John Platt 2013-02-12 09:23:02
The Iris Network: Maine’s Lifeline for the Visually Impaired In 1907, a decade before the start of Lions Clubs International, Helen Keller hosted the very first fundraiser for the Maine Institution for the Blind. An indefatigable visually impaired traveling almanac salesman founded the organization to create jobs for the state's blind residents. Today, that institution is known as the Iris Network, and it continues to serve thousands of Mainers out of its offices in Portland and around the state. “Our mission is to help people in Maine who are blind or visually impaired to attain independence and the ability to live and work and contribute to their communities alongside their sighted peers,” says James Phipps, executive director and member of the Portland Lions Club. Phipps, a former tax attorney who is blind himself, has been involved with the Iris Network for more than 20 years. His white cane makes only the slightest clicks against the wall as he leads me around the organization’s Portland headquarters, which once served a very different purpose. “This all used to be part of our factory,” he says as we roam the halls. When the organization first started, it hired visually impaired people directly. Blind employees made brooms, textiles and cane chairs–“all of the stereotypical stuff,” Phipps says. The Iris Network has long since evolved away from that model and no longer employs people directly. “Now we provide training for people to work in competitive employment, out there in private industry. Blindness does not affect a person's ability to be a good candidate for most kinds of jobs,” he says. In addition to job skills training, the Iris Network provides a host of other services including low vision screenings, support groups and rehabilitation services. They also maintain an assisted living apartment building in Portland that is home to more than 30 people with visual impairments who may also have additional disabilities. They do all this with a staff of less than 40 people and 100 volunteers. Back to Work Phipps guides me into a newly converted room full of office-style cubicles. This is the Iris Network’s new Access Technology and Employment Services program, where clients can learn about special software and hardware that will allow them to use computers and other devices, either to keep their jobs as their vision declines or to gain new skills to open up work opportunities. “People want to work, and more often than not employers want them to keep working because they're trained,” explains Susan Anderson, the Iris Network’s employment coordinator. In one of the cubicles, 48-year-old Paul Featherson sits beside his black Labrador service dog. He is learning new computer skills to help him find a phone reception job after losing his previous job stocking shelves because of declining vision. He jokingly calls retinitis pigmentosa, a hereditary condition, his “early inheritance.” Today he’s practicing with a screen reading program called JAWS (Job Access With Speech), which transforms the text on his computer screen into synthesized speech that he can hear through headphones. The software also provides audio cues to let him know which keys he is hitting on the keyboard. Another client, fast-talking New Yorker John Lee, suffered a stroke 17 years ago that damaged his optic nerve and left him with a severely limited range of vision. A recent transplant to Maine, Lee came to the Iris Network to improve his computer skills. “I used to hunt and peck when I typed,” he says. “Blind guys can’t do that.” In addition to typing lessons, Bonnie Gouzie, director of the Access Technology program, is working with Lee to find appropriate equipment and software for his vision. A large monitor would require him to move his head too much from side to side, so a laptop seems to work best for him. “Bonnie has brought me a long way in a short time,” Lee says. Elsewhere in the training room sits Ms. Wheelchair Maine 2012, Sarah Rosenblatt, a resident of the Iris Network’s nearby apartments. Rosenblatt, who plays tennis and other adaptive sports, suffers from cerebral palsy and septo-optic dysplasia, which resulted in an underdevelopment of the optic nerve. “I went through many job assignments, but I couldn't find the right one for me,” she says. Gouzie and Anderson helped her find her current job at the Northern New England Poison Control Center. She started there as a volunteer, and she proved to be so valuable that the center found the funding to hire her permanently. In addition to her new job, Rosenblatt recently got engaged and is raising money to compete in the 2013 Ms. Wheelchair America competition. Semi-retired Gene Stone has been using JAWS for more than a decade in his job at AAA, where he takes emergency roadside calls. A former president of the South Portland Thornton Heights Lions Club, Stone is completely blind and uses JAWS to multitask and help drivers in need. “I’m listening to them on the headphone in one ear," he says with a strong voice full of authority and humor, “while JAWS is telling me what I'm typing in the other ear.” His office recently switched to a new software system, so he has come to the technology center to get help adapting it for JAWS. Stone, who raised four boys, says he is an active raisedbed gardener. “I just love life to the max as a blind person,” he says with a smile. “I'm a really active kind of person who says, if you're blind, you can get out and find a job. Computers are the way in.” The Network and Lions The Iris Network maintains close ties to Maine’s Lions clubs, more than a third of which donate to the organization each year. The biggest donations come from the Portland Lions Club, which takes advantage of the Network’s proximity to two nearby sports arenas to sell parking spaces in their lot during baseball and basketball seasons. Last year they raised nearly $35,000. “It sounds like something very simple, but it really is a big help to the agency,” Phipps says. The members of the Portland club commit to parking duties for 46 games every summer and dozens more during the winter. "We're out here parking cars in all types of weather,” long-term club president Bruce Roullard says one evening while collecting $5 bills from incoming sports fans. “We’re very pleased to be able to raise the money that we do for the Iris Network because they have so many wonderful programs and services.” The Portland club also holds its monthly meetings at the Iris Network headquarters. In addition to monetary donations, clubs around the state frequently invite Phipps to give presentations about the Network. “It's easy to talk to a Lions club, no matter where they are located in Maine, and tell them about the kinds of things we do to support the people in their own community,” he says. Increasing awareness through these meetings helps the organization to connect with potential new clients early enough so they can learn the tools they need to continue working or maintain their quality of life. “Blindness is a significant issue but it shouldn't be a disability that people can’t overcome,” Phipps says. Platt is a member of the Boothbay Region Lions Club in Maine.
Published by International Association of Lions Clubs . View All Articles.
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