Blind veterans learn new skills at Charlie Norwood VA center

Walking the straightest line from point A to point B sometimes requires help from an adept teacher and a handy white 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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