion with long days of hard work, going to new places, learning new techniques and figuring out what makes the new dog tick. While many people told me “to enjoy my vacation at guide dog school,” training is more like boot camp than vacation. The daily schedule is rigorous. We trained for 7 hours each day doing activities such as working an on-campus obstacle course, and we participated in lectures each night. We trained in multiple locations around Long Island, and even spent 2 days training in busy Manhattan and Central Park!

In the early days of training, we completed several Juno walks. A Juno walk involves the trainer holding an empty harness and simulating the dog’s movements while the handler follows. This technique helps the trainer match the dog and student’s walking pace and pull in the harness. It allows the handler practice in correcting his/her techniques without unduly stressing the dog, as well as helping the handler to refine his/her body positioning and footwork.

The initial days of guide dog school involved the trainer assessing various aspects of each handler’s life so they can be matched with an appropriate guide dog. The trainer carefully evaluated my needs, living situation, work environment, activity level, walking speed, amount of pull I need in the harness, hobbies, allergies and personality. I was given a fast, hard-pulling, “city dog” who was best able to handle my lifestyle and would be able to handle anything I could throw at him, no matter how busy or chaotic the situation.

My new guide dog, Fonzi, is a 64 pound, male, black Lab with a large-and-in-charge attitude. Fonzi also happens to be the sweetest goofball you will ever meet. After being introduced, I spent some time alone with Fonzi so we could begin getting acquainted, but then the work really began! I worked with the trainer while Fonzi was in harness and taught him to follow various routes around campus, find doors in the building and we practiced using the stairs. My balance is heavily affected by my allergies, and stairs can be tricky for me, but Fonzi slowed down and watched me carefully as we went up or down a step at a time. He did not mind that we modified his technique on stairs slightly to help me keep my balance.

The lecture that night dealt with helping handlers grieve the retirement or death of our previous guide dogs. The lecturer spoke about the emotions that occur during retirement as well as training with a new dog, and gave us tips on how to move forward positively with our new dogs. It is the hardest lecture we do, but also the most helpful.

On Day 3, we worked on leash-guiding which involves the dog guiding through the leash without the leather harness. My school is the only one in the country that teaches this technique. Leash-guiding is useful in very familiar, calm environments like the ABVI office. It is nice not to have to put Fonzi’s harness on just so I can get my lunch from the kitchen or go to the restroom. Also, if his harness ever breaks, he can still guide me safely until I get a replacement harness from the guide dog school.

After we worked on leash-guiding, we had our first harness walk outside. The first harness walk out in the open is amazing because there are no turns to master and no streets to cross, just an open path where you and your dog really turn on the jets and see how well your paces and pull match up. It was the best feeling. Before dinner we attended lectures on obedience and grooming, and then we practiced what we learned and had some time to groom our dogs. After dinner we attended a lecture on harnesses. The trainer demonstrated taking a harness apart and putting it back together. It is important for us to know how to reassemble our harnesses in case it ever comes apart. Being comfortable reassembling your harness is also helpful when you have to remove your harness handle for riding in small cars and planes.

In the mornings of days 4-7 we worked on mastering the route for our nightly walks. The walk began at a restaurant, wound several blocks through a busy city to a pharmacy, carried on through the building and out the back exit and continued several blocks up the other side of the street back to the restaurant. As we learned this route, Fonzi and I encountered several dogs, performed different kinds of traffic-light controlled street crossings and walked past people eating outdoors with food debris all over the sidewalk. It was critical that I learn the route so I could give Fonzi the proper commands to guide us through. Some people think that guide dogs know where they are taking their handler, and you can get to that point eventually, but the dogs follow directions from the handler. If the handler does not know the route, the team goes in circles, and both guide and handler can end up frustrated, confused and disoriented. That is why knowing where you are (orientation) and how to safely get where you want to be (mobility) is crucial for people who are blind.

We spent the afternoons of days 4-7 working in the local mall. We maneuvered through massive crowds, learned to safely ride escalators, practiced various kinds of moving turns and worked on stopping in store entrances so I would know that we had gone into one.

One afternoon, we performed a high-level obedience exercise where I put Fonzi in a down-stay in the center of the mall. Then, my trainer walked me in a circle 30-40 feet away from him, and he held the down-stay while people stepped over him or walked around him. Fonzi did very well, and he got lots of praise and kibbles as a result.

For our last training day at the mall, Fonzi and I worked doubles with my training partner and her guide dog. Our dogs walked so closely together that one of us was always sandwiched between the dogs, but they never let us touch a thing. Our dogs were evenly matched in pace, so we would switch off which dog led for short periods and which dog had to follow. Fonzi does not like the “follow” command, as he prefers to think he always knows where we are going, even if that is not actually the case.

