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Trust Is Key To Unlocking Confidence & Independence

Trust Is Key To Unlocking Confidence & Independence featured image description is in the body of the post.

Trust Is Key To Unlocking Confidence & Independence

My other goal is to teach the community that people with visual impairments are just anyone else. They just use additional tools to access the world. This access should be universal and a normal part of day-to-day life.

~Michele Danilowicz
1. Michele Danilowicz image description is in the body of the post
#1. Michele Danilowicz

I am a Michigan-based Teacher for the Visually Impaired (TVI) and a Certified Orientation and Mobility Specialist (COMS). My undergraduate degree is in teaching elementary and special education with a focus on visual impairments. In addition, I have a masters degree in Specific Learning Disabilities and Orientation and Mobility for Children. For 14 years I’ve taught students aged 3-26 years old.

My passion is teaching students to help them gain confidence and independence so they are successful adults. I work with students on accessing and using the technology and tools they need to live independently after they age-out of the system.

Oftentimes, students with visual impairments are led to believe they can’t be successful, independent adults. So the most important part of my job is building trust with them. This enables them to believe me when I tell them that they can do anything.

How Trust Delivers Results

I had an elementary student who lacked confidence and hesitated while crossing streets. His parents were fearful and did not want him crossing a street on his own either. He was a fourth grader and at this time was not independently doing what his peers were. Together we went out weekly rain, snow or shine to work, navigate the neighborhoods, and cross intersections. So he was able to walk to friends houses to play and hang out.

I never pushed him if he ever felt uncomfortable to cross. We would cross the street when he built up his confidence. He achieved all his goals that year and crossed at stop signs and even small, lighted intersections. Once he began, he advanced so quickly after he gained confidence and is now unstoppable.

Building trust with parents is crucial also. So after he mastered some of these skills, I invited his parents to a lesson. His parent’s witnessed how confidently their son now crosses intersections, independently and safely. Seeing him progress was so rewarding!

The Long-Lasting Effects Of Trust

Recently, a former student contacted me to tell me she was accepted to a dual masters program. This student and I worked together ten years earlier. I was beyond excited to hear that she is starting a master degree!

She has been living independently since starting her undergraduate degree. Now she is moving across the state by herself to start and complete her master’s program. This student also made a huge transition in her life and is transgender. I was so grateful to hear from her and learn that she trusted me enough to share with me, her transition. The trust and confidence that she has built is amazing!

Passion & Pursuit of Personal & Professional Goals

2. Two women presenting image description is in the body of the post.
2. Two women presenting

My other goal is to teach the community that people with visual impairments are just anyone else. They just use additional tools to access the world. This access should be universal and a normal part of day-to-day life. Part of my job is to teach awareness in local schools about the tools people use who are visually impaired. I also spread this awareness to the public about what helpful accommodations they can use. Along with how to help (or not help) people in the community.

Recently, I was teaching an accessibility workshop to third graders. One of the students stopped me before I walked into the classroom. She said she knew someone who was blind and felt sorry for them. My immediate response was there is no reason to feel sorry for someone who is visually impaired or blind. They are people just like you or me they just access the environment differently. I told her how I knew many successful people doing amazing things. They read by using braille and travel the community and even the world, independently with a cane. The cane helps them to “see” where they are going.

I began the presentation and thanked the students for coming to hear about how everyone can be independent and successful. Everyone just approaches it differently. This is one of the most important parts of my job, educating the public on how and when to help. To not pity visually impaired or blind people, but to appreciate how they navigate the world with the tools at their disposal. When the average person realizes how independent the VI community members are, it gives them a whole new level of respect. Respect is most important, not pity.

3. Table of materials image description is in the body of the post
3. Table of materials

Featured Image Description:

A woman talking while holding up a white cane looking off camera. There are backs of participant’s heads watching the woman present about white cane safety.

