Blind justice

[Editor’s note: Over the past couple of years, spending cuts have become a way of life at both the state and local levels, largely due to the state budget crisis. But what are the effects of these cost-saving measures? In this first installment of a periodic series, Xpress considers the impact of one such cut.]

Cut: Computer classes for the blind

Savings: Statewide, $30,000 plus staff time

Reason: Largely due to budget uncertainties

For Dan Wright, learning to use a personal computer has opened up new worlds.

The Fairview man suffers from retinitis pigmentosa — an inherited, degenerative eye disease. His vision has eroded to the point that he now needs a battery-powered alarm on his coffee cup to tell him that it’s full. And he can’t make out words on a computer screen without help from assistive technology.

So, earlier this year, Wright leaped at the chance to sign up for free computer classes for the blind and visually impaired. The N.C. Division of Services for the Blind, in partnership with AmeriCorps and local community colleges, offered the courses at three sites in Western North Carolina: Asheville, Hazelwood and Marshall. All told, the program served about 20 counties statewide, according to Blind Services Director John DeLuca. Primarily targeting rural counties, the courses were part of former President Clinton’s initiative to bridge the digital divide, explained Asheville Area Rehabilitation Supervisor Preston Jones.

Another program had provided Wright with a PC. And through the classes, he learned how to use ZoomText software — which, depending on the version, both magnifies text and “speaks” it aloud.

“When I learned how to do that, I sat down and cried,” he reveals. “I don’t mean to sound babyish, but it touched my heart.”

Wright (who lives alone) can now e-mail his brother, shop on-line and surf the Internet — giving him more connections to the outside world while allowing him to reduce his dependence on neighbors for help.

“It just revitalized my life,” declares Wright, who ran his own construction company for years even as his vision deteriorated.

But a combination of circumstances ended the three-year program a year early, on Oct. 31.

The classes were 90 percent funded by a federal AmeriCorps grant, DeLuca explains. And though the state agency only had to come up with a 10 percent match ($30,000), DeLuca says budget uncertainties last January were a factor in the decision not to reapply for the final year of the grant. In addition, state rehabilitation supervisors were spending too much time recruiting and overseeing the volunteers in the program, which wasn’t their primary duty, he explained.

“When you have limited resources, you have to make often difficult choices,” admits DeLuca.

Since most of the division’s budget comes from federal vocational-rehabilitation funding, one of the agency’s primary functions is preparing blind and visually impaired people for employment and helping them get and keep their jobs.

Statewide, nearly 500 people took advantage of the computer classes. Locally, the program served 105 people the first year and 135 the second year, DeLuca reports.

And the value of such a service for folks who aren’t in job training isn’t lost on DeLuca, who is totally blind himself.

“The options are inadequate, frankly,” he concedes.

The state’s register of blind and severely visually impaired residents lists about 23,000 North Carolinians. But census figures suggest that there are actually between 75,000 and 100,000 folks who fit that description, says DeLuca.

Haywood County resident Peggy Camp — who has diabetes-related vision impairment — says she’s sorry the program ended. After several months of “wonderful” computer instruction at the Hazelwood site, she now has to learn on her own and rely on friends for help.

“Funds are so scarce right now for everything,” comments Camp. “I’m surprised it lasted as long as it did.”

There is a little bit of good news, however. Jones says he’s working to revive the program in January, albeit at a reduced level. The AmeriCorps grant provided five full-time instructors at the three WNC locations; if approved, the revived program would allot one half-time instructor working only at A-B Tech. And since transportation is usually a problem for the blind and visually impaired, residents of outlying counties might find it difficult to attend.

“So it will be on a smaller scale, but at least it’s in the right direction,” notes Jones.

Know of any budget cuts affecting local folks? Contact Tracy Rose at 251-1333, ext. 116.

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