Keith Bynum, a blind Army veteran, lives by this rule: Life is not over just because you can’t see.
“You’ve got to have a positive mind to keep yourself going,” said the 55-year-old.
Bynum is one of 18 veterans at the Gulf Coast Veterans Health Care System’s Blind Rehab Center in Biloxi. The facility opened in 2011. In 2017, the facility helped 173.
“It opens those doors for independence once again,” said Debra Gilley, chief of the facility. “It’s wonderful to see somebody who has been sitting at home on the couch thinking that life is not open to them anymore, and to see them out crossing the street and getting out there.”
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Gilley began working in blind rehab field as a certified orientation and mobility therapist 26 years ago. “It was my passion,” she said. She is now also a certified low vision therapist.
Veterans are trained in five fields: computer access, living skills, orientation and mobility, vision skills and manual skills. Veterans generally stay at the center for four to six weeks on their first visit.
“A lot of individuals when they’re loosing their vision start to become stuck at home because they don’t feel safe getting out anymore,” Gilley said. “By teaching them independent travel skills, they get out again and the universe opens up to them again.
“So many of the things we do day-to-day, we take for granted. So many of the things we do rely on our vision.”
An optometrist may tell them, “There’s nothing more I can do for you,” she said. “But they come here and we’re able to give them adaptive equipment that opens that world back up again.”
Few of the clients who have been served at the Biloxi facility lost their sight to combat injuries. Most suffer from degenerative conditions, and some still have minimal sight, but are considered legally blind.
“When I first came here, I knew absolutely nothing about computers,” said Robert Mixon of Sims Chapel, Alabama. “They introduced me to a computer, taught me how to use it and it just opened up a whole new world to me.”
Mixon, 81, was on his seventh visit to the center last month. Many veterans make multiple visits to hone old skills and to learn new ones.
“Each time we incrementally increase their skills,” Gilley said. “They’re getting better and more independent and enhancing their skills each time they come in.”
There are 13 blind rehab centers in the VA system, and veterans can choose which one they attend.
“It’s like going to school,” Gilley said. “When you’re loosing your vision, there’s a lot to learn.”
Everybody has different needs, and there are different types of vision loss, she said.
“We work hard to make sure that your instruction is individualized. We want to teach you what you need to learn.”
Vincent Higginbotham of Ocean Springs was practicing walking up and down stairs during part of his training. The 61-year-old Marine and Air Force veteran has suffered a gradual loss of vision since 1995 due to Stargardt disease.
“I have learned a lot (at the center),” he said. “Some things I have learned on my own just by dealing with the vision, but they’ve given me a lot of different types of technology.
“They can’t cure my eyes, but they can help me deal with the situation,” he said.
“It’s all about increasing their independence,” Gilley said.
“Thats what blind rehab is all about. It’s giving that hope back and it’s saying that just because you’re loosing your vision or you’ve lost your vision, its not the end, it’s just a bump in the road and we’ve got your back.”
How to get into the VA Blind Rehab program
Veterans are referred to the Blind Rehab program through Visual Impairment Services Team (VIST) coordinators.
In Biloxi contact Robin Sniffen 228-385-6762, firstname.lastname@example.org
In Pensacola contact Scott Turner 850-912-2552, email@example.com
Vision loss does not have to be service related to qualify.