Collage Image Descriptions:

  1. Pedestrian Walk Sign: Woman (O&M instructor) is holding a folded white cane, smiling looking off camera, standing at a detectable warning next to a pedestrian walk sign.
  2. Bus Stop Shelter: Woman (O&M instructor) smiling at camera holding a folded white cane standing next to a bus stop shelter.
  3. A city bus. 
  4. Boarding Bus: The back of a woman (O&M instructor) walking onto a city bus. 

Additional Image Descriptions:

  1. Close up of Michele Danilowicz with long brown hair in her 30s smiling at the camera. 
  2. Two women presenting on cortical visual impairments. The power point presentation behind them says: “Tips for Providing Interventions cont.” One presenter is looking at the camera and smiling. The other presenter is looking at the audience holding up a red Elmo stuffed animal and a red and yellow stuffed monster. They are both standing behind a table full of red and yellow materials and toys. 
  3. Table with materials scattered across, a light up magnifier, dome magnifier, Braille writer, telescope, two vision simulation goggles, Braille book, large print book, large Braille cell drawn on paper with the numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 next to the dots and worksheets to learn Braille for print readers. 

Connecting With Michele:

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Mac’s Story A New Perspective On Life

Mac's Story A New Perspective on Life

I began following Mac’s story on Instagram when I came across a video of him using his first cane. Watching Mac use his AMD (alternative mobility device) was so cool as I’d never seen one before. My heart was nearly bursting as I witnessed this little guy claim his independence. So I asked Nicole (his mom) if she’d share his story with us and she said yes!

Mac’s Story A New Perspective On Life

#1 Mac's Family photo description is in the body of the post.
#1 Mac’s Family

When my son was 5 weeks old we found out he was blind. At that point, I was overwhelmed with emotion; angry, lost, and in denial. I had no idea of what this meant for our sweet son, Mac, or our family.

There are so many emotions I felt no one could have prepared me for:

  • I felt heartache when I saw other babies looking into their mama’s eyes;
  • feeling of failure as a parent when Mac couldn’t hold his head up or crawl;
  • comments of pity from others when learning about Mac’s diagnosis and blindness.

I was now a special needs mom. This meant I had to learn how to avoid letting these heartaches and struggles lead me down the wrong path. I needed to do something to prepare myself to handle this emotional rollercoaster and new life that we had begun.

Very quickly, we connected with our local early intervention program for the visually impaired. Before we knew it, Mac had a teacher of the visually impaired (TVI) and occupational therapist (OT). These professionals taught us how to aid Mac in his development.

The more we connected with others, I quickly learned of the huge financial deficit for the visually impaired child. I felt compelled to do something to remedy this situation and bring it to light. So I began posting stories about Mac, and what we are learning about how to supplement a visually impaired child’s development. This was an important piece because 85% of all development is incidentally done through vision. Teaching Mac how to meet his developmental milestones without being able to see wasn’t intuitive to us. We are so thankful his TVI and OT are there to guide us.

The Healing Power of Sharing

I never could have imagined how therapeutic it would be to share Mac’s story. The outpouring of support from friends and strangers was so heartwarming. People began to ask for more updates and have specific requests for the next post. They wanted to learn how Mac navigates a new environment or if he seems to have refined his other senses. It was so nice to go from feeling alone and helpless, to feeling supported. Educating others about visual impairments and building inclusiveness was an added benefit. Amazingly, talking about the issue seemed to remove the avoidance and pity from others.

#3 Mac on a swing photo description is in the body of the post
#3 Mac on a swing

As Mac continues to grow, he is learning so much. I had no idea how much intervention is required for our son who is blind. In addition to his TVI and OT, he has an orientation and mobility specialist (O&M) and soon a speech-language pathologist. It’s amazing how much we incidentally learn through vision; even speaking is something that is primarily learned through watching others. We are so thankful for Mac’s team of specialists. This team has helped us learn to embrace this new life and prepare our son to achieve great things.

We have gained the same passion that so many others who are visually impaired have, to change the stigma, fight for the cause, and make a difference. We find ourselves advocating for early intervention and inclusiveness.