On Day 7, I practiced whistle recalls with Fonzi in a long hallway in the dorm. A whistle recall tells the dog to come to the handler when the whistle is heard, and then the dog gets rewarded with food. Whistle recalls serve multiple purposes. I use them to call Fonzi to come to me when he is playing loose in a fenced in area, I use them as the signal that Fonzi can eat his meals and I can use them in an emergency, such as if Fonzi got away from me and was running toward a busy street. The dogs should always come because they want the food that comes after the whistle.

That night, we performed the night walk that we had spent the past few days practicing. Our night walk was more of an adventure than our trainer planned. We encountered a loose dog outside of a bar, and the pharmacy (a stop on our planned route) was closed when we arrived. We had to walk 3 extra blocks we had not practiced, and Fonzi kept stopping to show me things on my right, but I could not find them when I checked with my hand and my foot. Turns out, the objects he was alerting me to were piles of cardboard boxes. Then, when we were crossing a difficult street, a car cut us off, even though it was our turn to cross. By the time we finished the route, we were wiped out, but Fonzi handled all of the challenges well.

Day 8 included practicing off-curb obstacles on the left and right, walking on the Long Island Railroad train platform, country walks and going through traffic checks. Off-curb obstacles meant that my path was completely blocked, and Fonzi had to take me into the street near traffic to get around the obstacle, then return me to the sidewalk so we could move on. Many times off-curb obstacles are due to construction or delivery trucks blocking a sidewalk.

Walking on train platforms requires extra caution, and the dogs use their intelligent disobedience skills to keep themselves between handlers and the train tracks. Intelligent disobedience means that Fonzi will disobey any command I give that he decides is dangerous. Using caution on train platforms is extremely important so that you do not fall off of the platform. You only turn right on train platforms so that your dog is between you and the platform edge and the tracks are never on your right side, minimizing the risk of getting too close to a platform edge.

Country work is really complicated, because there are no sidewalks to follow, and they involve different kinds of distractions. We walk along the edge of the road or path that we are following, stopping occasionally to check that we are not drifting too far from our line of travel. When walking along roads in country work, crossing streets becomes more complex. We curve around the street corner, stop, turn, cross the street and then curve around the next street corner to continue going in the direction we had been originally. We “indent” around street crossings so we always know how many blocks we have crossed. We encountered chickens and a huge rooster on our country walk. Since my neighborhood has a mix of country work and sidewalks, this was practice that Fonzi and I needed.

Traffic checks involve a trainer, in a marked school van, cutting off a team while they are crossing a street. This training is critical as all handlers need to learn what his/her guide dog feels like when it reacts to a traffic check. Fonzi’s reactions include slowing down, speeding up, stopping completely or turning around, depending on the situation. Traffic checks can involve vehicles running a light, but also include obstacles such as strollers, bicyclists, grocery carts, etc.

That night I met Fonzi’s puppy walkers, the family that raised him from 8 weeks old until he went in for formal training, taught him his basic manners and obedience skills and took him as many places as they could for new experiences. They were great! Fonzi was their first puppy, and he had a young boy to roughhouse with. The family raised Fonzi in an office environment during the workday, which was a huge bonus for me. They brought also Fonzi’s favorite toy as a puppy, which was very sweet of them.

Days 9 & 10 were spent in Manhattan. We trained in Central Park and on several busy city blocks. In Central Park we encountered many people, pigeons, dogs, bikes, carriage horses and pedi-cabs. We walked through tunnels and over bridges and under arbors. Outside of the park, we tackled riding the subway, which is not something I had done with my previous guide dogs. The hardest part was getting Fonzi, his leash and myself through the turnstiles without getting tangled up. Fonzi was a pro with all the pushing and shoving around us.

My class training ended on Day 11, three days early, since I needed to travel to North Carolina for the Blind Idol singing competition finals. Despite leaving early, I felt comfortable with Fonzi and the skills we learned together. We make a great team and I am excited for our future together!

