Do you see what I see?

By Carol Farnsworth, client, supporter & past ABVI Board Chair

I love to take walks in the woods. But ever since I was lost in a woods as a toddler, I prefer to walk with a partner . That partner is my husband or daughter. As we walk we disturb the fauna. A squirrel will scamper across the path. A bird is singing on a low tree branch or a deer turns his tail flag as he runs away.

To be truthful I miss many of these animal antics. But when I am asked if I saw this or that movement I hesitate to say what I really see. One day I had the courage to admit I didn’t see the particular animal . But I went on to inform what exactly I did see.

See that large shape by the tree? It looks like a bear digging for roots. And over there by the split rail fence is a brown shape that is close to a deer trying to decide if he should watch us or run. I also see a branch of a low shrub shaking with a mother bird working on her nest. I was seeing all these things in my mind’s eye. My husband turned to me and stated that the mind can see better than the naked eye with a little imagination…

Summer in the City Students Volunteer and Learn

Summer in the City (SITC) 2019, a summer experience for blind and visually impaired students, was filled with new adventures! The students met a variety of community organizations along the way. They experienced volunteerism by donating their time and talents to the Humane Society of West Michigan, Equest Center, Kids Food Basket and Roanoke Ranch.

The students were also able to explore the city via kayaking and the city bus. One SITC student summed up our program stating, “I liked volunteering everywhere and helping other people because I had never done that before. I also liked meeting new friends and hanging out with them!” Fostering volunteers for life!

Healthy Habits to Prevent Macular Degeneration

Macular degeneration affects the eyesight of millions. Also called AMD, it is known for causing blurred central vision due to damage to the macula – a small area at the back of the eye. Currently, there is no cure. Age is a known risk factor that eye care professions often use to determine a patient’s likelihood of developing AMD. The disease is most likely to occur after age 60, according to the National Eye Institute.

“People who had more birthdays are the ones more susceptible”, says Julie Rosenthal, M.D., a Kellogg Eye Center retina specialist. It’s also more common in women and whites.” Dr. Rosenthal shared some healthy habits to help prevent AMD: quit smoking, know your family history, eat leafy greens, take supplements, wear sunglasses, test yourself with an Amsler grid, maintain a healthy blood pressure and weight.

It’s Personal

Laura Armenta is the Founder of Armentality Movement Arts Center, a co-op for various artistic enterprises including dance, movement, meditation and yoga. So why does she spend her Friday mornings at ABVI teaching Yoga to clients? It’s personal.

“My grandmother, who raised me from age seven, taught me unconditional love, compassion, determination, history, knitting, cooking, assertiveness and everything positive that I have within me as a human. She gradually lost her sight. As a teen, I had no consideration of her tremendous daily effort to care for me. She passed when I was 17.”

About 10 years ago, Laura contacted ABVI. “Connecting with the Association was absolutely personal. I wanted to do for others what I regretfully never did for my loving Grandmother,” she said.

“She is and always will be with me.  I miss her.”

ABVI Social Worker John McEllron said, “Laura expressed a desire to help people with visual impairments experience the joy of art and movement. She tailors her instruction to each individual. She delights in being part of the blind community.”

Laura explained, “It took several months of learning to go from visual to verbal instruction, and work with other different abilities. Once a sequence of movement and flow was established, things started falling into place.”

Clients love the yoga classes.  One student said, “Yoga stretches the muscles, helps with balance and overall relaxation.  I enjoy it. Laura is a great teacher and great with instructions, which is important when you’re blind. She’s more than a teacher. She’s a friend. We laugh a lot, even in the middle of yoga poses!”

“It has evolved, Laura said. Here, we focus on making sure our mind and bodies are in true harmony. I enjoy learning from the students. We trust each other, we laugh, we learn together. My visually impaired friends have taught me how to SEE the world differently and act in compassion and in love.” 

Laura invites new participants to the group which meets on Fridays from 11:30 am to 12:30 pm at ABVI. “We’re always looking for new class members. This is ‘No Judgement’ zone.” There is a suggested $5.00 donation per class, but not necessary.

Thank you, Laura, for inspiring the lives of everyone around you! If you are interested in joining the Friday morning yoga, call the office at 616-458-1187.

Summer in the City 2019

students visiting Herman Miller

Summer in the City is a unique summer program in which students ages 14-20 who are blind or visually impaired can meet and create friendships
with their peers from surrounding Michigan cities. Together, they explore various experiences throughout West Michigan.

The program combines volunteer/hobby exploration, cooking skills, leadership development, and city bus exposure to set up the foundations for future job/volunteer opportunities. Students will meet in Grand Rapids Monday-Thursday from 9 AM -3 PM during the last two weeks in June (June 17-20 and June 24-27). The program is provided to the students at no cost.