Paying It Forward

#4 Mac & him mom photo description is in the body of the post.
#4 Mac & him mom

While we cannot cure Mac’s blindness or give him sight, we can teach the world more about blindness. In addition, we can help make the world more accessible for all people. We’ve started an annual fundraiser, a gala that benefits the local early intervention program that has been so good for our souls. We feel like we are making a difference in the lives of other children with visual impairments by removing some of the financial barriers to accessing the care they need.

Mac has taught us so much in his less than 2 years of life. There is so much more to life than what you can see. You are not defined by your disabilities; they are a characteristic of the amazing person that you are. The uniqueness each of us possesses is what makes this world wonderful. If we learn from one another, our perspective will continuously flourish. While there are numerous challenges, I am so thankful for Mac’s blindness and our new perspective on life.

Mac’s Story A New Perspective On Life Featured Image Description:

Closeup of Mac shows the light blonde haired cutie smiling while he holds onto his blue and white AMD. He is sporting a chunky gray cardigan over a flannel shirt with blue jeans.

Additional Images:

  1. Mac’s family; mom, dad, Mac and his two sisters are standing outdoors in a grassy field posing for the camera. Mom and dad are holding one another and Mac’s sisters are standing in front while mom holds Mac in her left arm. In the background, golden orange autumn foliage can be seen.
  2. Is a tri-panel collage: The first image is in the same grassy field as photo 1. In this image, Nicole is holding Mac in her left arm while her two daughters are each holding one of her legs. Mac is using his AMD on the sidewalk it almost looks like he’s running. In the third photo, Mac’s oldest sister is holding his arms in the air while he walks in the grassy field.
  3. On a clear, sunny autumn afternoon bundled in a blue winter jacket, Mac looks like he’s having a blast on a toddler swing.
  4. A stunning black and white photo of Nicole holding Mac on her lap while he is smiling broadly.

Following Mac’s Story:

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Turning Fear Into Motivation For Change

Turning Fear Into Motivation For Change Featured Image description is in the body of the post.

Turning Fear Into Motivation For Change

Visual impairment and blindness is a deeply personal and individual experience. Some people are highly motivated to set goals and regain their independence immediately, while others take it one day at a time. 
Never forget, whatever stage you are in your journey, a compassionate team of vision professionals, O&Ms, and resources are always there to support and help VI people along the way.

~Amy Castleberry

Moving Forward In Spite Of Fear

#1 Amy Castleberry image description is in the body of the post.
#1 Amy Castleberry

You might think my classmates and professor were playing a vicious trick on me the day I was blindfolded. They led me around the winding corridors of my college campus until I was completely disoriented. Then they left me alone to my own devices.  In reality, it was the first lesson in my master’s degree training program as an orientation and mobility (O&M) graduate student. The first day of the rest of my life.

“I have no idea where I am,” I laughed nervously.

“You will,” my professor replied in a comforting and encouraging tone. “You have all of the tools you need. Just, use your cane.”

Did I mention two of my biggest fears are “the dark” and “getting lost”?

Fear is a funny thing we all confront at some moment in our lives. The nagging tic in the back of our brains, or the aching pit at the bottom of our stomachs. Fear can overwhelm in a flash of frustration and panic. Or, in a moment of enlightened courage, motivate us to actively change our circumstances and rise to the occasion.

#2 Salus University O&M cohort image description is in the body of the post.
#2 Salus University O&M cohort

So, what was I to do? I could stay stuck, remain literally in a corner, and give in to my fearful thoughts. Or, I could choose to move forward and continue moving until I eventually worked my way to my destination.

As I stood against the wall wracking my brain for my next move, I heard my professor’s voice: “You’ve got this. Take a deep breath, make a plan, be systematic.”

Easier said than done.

From Trainee To Trainer

About 30 minutes later I used my long white cane and worked myself out of the corner. I located the stairwell, walked up two flights of stairs, only to take a wrong turn, on the wrong floor. Trapped again, in another corner nowhere near my final destination.

“Not bad for your first time,” the professor said as I pushed away my blindfold. “We’ll have you crossing streets in downtown Philadelphia in no time.”