Sebastian DeModica, a client and participant in the Employee Development track of our Own Your Life program, was recently named the Reverend Alma Dungee Volunteer for the Year by Keep Charleston Beautiful

Sebastian DeModica, a client and participant in the Employee Development track of our Own Your Life program, was recently named the Reverend Alma Dungee Volunteer for the Year by Keep Charleston Beautiful

Sebastian DeModica, a client and participant in the Employee Development track of our Own Your Life program, was recently named the Reverend Alma Dungee Volunteer for the Year by Keep Charleston Beautiful. We are so proud of Sebastian’s hard work to help keep the streets of Charleston clean of debris. In addition to the many volunteer hours he logs, Sebastian puts in numerous hours of hard work in our Employee Development program learning the adaptive skills he needs to become employed since losing his vision. He takes classes with our skilled instructors in subjects such as computer, to learn to operate computers, read and write emails, perform internet research, craft Word documents and so on. Once he graduates from Own Your Life, Sebastian will be able to perform the same tasks as sighted colleagues, and become competitive in today’s job market. Sebastian is a wonderful role model for all of our clients. We could not be more proud of him and we know his future is very bright!

ABVISC Executive Director, Courtney Plotner, Forty under 40 hooree

The Charleston Regional Business Journal has announced the 2016 class of Forty Under 40 honorees.

Each year, the Business Journal and its partners recognize 40 individuals under 40 years of age who represent some of the highly engaged professionals living and working in the Charleston area. Nominees are independently judged by previous Forty Under 40 winners.

An awards ceremony and networking event will be held from 5:30-8 p.m. Aug. 18, at Alhambra Hall in Mount Pleasant. Details on the event and ticket information can be found here.

Read the full article

Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired names Plotner new director

Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired names Plotner new director

On the 80th anniversary of the Association for the Blind & Visually Impaired – Charleston (ABVI), the Board of Directors is pleased to announce the selection of Courtney Parades Plotner as Executive Director.

The appointment comes with the Board’s confidence that Courtney will continue to be a steward of ABVI’s mission and an advocate for the blind and visually impaired. Courtney joined ABVI in December of 2012 as Director of Programs, and in that role she continued to develop and foster the services offered by ABVI through its programs.

Mary Morrison, who retired from her post as Executive Director in April, and who has been mentoring Courtney for the position since October, said “I have enjoyed watching Courtney develop in her roles at ABVI, and I’m more than confident of Courtney’s ability to take ABVI to even greater heights.”

Mary worked tirelessly as the Executive Director and helped shape the Association to become the successful nonprofit it is today. Mary was also instrumental in the development of ABVI’s newest program, Own Your Life. Mary and Courtney listened to our clients’ wants and needs regarding the services provided and they collaborated to create Own Your Life; the new program designed to champion ABVI’s clients by enriching their lives and helping them become more independent.

Own Your Life helps blind and visually impaired individuals gain independence in their personal lives and develop skills to gain employment. This program has two tracks ABVI clients can pursue based on their individual goals: Personal Enrichment and Employee Development.

Recently, all 10 clients in the pilot program of the Employee Development track were offered jobs at the Seattle Lighthouse for the Blind facility in Summerville, SC making aerospace parts for Boeing Corporation and hydration packs for the military. This is an impressive accomplishment for both the clients and ABVI staff. These positive results reflect the impact our new program is already having in the community. Courtney is also reaching out to other employers in the Tri-County area for additional job opportunities for ABVI’s clients.

The Board is thrilled to work with Courtney and the entire ABVI staff during this exciting time for the Association. Everyone is eager to see what great things the future holds for all of ABVI’s Own Your Life participants.

For more information on, or to make a contribution to Own Your Life, please visit www.abvisc.org. Read the original Article

The Puzzling Rise in Nearsighted Children

The Puzzling Rise in Nearsighted Children

angjiang, China

Children in this small southern Chinese city sit and recite their vocabulary words in an experimental cube of a classroom built with translucent walls and ceilings. Sunlight lights up the room from all directions.

The goal of this unusual learning space: to test whether natural, bright light can help prevent nearsightedness, a problem for growing numbers of children, especially in Asia.

With nearsightedness, the eye grows longer, so light doesn’t focus the retina as it should, making more distant objects appear blurry.

In the U.S., the rate of nearsightedness in people 12 to 54 years old increased by nearly two-thirds between studies nearly three decades apart ending in 2004, to an estimated 41.6%, according to a National Eye Institute study.

In several Asian countries, myopia rates in young people are far higher. A full 80% of 4,798 Beijing teenagers tested as nearsighted in a study published in the journal PLOS One in March. Similar numbers plague teens in Singapore and Taiwan. In one 2012 survey in Seoul, nearly all of the 24,000 teenage males surveyed were nearsighted.
Students in the classroom do eye exercises to help combat myopia. Photo: THEODORE KAYE FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Wei Wang, a professor of public health at Edith Cowan University near Perth, Australia, and one of the authors on the recent Beijing study, says genes combine with one’s behavior and environment to cause myopia. However, the fast increase must be due to environmental influences, since genes don’t change that quickly, he says.

