Leigh Ann Wiedlich (right) is observed by Jenny Thomas on Germantown Avenue as part of Salus University’s program for professionals who will work with the vision impaired.

by Becca Porter

Have you ever wondered about the groups of people walking around Germantown Avenue and Ardleigh Street every summer with blindfolds and canes?

These clusters of people are not visually impaired – they are learning to assist the visually impaired by walking several miles in their shoes in a simulated exercise to experience visual impairment as part of a Salus University training program.

That program – Orientation and Mobility – is one of four Salus programs aimed at the vision impaired.

The goal for those who take the classes is to learn sophisticated skills the visually impaired need to get around, such as traffic alignment in which you use a parallel traffic “to project a line parallel to that” in order to walk in a straight line and cross the street. According to Salus staff, the traffic patterns, street layout and sidewalk infrastructure make Chestnut Hill a good place to train the students.

“We train our students in Chestnut Hill because it offers an amazing playground for us,” said Fabiana Perla, Chair of the department of Blindness and Low Vision at Salus University who leads the program.

Perla said the neighborhood has a wide range of intersection geometry along Germantown Ave. On Evergreen and Germantown there’s an offset intersection where the corners do not match up. Highland is a normal four-way intersection, while a few blocks down you have Willow Grove as an “X,” and just one block away is a typical residential area.

Chestnut Hill also provides a challenge as many of the sidewalks are uneven.

In addition to programs addressing blindness, Salus also offers classes to deal with various levels of low vision. These are for people who have a visual impairment yet still have functional vision.

“The lack of vision or the lack of typical vision can affect almost everything we do in life from driving, reading, making your own meals, applying makeup, [and] talking with people,” Perla said.

Key to the Orientation and Mobility program are simulators – tools that help approximate the experience of vision impairment for those who are not impaired.

“We use a lot of the simulators to make sure our students learn the skills that they will be teaching with an appreciation for how they actually work,” Perla said

One tool is a low vision simulator, similar to goggles, that has different films to simulate visual acuity loss or visual field loss.

I had the privilege of trying some of these tools. I was able to try on the vision simulators and feel a braille children’s book. I also tried walking while using the cane; it’s a lot harder than it looks.

However, the real challenge was walking down the street with a blindfold on. I held on to Perla’s arm as she guided me down the sidewalk alongside Germantown Avenue and across the street. I was given a mini lesson on traffic alignment and how to use sensory cues to stay in a straight line.

When it came to crossing the street, I had to listen to see if the cars next to me were idling or accelerating. If they were accelerating and moving across the intersection, then we could cross too. Even just experiencing a mere moment of the challenge people with a visual impairment deal with every day gave me a new appreciation for my eyesight. It gave me a new respect and understanding for the challenges they face and to which they must adapt.

Sheri Hoffert, a teacher of the visually impaired at the Berks County Intermediate Unit, is now acquiring her orientation and mobility certification in the Salus program.

Hoffert already works with the visually impaired and is going to use the certification to give her a different perspective on how to work with her students. Before, she tended to focus more on complete blindness, she said, because a lot of her students had complete vision loss. But that focus was not addressing the needs of her students.

“80 percent of my students fall into that low vision range where they have usable functional vision but they are still considered to have a visual impairment,” she said.

Hoffert said she chose to get her certification at Salus University because they emphasize that low vision spectrum as a major focus.

And the additional classes have helped. Hofferts said she can use the way she learns to relate to the way some of her students might learn. It is this dedication from the professionals that creates the proper education and skills others with a visual impairment can learn from to lead an independent life in our community.

“It gives me more of an understanding of where they’re coming from and what they can see using the goggles and I didn’t really have that experience as much before,” she said.

Becca Porter is a Local intern