By the end of that month, my professor was right. I had all the tools I needed and I crossed my first street independently while blindfolded, then another, and then a whole intersection. Eventually, I worked my way through many other environments after that first intersection.

From parks with uneven terrain and dirt trails to riding public transportation in a congested center city. To taking escalators, exploring different departments in shopping malls, and my favorite lesson of all, training with guide dogs! When I wasn’t practicing cane navigation, I was learning to instruct my classmates. Lessons involved traveling systematically, safely, and independently while building their confidence and helping them achieve their goals.

Now, months later, I’m nearing the end of my fieldwork and I’ve worked with visually impaired (VI) children and adult clients. Next, I’ll be moving across the country to train at a Veteran’s Hospital with visually impaired members from our nation’s military.

Reflecting On The O&M Journey

Along the way, I’ve met incredibly diverse and unique people across the spectrum of blindness and VI. People who have welcomed me with patience, kindness, open hearts, and minds.

Thanks to Stephanae, I’ve enjoyed this opportunity to reflect on my experiences and training as an O&M graduate student, and my hope for the future.

Though I’ll never know what it’s like to live on a daily basis with a VI, I’ve learned some important things from my students and the generous VI community:

  1. VI and blindness is a deeply personal and individual experience.
  2. Some people are highly motivated to set goals and regain their independence immediately, while others take it one day at a time.
  3. The return to independence from VI is grueling, hard work. But the journey is supported by a relentless and compassionate team of: 
    • fellow VI community members,
    • vision professionals,
    • teachers,
    • technology professionals,
    • advocates, and
    • compassionate, creative, problem-solvers who are as deeply invested in helping our clients identify resources, overcome barriers to accessibility, and achieve their goals.

Life may never be the same, but quality of life can be enhanced through adaptation, creativity, and the emergence of innovative technologies.

#4 Guide Dogs image description is in the body of the post
#4 Guide Dogs

I am grateful to my classmates, professors, mentors, clients, students, and the VI community at large, for their patience and encouragement along the way. Though I know I will encounter barriers and systems that present challenges to my students and clients, I will always be a seeker and student, an advocate for equality and inclusion, and a warrior against fear in favor of love and light.

What’s Next?

In the coming year, I hope to find my place and purpose in this amazing community, and work hard to make a difference through passionate action. I look forward to serving the community in every and any way I can.

Many thanks to Bold Blind Beauty for allowing me to share my thoughts and experiences. Please reach out to me at any time, so we can connect and continue to educate, overcome barriers, fight for accessibility and independence, and continue to grow and learn as a team.

Connecting With Amy:

  • Instagram: @o.m.amy
  • Email: acastleberry.o.m@gmail.com

Featured Image Description:

This photo is a group of nine O&M students (including Amy) posing with white canes. There’s a Salus University sign on the floor that reads “Celebrating 10 Years.” A couple of students are holding the school’s mascot (Sal the Salamander) and others are holding school pennants. 

Additional Images:

  1. A closeup of Amy with a big smile and wearing dark-rimmed eyeglasses. Her blond hair parted in the center and she has on a black cold-shoulder top.
  2. Amy and five other Salus University O&M students are posed standing with white canes.
  3. Gallery of six photos:
    1. As part of her O&M training, Amy is approaching a set of escalators with her white cane as several onlookers watch. 
    2. Amy is standing on the upper level of a mall next to the railing with her white cane.
    3. This image is a couple of students doing O&M travel on the street.
    4. A photo of three people demonstrating O&M on a wooded pathway.
    5. Amy is kneeling next to a lovely dog who appears to be smiling. 
    6. A picture of Amy and four other students wearing white polos at Seeing Eye Guide Dog Training.
  4. Eight students (including Amy) are posing with three guide dogs. The three guide dogs are sitting on the floor with two students kneeling next to them while the others stand.  
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Pushing Boundaries: Supporting Independence of Visually Impaired People

Featured Image Description is in the body of the post

Pushing Boundaries: Supporting Independence of Visually Impaired People

“I asked him what he envisioned for his future…“I don’t know. I think I will always be with somebody”, he said.”