The World Health Organization helped convened a group of international experts early this year that will review evidence and data on prevention and control of severe myopia. It will release recommendations as soon as this summer, says Silvio Mariotti, senior medical officer and an ophthalmologist at the WHO’s Prevention of Blindness program.

The greatest health concern is the increase in severe myopia, which increases the risk of serious eye problems like retinal detachment, glaucoma and macular degeneration, experts say.

Treatment is a major problem, too. Though glasses can correct vision in most myopic children, many aren’t getting them. Sometimes this is because parents don’t know their children need glasses or don’t understand how important they are for education. Other times, cultural beliefs lead parents to discourage their children from wearing them, according to Nathan Congdon, professor at Queen’s University Belfast and senior adviser to Orbis International, a nonprofit focused on preventing blindness. Many parents believe glasses weaken the eyes—they don’t.
Students play in front of their experimental classroom. Researchers think more outdoor time might help prevent myopia in children. ENLARGE
Students play in front of their experimental classroom. Researchers think more outdoor time might help prevent myopia in children. Photo: THEODORE KAYE FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Across Asia, doctors, parents and public-health officials are trying to prevent nearsightedness or keep it from worsening. Some methods are widely used but show little or no evidence of influencing nearsightedness. Those include acupressure-type eye massage based on traditional Chinese principles performed daily by many schoolchildren in China.

Other prevention efforts hold more promise. One main strategy being tested is to spend more time outdoors. The other involves a common drug named atropine.

Why myopia rates have soared isn’t entirely clear, but one factor that keeps cropping up in research is how much time children spend outdoors. The longer they’re outside, the less likely they are to become nearsighted, according to more than a dozen studies in various countries world-wide.

One preliminary study of 2,000 children under review for publication showed a 23% reduction in myopia in the group of Chinese children who spent an additional 40 minutes more outside each day, according to Ian Morgan, one of the researchers involved in the study and a retired professor at Australian National University in Canberra. (He still conducts research with Sun Yat-sen University in the Chinese city of Guangzhou.)

Outside the context of the study, it can be a challenge to get children to spend more time outdoors because of the heavy school workload and cultural beliefs about napping after lunch and tanning, Dr. Morgan says.

Not all studies looking at outdoor time have shown a difference in myopia rates. Some eye experts say that other factors, like extensive time spent doing what’s called near work, like homework and reading, also likely contribute to the growth in nearsightedness.
Ian Morgan, an Australian researcher, talks with students outside the classroom. Photo: THEODORE KAYE FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Dr. Morgan’s theory, which is supported by some animal research, is that light in the eye hits a neurotransmitter called dopamine, which releases chemicals that prevent the growth of the eye that can lead to myopia.

Dr. Morgan, Dr. Congdon and a team from Sun Yat-sen are now testing, as reported recently in the science magazine Nature, a so-called bright-light classroom made of translucent plastic walls in Yangjiang to see if the children can focus and sit comfortably in the classroom. So far it appears the answer is yes.

Sui Weixuan, 12, says the room at Yanxi Experimental Primary School, which seats about 50 students, is hotter than their traditional classroom. But she likes it better because it has better light. Many classmates echoed those sentiments.

Weixuan believes her eyesight deteriorated because she was watching TV and using the computer too much. “My parents told me, but I couldn’t control it,” says the petite girl with a wide smile and oval, black frames. Since she got glasses, she’s afraid of going blind one day and has curbed her TV-watching to one hour a week from three to four hours.

The research team hopes to start rotating children into the classroom for several hours each day starting this fall, Dr. Morgan says.

Eye doctors in parts of Asia already commonly recommend that children get outside more. But it can be surprisingly hard to get families to cooperate, some say.
A chart shows eye exercises, a common fixture in classrooms all over China. Photo: THEODORE KAYE FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Jason Yam, an ophthalmologist and professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, says it’s the first piece of advice he gives parents who bring in their nearsighted children. “The parents say yes, but they don’t do it,” he says.

Usually they come back and say their children didn’t have time to go outside because of homework. However, when he brings up another prevention strategy—using daily atropine eye drops—parents are very committed, Dr. Yam says.

Atropine, a drug used for decades to dilate the pupils, appears to slow the progression of myopia once it has started, according to several randomized, controlled trials. But used daily at the typical concentration of 1%, there are side effects, most notably sensitivity to light, as well as difficulty focusing on up-close images.

In recent years, studies in Singapore and Taiwan found that a lower dose of atropine reduces myopia progression by 50% to 60% in children without those side effects, says Donald Tan, professor of ophthalmology at the Singapore National Eye Centre. He has spearheaded many of the studies. Large-scale trials on low-dose atropine are expected to start soon in Japan and in Europe, he says.