For more information contact your BSBP counselor or the Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired (e-mail

** Students who are not current clients of the Bureau of Services for Blind Persons (BSBP) need to sign up with the Bureau. Please contact Rachel Kelley (Ottawa and Kent County referrals) or 616-356-0186 Karyn Silky (Muskegon county referrals) 616-356-0185

Ocular Photography

If you’re going to the eye doctor, either for a routine exam or an existing issue, you should expect to have photos taken of your eyes.

Those images, after all, are a key part of preventive care. They can help your ophthalmologist look for problems — and, if any are detected, to diagnose an issue and monitor it (or pursue treatment).

The tools offer valuable insight: “This technology can see things that we can’t,” says Timothy Steffens, director of imaging and information systems at the University of Michigan Kellogg Eye Center.

Some methods capture the surface and surrounding areas of the eyes; others go deeper to survey the inside and back of the eye.

Each type of ocular photography is quick and simple. None require special preparation or involve any pain for the recipient, Steffens notes. Patients, he adds, needn’t be scared.

Attitude is Everything

No one knows what might happen in the future.  Our lives can change in an instant. And no one knows this better than Margie Boersma of Holland, Michigan.

On June 8, 2017, Margie lost her balance at the top of her stairs. She fell to the bottom and suffered several traumatic injuries. She had no memory until July 22 of that year.

When Margie understood the extent of her injuries, she knew she had lost her sight.  She went home from Mary Free Bed on August 11, 2017, and she and her husband Tim looked for help.

Margie found the Association for the Blind & Visually Impaired (ABVI) on the internet. “I didn’t know what to expect,” she admitted. “ABVI came to our house. They were great, and brought different kinds of devices to try.”

ABVI set Margie up with a free audio book subscription and audio book reader. She listened to “No Barriers,” by Erik Weihenmayer, a blind man who kayaked the Grand Canyon and was also the first blind man to climb to the top of Mt. Everest. It was inspiring.

Margie told herself, “OK. You need to get used this. You can’t see. What are you going to do with yourself? Attitude is everything!”  Tim was very supportive.

As a long time traveler, Margie felt Braille would be a very good skill to have. “I wanted to learn enough to know which elevator button to push, or to find my hotel room among other things,” she said.  She called ABVI once more.

Margie said, “Rachel (certified vision rehabilitation therapist) was eager to help and scheduled a home visit right away.”

Margie and Rachel have regular sessions together during which Rachel helps her understand the braille code. “Rachel is absolutely wonderful!  She helped me gain reference by telling me how to think of the code,” Margie said.

Margie and Tim recently went skiing at Challenge Mountain in Boyne Falls, MI, a resort that caters to those with low vision or blindness, and others who are differently abled.  “We loved it, she said.”

Margie is also traveling to Rochester, MI, to train with and receive a leader dog.

An avid kayaker for many years, she said, “Tim and I are going to try tandem kayaking this summer.”  Her greatest advice for those diagnosed with low vision or blindness? “Don’t sit in a chair. Learn how to live your life!”  She is walking the talk.

Celebrating Staff Member, Charis Austin

Meet Client Advocate Charis Austin.  Charis recently celebrated her 40th anniversary with the Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired (ABVI)!  

Over the years Charis has passionately advocated for services on behalf of individuals with visual impairments. Among Charis’s many advocacy efforts:

  • Charis was instrumental getting legislation passed that led to the creation of The Michigan Commission for the Blind, the predecessor to Bureau of Services for Blind Persons (BSBP), which helps people who are legally blind become employed.  
  • Early in her career with ABVI, upon hearing that the Transit Authority was considering ending GO!Bus service due to budget constraints, Charis went to the public hearing and read a statement (in braille) explaining that, if the GO!Bus was ended,  she would have to quit her job as the cost of a cab was too great. Realizing that there would be many others who would be similarly impacted, The Transit Authority decided to keep the service. Today Charis sits on the board of The Rapid, continuing to be a strong advocate for those with visual impairments.
  • Locally Charis is also on the Kent County Disaster Mental Health & Human Services Committee to ensure that Emergency Preparedness training is inclusive to the blind and low vision community.
  • Throughout her years at ABVI, Charis has helped countless individuals with visual impairments find the services they require, from how to find financial assistance for obtaining needed equipment to adapting into the community.  Her connections locally and throughout the state are extensive and if she cannot give someone a direct answer, she will know someone who can. Her passion is contagious, and she is excited when other people join advocacy efforts.

Ask about her work and she will say, “It’s a matter of survival. It goes with anything you are passionate about.  You advocate for what you need or what you will lose. And it will also benefit the community.”