~Kassy Maloney
Pushing Boundaries: Supporting Independence Image of Kassy is described in the body of the post.
Kassy Maloney

“I… I just don’t like to talk about it”, my student told me. It was our first Orientation and Mobility (O&M) class together. He was about 15 years old with the degenerative eye condition, Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP).

For people with RP, there is a significant chance that they will eventually lose most of their vision. Vision is worse at night, often resulting in night blindness before losing their peripheral fields.

As we sat facing one another in the principal’s conference room, I asked him what he envisioned for his future. His once jolly smile turned into a saddened face. He looked down and suddenly began avoiding eye contact.

“I don’t know, I think I will always be with somebody”, he said. Describing what he thought his night-time travel needs might look like in 10 years.

“Even as an adult?”, I probed.

Here I was, a stranger without a visual impairment, trying desperately to casually bring up the forbidden “C” word; CANE.

There have been many of these instances in my career. I’m a person who doesn’t have a visual impairment, and yet I am pushing boundaries. Their boundaries. The boundaries of what they think they can do; the boundaries of what their family members think they can do. Sometimes I even push the boundaries of the perceptions of what their community members think they can do.

It’s my job to push the boundaries of my students’ independence level and get them out of their comfort zone. That does not come without its own fair share of push-back.

Stradling the Fence of Independence & Pushing Boundaries

Supporting the independence of people with visual impairments when you are not blind yourself is a delicate balance. A balance between knowing when to push those boundaries, and knowing when to sit quietly. When we are new to our students we are still outsiders who have not yet earned their trust.

We know that even though we have no pity for anyone, our sympathy is not empathy. We don’t actually know what it is like to live with a visual impairment every single moment of the day.

Kassy Malone

President Roosevelt once said, “Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care”.

Reminders For O&M Instructors

When we aren’t blind ourselves, we must remember a few things when supporting the independence of people with visual impairments:

  • We must remember everybody goes through cycles where they’re dealing with the stages of grief. Even those who have been blind since birth. 
    • We also must remember the student and their loved ones may be on different parts of this cycle at any given time.
  • We must remember that building relationships and trust can take a long time.
    • When we only see a student once a month, this can take a lot of persistence to overcome. We are outsiders coming into their inner circle. Sometimes the pushback we receive is simply because we haven’t yet proven our worthiness.
  • Most of all, we must remember while we’re both cheerleaders and coaches to our students’ independence, we’re NOT the quarterbacks. We cannot do the work for them.
    • We can teach them the skills. We can coach them to make that big play. We can cheer them on from the sidelines. We can even get their water-filled after the game.

BUT, we cannot make the moves for them. Ultimately, this is THEIR independence; not ours.

Reminders For Students & Clients

To our students and clients reading this, there are things for you to remember, too:

  • Remember that we care.
    • Each and every O&M Specialist in this field care about each and every one of you. We may be pushy. We may be bold in our attempts. And we may step on your toes. 

But overall, it is out of a deep sense of caring for you and your independence.

For most of us, the privilege of sight is actually a burden in our careers. We know that even though we have no pity for anyone, our sympathy is not empathy. We don’t actually know what it is like to live with a visual impairment every single moment of the day.

It is our joy to help support the independence of people with visual impairments. And it’s our passion to see every person with a visual impairment live their most independent, successful, and fulfilled lives.

I hope this gives some insight into how we try to support the independence of people with visual impairments. Leave a comment and share your story.
I would love to hear your thoughts on this subject!

Pushing Boundaries Featured Image Description:

Kassy during an O&M session is walking behind her student who is learning to navigate with the white cane. Both brunettes with shoulder-length hair are casually dressed in jeans and flats. Kassy is wearing a black tank top and her student is wearing a green top. Some green foliage and city buildings can be seen in the background. It looks like they just came down a set of cement stairs.

Additional Image:

Kassy is smiling while sitting in a chair with her left arm casually propped against the chair’s back. She is wearing a black cami with a rose-colored skirt and gold medallion around her neck. 

Connecting With Kassy: