Blind Rehab and the Evolution of an Idea


At the age of 18, as a member of the 111th Artillery in the Virginia Army National Guard, Herb Patterson was in the middle of six months of training when his unit was activated in 1961. He was ordered to join it at Fort Campbell, Kentucky.

After serving his active duty assignment, Herb’s unit returned to Richmond, Virginia. He then served nine years with the Army National Guard and 12 years with the Virginia Air National Guard.

In 1990, Herb retired from the Henrico County, Virginia, Division of Police as a Major and an Assistant Chief of Police in his 28th year of service. He also retired from the Virginia Air National Guard as First Sergeant of the Combat Support Squadron with a total of 21 years of service.

He was forced to retire as a result of his Retinitis Pigmentosa. His sight had become more limited and night vision was now a concern.

“I would like to have worked longer, perhaps having a shot at Chief of Police,” he said. “I would also like to have remained in the Air Guard a little longer.”

As is the case with the life plans of many BVA members, however, the eye disorder prevented these events from occurring in Herb’s future.

In the early 1990s, with the encouragement of his daughter and daughter-in-law, Herb began to volunteer at the Virginia Rehabilitation Center for the Blind. He assisted the instructor who taught keyboarding to blind and low-vision students. To put things in the proper time context, Herb and his fellow blinded veterans were then still using DOS software with Jaws and Zoom Text. He began learning more about computer software during his tenure at the Center, actually helping to install the first Windows programs on its computers.

Herb also began to work the Virginia Association of the Blind, which refurbished computers with adaptive software and gave them to schools and to others who could not afford them. He then distributed them to young people and adults who were blind or low-vision and who could not afford the equipment. The software for such computers was purchased while the hardware was donated by various companies or individuals.

Herb did the same thing with the Lions of Virginia, which had a program to collect and refurb adaptive equipment such as computers and CCTVs, and then take them to young people with vision problems. The Lions purchased the software and some parts and pieces needed for the refurbishing.

“This is how I started helping others with blindness or low vision receive their adaptive equipment,” he added.

In the early 2000s, Herb started receiving blind and low-vision services at the McGuire Medical Center in Richmond. He had also placed some refurbished computers with Jaws, Open Book, ZoomText and a Talking Typing Tutor in the BVA Volunteer Office for training purposes in the late 90s.

“Those two experiences were my first contacts with BVA and the Visual Impairment Services Team coordinated by Evelyn Cabrera-Heatwole. It was Evelyn who helped me get registered with VA and later join the Richmond Chapter of the Blinded Veterans Association.”

At first, Herb did some formal blind rehabilitation training with the Blind Outreach Services Therapist at the Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center. A few years later, the facility was one of several to begin a VA Vision Impairment Services Outpatient Rehabilitation (VISOR) Program.

“Training centers such as this one are the result of BVA recognizing the need for this type of blind and low-vision training to supplement the 13 major Blind Rehabilitation Centers,” Herb said. “BVA was instrumental in lobbying and supporting this effort, and I was one of the first to receive training from the therapist in our VISOR Program.”

At one of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Group meetings, a BVA member suggested that the group try to collect equipment that was no longer being used by blinded veterans, or from the families of deceased members. The idea was that the collective group could refurbish the equipment and get it to low-vision or blind school children in the area.

“We found that schools may have adaptive equipment to assist the students but that they may not have the equipment at home due to cost,” he said. “Since I was already doing some of this within our Richmond Chapter, I suppose this is how I became involved with this program.”

Herb and his fellow regional group members had to depend on one another to get the word out about the refurb program. They would collect the computers, CCTVs, or any other devices that helped with low vision or blindness. The Lions of Virginia Foundation supplied the needed software—Windows X, Office programs, Jaws, ZoomText, Open Book, and any other special software.

After cleaning the computer hard drives, installing the new software, and otherwise getting the machines ready, Herb would frequently get requests from instructors at the rehab centers, vision teachers from around the state, and sometimes through word of mouth by someone who knew about the program.

“With the help of my wife and others, we would deliver the computer, set it up, and make sure the recipient could get started on it,” he said. “An important note is that all of the adults and children receiving the computers were taking or had taken lessons using the adaptive software.”

According to Herb, the “feel good” personal rewards for him and his colleagues have been amazing when they have been able to get a CCTV, a computer, or some other type of adaptive equipment out to a young person who can use it to do their homework at home. They take ownership, he believes, and a new world is opened up to them—just as he himself and many of his blinded veteran friends have experienced.

“I cannot see the faces of the young people we have helped but I can hear the enthusiasm in their voices,” he said. “Of course the sighted person helping me tells me the reaction of the person receiving the equipment.”

Herb believes that if the accessibility equipment is just sitting at a veteran’s home and not being used, there are others who can benefit from it.

“The program may not be as active as it was but, if I get a call from a teacher, or from a young person’s family, I will try to find the equipment that might help that student,” he said. “We may be ‘blinded veterans helping blinded veterans’ but we are also here to help others in the blind communities in which we live.”

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