Researchers are unsure how long children should use the eye drops for maximum effect. So far, the longest study has followed children for five years. In Singapore, children typically receive drops for three to six months at the first sign they’re becoming nearsighted. If their myopia continues to progress, they typically continue the drops for up to a year, Dr. Tan says.
Students at work in an experimental “bright classroom,” built to increase the students’ exposure to sunlight, in Yangxi city, Guangdong, China. Photo: Theodore Kaye for The Wall Street Journal

Other doctors say that because the side effects are minimal, children should continue using low-dose atropine drops until major eye growth is over, usually around the time of puberty. Dr. Tan says that exposure to the drops should be limited, as with any medication, to as short a period as possible.

Spending time outdoors is a low-risk solution, so the strategy can be applied broadly to children, says Karla Zadnik, dean of the Ohio State University College of Optometry. “Because more light is almost like fluoride in the water, it’s being applied to children without regard for their individual risk of myopia,” Dr. Zadnik, who has been studying myopia for 25 years, wrote in an email.

But more invasive or expensive treatments mean that children should first be assessed for their risk for developing nearsightedness before trying them, she says.

Prescriptions and Pride: VisionSpring’s Journey to One Million

Prescriptions and Pride: VisionSpring’s Journey to One Million

The woman I met in Choco, Colombia, arrived by canoe. She had made the trip down the river to the village where I was working as a young optometry student with a team of visiting eye doctors from Boston. She had travelled an entire day to get her eyes examined. Most of us complain about having to commute 30 minutes to work. She spoke little Spanish but it didn’t take me long to examine her eyes and determine her problem — she was legally blind. Considering the strength of her prescription, I was worried we might not be able to help her. Fortunately, I was able to locate a pair of glasses for her in the pile of used glasses we had brought down to distribute. While not a perfect match, the glasses were close enough to her prescription to restore her vision — never mind that they had 1950s cat-eye-style frames. I was feeling satisfied that we had done good work that day. But two days later the same woman showed up again. Back in her village, her cat eye glasses had been the source of ridicule. It was enough for her to make the arduous journey again to see if we could offer her a different pair of glasses. Sadly, we could not. The used cat eye glasses were the only pair that even came close to her prescription. I could never have predicted what happened next: the woman thanked us for trying to help, returned the glasses, then paddled back up the river, virtually blind. This was a defining moment in my life, when I first  realized that there are prescriptions, and then there is pride.

The New York Times recently published an article highlighting a new study that documents the inefficiencies associated with the distribution of used eyeglasses in
the developing world. The study gives evidentiary support to what I witnessed firsthand as that optometry student 25 years ago. I learned two things from that experience:

First, the problem is immense. Estimates for those who can have their vision restored with a pair of eyeglasses range from 500 million to 1 billion. The vast  majority of those individuals simply do not have access to affordable glasses. Second, the preoccupation with personal appearance is a human characteristic shared
the world over, or put another way, vanity is not monopolized by the rich. Having seen the depth and persistence of the market failure to deliver this simple tool, I decided to do something about it. I founded VisionSpring in 2001 so I could be an advocate for people like the woman in Choco, not by providing them with free glasses, but by treating them like customers. I built a commercially viable, scalable business model that activated consumers traditionally ignored by the  eyeglasses market: the Base of the Pyramid (BoP) consumer.

From the beginning, I understood that our success as an organization was contingent on our ability to be responsive to the needs and preferences of the BoP consumer. Pioneering a new business model, it is easy to get distracted by the business of the business. Forging new distribution channels, streamlining supply chains and determining appropriate price points are all critical elements of any product-based business. But it was only when VisionSpring started developing aspirational products specifically designed for the BoP consumer that market forces were unleashed and we began to see a path to sustainability. That was
a critical moment in our history.

Now is another, VisionSpring has just sold its 1,000,000th pair of glasses through our distribution channels in El Salvador and India and through partnerships with organizations like BRAC. A University of Michigan study determined that reading glasses have the potential to increase our customer’s productivity by 35%. For the hundreds of thousands of tailors, mechanics and rug makers whose work suffers as their eyesight begins to fail, this increase in productivity translates into tangible economic gain. Additional analysis of the data from the study indicates that increased productivity can translate into a 20% increase in the average  monthly income of VisionSpring’s target customer. Based on this data, we have created more than $216,000,000 in economic impact.

And this is only the beginning of our story; we are on course to sell 10 million more over the next 10 years. Even though we have yet to receive a single request for cat eye frames, if that were to change, we are prepared to give our customers what they want.