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Blind veterans learn new skills at Charlie Norwood VA center

Monday, Jan. 30, 2012 7:09 PM
Last updated 10:44 PM
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Walking the straightest line from point A to point B sometimes requires help from an adept teacher and a handy white cane.

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Lauren O'Farrell, an orientation mobility specialist at the Blind Rehabilitation Center at the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center, helps teach Navy Lt. Brad Snyder, 27, of St. Petersburg, Fla., how to navigate crosswalks and streets in downtown Augusta by using a cane.   EMILY ROSE BENNETT/STAFF
Lauren O'Farrell, an orientation mobility specialist at the Blind Rehabilitation Center at the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center, helps teach Navy Lt. Brad Snyder, 27, of St. Petersburg, Fla., how to navigate crosswalks and streets in downtown Augusta by using a cane.

Navy Lt. Bradley Snyder, 27, lost his vision in September when he stepped on a roadside bomb. His left eye was removed and his right eye no longer functions.

But Snyder is determined to earn a master’s degree and doctorate, as well as swim in the paralympics. In mid-November, he began training at the Augusta Blind Rehabilitation Center at the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center to regain his independence.

“Yeah, I miss my vision. Sometimes, I wish I could just open my eyes and walk around a little bit easier. But you make a decision early on in the process to say, ‘This isn’t going to limit me.’ I just need to find new ways to do things,” he said.

Lauren O’Farrell trains Snyder and other blind and visually impaired military veterans to walk with a cane. As an orientation mobility specialist at the blind rehabilitation center, she helps patients master skills for their disability.

“Where am I, where am I going and how do I get there?” O’Farrell said of her goals for the patients.

Her patients range from older veterans who are losing their sight because of diseases such as glaucoma and diabetes, to young soldiers injured in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some soldiers, O’Farrell said, learn to use a cane quickly by applying skills they learned from their military service.

At the blind rehabilitation center, veterans also learn basic living skills, such as cooking, cleaning and using a computer. Recently, the staff has started incorporating smartphone applications and adaptive GPS devices for the blind and visually impaired.

O’Farrell customizes her training program for patients according to the environment in which they are most likely to live after rehabilitation. Some must learn how to navigate the sidewalks of a city street grid, while others need to adapt to more rural areas or a neighborhood without sidewalks.

“There’s nothing worse than being stuck at home and feeling like you can’t go where you want to go,” she said.

After beginning lessons indoors to help a patient navigate a bedroom and bathroom, O’Farrell walks with her patients on Augusta streets, frequently downtown or in Summerville.

On Monday, Snyder continued his training on Seventh Street. As he nears the end of his rehabilitation, he is preparing for a final test when O’Farrell will drop him off at a downtown location. He must find his way from one location to another using his newly acquired skills without his teacher’s help.

Blindness isn’t the only barrier Snyder and other patients overcome during training. Sidewalks throughout Augusta are broken, end abruptly or have strange slopes difficult for anyone – with or without disabilities – to navigate, O’Farrell said.

“I always tell my guys if they can make it in Augusta, they can make it anywhere,” she said.

During his Monday lesson, Snyder encountered several obstacles, including overgrown vegetation, restaurant tables on the sidewalk and a police car stopped in the crosswalk. Crosswalk buttons on newly installed Broad Street light poles weren’t working, either.

Still, Snyder navigated curbs, avoided light posts and weaved around tractor-trailers. Almost three months ago, when he checked into the rehabilitation center, Snyder didn’t dream of walking outside. Now, he’s almost ready to take his skills back to the city grid in St. Petersburg, Fla., his hometown.

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david jennings
david jennings 01/31/12 - 08:35 am
What a reminder how much we

What a reminder how much we owe our service men and women. Thank you Lt. Snyder and may God be with you, you are an inspiration, and thanks and admiration to Ms. O'Farrel for her dedication. I pray I will be ever mindful how much I have to be thankful for.

my.voice 01/31/12 - 11:56 am
Well said David. The mere

Well said David. The mere fact we can read this article is humbling.

countyman 01/31/12 - 12:55 pm


Skimeister 02/01/12 - 02:02 pm
Thank you for your service

Thank you for your service USN Lt. Snyder! Keep up the great work at the Augusta Blind Rehab Center! Great job, O&Mer, Lauren O'Farrel!
Every day, truly, miracles have been happening at the Augusta Blind Rehab Center for blinded veterans from WWII, Korea, Cold War, Vietnam, Gulf War I, and Iraq and Afganistan since its inception, December 1995 at the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center. Lives, truly have been turned around and changed for the better. Increased confidence, independence and safety is truly a priceless gift. Makes you appreciate what we have thanks to veterans honor and sacrifice.

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