Editor’s note: APH Huntington recognizes the barriers to accessing services for those who are blind or low vision living in rural areas. Lee Huffman, APH Huntington’s Senior Strategist of Accessible Technology and Community Outreach, shares how the program is enhancing resources and outcomes for the local community of Huntington, West Virginia.
In July 2020, the American Printing House for the Blind launched APH Huntington – a new program developed to provide technology and other trainings to people who are blind or low vision in Cabell and Wayne Counties in West Virginia.
With an inaugural grant from the James H. and Alice Teubert Charitable Trust, APH Huntington began developing initiatives to bring the resources and information of APH to this rural area, with the intention of helping to educate and elevate outcomes for its residents who are blind or low vision. Through the process of implementing the program, APH is also working to gather information, gain insights, and learn how to better serve people living in rural areas across the country.
APH Huntington’s Efforts
Since July 2020, APH Huntington has worked to help bring the concept of GoodMaps Explore, accessible indoor navigation, to Huntington-area buildings, has conducted six access technology training sessions, offered a five-part community speaker series, and provided educational opportunities to local civic leaders and professionals serving its residents who are blind or low vision.
Over these past two years, as the individual leading APH Huntington’s efforts, I have had the opportunity to work with local blindness professionals and speak with Huntington’s residents of all ages who are blind or low vision. I have learned that adapting to and living with significant vision loss can be challenging under any circumstances. If you live in a rural area, such as Appalachia, those challenges can be even more complex.
Barriers to Those Living in Small Towns
In smaller towns, it can be more challenging for blind or low vision residents, their families, and professionals who serve them to acquire the information, services, and resources needed to become independent and fully integrated into the community. Time, funding, physical location, staffing, and challenges of gaining access to the most up-to-date information can all create significant barriers to optimal outcomes. As a result, expectations for people living with vision loss in more rural areas can, unfortunately, be quite low. One of APH Huntington’s goals is to help fill that need while encouraging a more supportive, informed, inclusive community culture.
If an individual, whether a child, teen, adult, or older person who is blind or low vision, is living in a rural community, they can experience circumstances caused or influenced by regional, cultural, and socioeconomic factors. A person living farther from health and vision care or the services provided by state or private organizations can mean delayed or inability to readily access services due to the lack of availability, funding, or transportation.
For example, due to tight budgets and extended travel, teachers of the visually impaired, rehabilitation counselors, and independent living professionals are often unable to attend national conferences where best practice strategies and the latest access technology are shared and exhibited. As a result, these professionals can miss out on important, cutting-edge information and technology options to share with their students or clients. When consumers don’t have these resources, their ability to thrive can be impacted.
Furthermore, a student who is blind or low vision in a rural community, for example, can very often be the only person who is blind or low vision in their entire school system, making it challenging to have peers with similar life experiences. I have also encountered students who resist using a white cane and access technology because they feel it makes them stand out as a person with a disability. At an age when all young people want to fit in, they can mistakenly believe the tools that will ultimately help them to fit in the most are the ones that make them stand out.
I have also met parents who do not encourage their child to use a cane or access technology for similar perceived societal reasons relating to rural culture. Some parents who lack needed information or perspective can believe access technology, canes, or dog guides encourage or create stigma among their child’s peers and other community members. Parents can assume that being a sighted guide for their child at every moment and doing many tasks for them is part of being a good parent. So much so, the child does not learn basic independence skills.
Likewise, for some older people living in rural areas who acquire age-related vision conditions, family members can feel it is their moral obligation to take on the role of caregivers instead of encouraging and assisting their loved ones in exploring options for independence.
Sufficient orientation and mobility skills, independent living skills, and access technology skills are essential for integration into today’s world. The more skilled folks who are blind or low vision are in these areas, the more opportunities they will have in every aspect of life, from courses of study, occupations, and every other possible life choice.
As the APH Huntington program moves forward, it aims to provide more hands-on training, discussions, and services throughout the community for students with vision loss, their teachers, and parents, as we are learning this will likely be our best opportunity for future regional impact. The APH Huntington program will be working to create possibilities, elevate expectations, and improve outcomes.
Throughout this process, we will be actively encouraging the use of information available from APH Press publications and the multitude of APH’s free, online resources including the APH ConnectCenter, APH’s Information and Referral Service, and online webinars offered by APH’s Outreach Services.
APH Huntington will also be working on expanding its reach and enhancing its impact throughout the region, with anticipated efforts across the state borders into eastern Kentucky and southeastern Ohio in the coming year. We hope our work will continue to educate, inspire, and elevate the community of blind or low vision people throughout the region.