Charis, we are so fortunate you are a part of our ABVI family! If you have a question for Charis, reach her at

Future Vision: Research for Treatments

Glaucoma treatment

In a first for glaucoma treatment, the Kellogg Eye Center is among the first eye centers in the country to use a tiny tube, implanted in the eye, to preserve vision. In a first for glaucoma treatment, the Kellogg Eye Center is among the first eye centers in the country to use a tiny tube, implanted in the eye, to preserve vision. Millions of Americans have glaucoma, a group of diseases that can damage the optic nerve. Open-angle glaucoma is the most common form of glaucoma. When fluid builds up, the pressure inside the eye rises to a level that may damage the optic nerve.  If left untreated, glaucoma will cause a slow but steady loss of vision. Millions of Americans have glaucoma, a group of diseases that can damage the optic nerve. Open-angle glaucoma is the most common form of glaucoma. When fluid builds up, the pressure inside the eye rises to a level that may damage the optic nerve.  If left untreated, glaucoma will cause a slow but steady loss of vision. The XEN® Gel Stent creates an opening between the inside of the eye and the eye’s outer layer to allow fluid to drain, potentially decreasing pressure in the eye. This helps preserve vision by reducing intraocular pressure to a normal level. It’s a part of the advent of minimally invasive glaucoma surgery (MIGS) devices to help adults with mild-to-moderate glaucoma. It’s a part of the advent of minimally invasive glaucoma surgery (MIGS) devices to help adults with mild-to-moderate glaucoma.

UofM’s W.K. Kellogg Eye Center and ABVI have a new alliance to improve access and rehabilitation services for individuals who are visually impaired.

Asking for Accommodations

I had just signed up for a conference for social workers and the online registration form listed potential accommodations that were made available to attendees. There were options for “vegans/vegetarians”, “ASL Interpreter”, and “Other”. Next to the “Other” category, there was a note that indicated a phone number to call if I needed “Other” accommodations.

After being redirected a few times, I finally reached the person who was in charge of the conference and the “Other” accommodation section. I gave her my name, told her that I had signed up for the conference, and asked if I could get materials in large print. She asked, “What do you mean, ‘large print?'”, and I rattled off an example: “Like, if there are worksheets or other supplemental materials, or if there’s a PowerPoint; if I could have that printed off in advance to have at my desk. I’m legally blind, so, like, 18 point font works best.”

Note: I didn’t have to tell her that I am legally blind, but it kind of just came out in my rush to explain to her exactly what I need. (See what I mean when I say that I don’t always get this whole “reasonable accommodations” thing?)  However, I was clear and specific in what I was asking for. What I needed was a printed PowerPoint and anything else in 18 point font.

“Well, how will you read the manual that comes along with the class?” she asked, completely ignoring that I already told her specifically what I needed. Her tone was a bit challenging in nature.

This woman’s question about how I would read the manual totally threw me off guard because that wasn’t what I was asking about. I wasn’t asking for accommodations regarding the manual. I was asking for accommodations regarding a PowerPoint. I wish she would have asked, instead, “Do you need any accommodations in reading the manual?” because then I would have had told her that, no, I do not, thanks for asking, though.

When someone asks me “How” I am going to accomplish something because of my visual impairment, it makes me feel challenged — like they have preconceived notions and expectations that I am ultimately going to fail; as though they are the very first person to think about the “how” of a situation, and are educating and warning ME about my own limitations. It makes me feel like an “Other” — just like that little checkbox on the Accommodations section of the registration form!  A sassier part of me wanted to ask the woman on the phone, “How do you think I completed my Master’s degree, which is a prerequisite for this very training?” However, I stammered something of a response about using a magnifying glass and having the manual part already figured out for myself.

The woman on the phone seemed relieved and explained to me that she worked with another social worker who is blind. That social worker received all of her information on the computer because she had a screen reader that would provide audio of the text on the computer. The woman asked if I needed the PowerPoint sent to me electronically so that I could use a screen reader, too. I explained to her that my personal experience of vision loss isn’t one that uses a screen reader as an accessible tool, and I said that I would prefer printouts of the PowerPoint in a larger font.

It is in moments like these that I realize that still have so much to learn from one another, I think, when it comes to how we engage with those who have visual impairments. Not every experience of vision loss is the same, and not every accommodation will work for every person. That other social worker may use a screen reader; I prefer print-outs in large font or a screen magnifier for my computer (Magnified up to 300%!). Some people need lots of light in their workspace or home (me!); others with vision loss thrive in low-light settings. Some use a guide dog, some use a white cane, some prefer to navigate without those tools.

It’s important when asking for accommodations, to be as specific and clear as possible. You know your needs better than anyone– you live with your eyes every day! However, there may come a situation where you’re unsure of the assistance you need, and that’s ok, too. It can be frustrating, and sometimes discouraging, but I believe that the more we educate others through our daily lived experience of handling vision loss, the more we can change people’s fears and perceptions about what it means to love with this diagnosis, and the more we are better able to thrive in our communities.