January 19, 2015

Sgt. Shaft caricatureDear Sergeant Shaft,
I am a retired blind veteran and a patient at the Washington DC Veterans Medical Center.I am writing you to seek your help in getting the hospital to provide visually impaired veterans with the space, accommodations and staff they need to achieve the goal of physical and mental independence, self-esteem, and a desire to rejoin the world socially.

Since I have been a visually impaired patient at the Washington DC Medical Center, the staff supporting visually impaired veterans have had a clinic of its own only one time. For about two years, eight or nine years ago, the Vision Rehabilitation Clinic had a small space allocated for its use with a room for our living skills specialist, a room shared by the low vision specialist and Doctor Qwan our eye doctor, with the computer trainer and the orientation and mobility (O-AND-M) trainer sharing a cubical where they wrote their summaries of patient’s progress. The computer trainer had the use of a computer laboratory where he could work with three patients simultaneously and the O-and-M specialist worked with us inside and outside of the medical center. At that time, our Vision Rehabilitation Clinic was on the second floor and came under the leadership of Doctor Samuel Belkin in the eye clinic which was on the first floor. Our director’s office was also in the Eye Clinic, with Doctor Belkin because there was no space for her office in the Vision Rehabilitation Clinic. As time passed over the next few years, our small three room clinic was taken over by other services and we with our director were relocated to a series of other clinics whose main focus was decidedly not in the category of visual impairment. The Vision Rehabilitation Clinic with its staff and director are relocated without warning or notice and placed under the supervision of chiefs who care nothing about visually impaired people because vision is not their field of experience. Before the renovation we were told that a budget had been approved to create a working space for the Visual Rehabilitation Clinic above the hospital’s nursing home. To date, these plans and the budget seem to have disappeared.

Currently we are sharing space with the Physical Rehabilitation Clinic whose staff’s focus is also not in the field of visual impairment. We have no separate spaces for our rehabilitation specialists to meet with us individually for training, counseling, or to discuss our progress or lack of it in privacy. All of them except the computer trainer are located in one small room which the Physical Rehabilitation Clinic has designated to be used for blind and low vision consultations. This means that the low-vision specialist, the living skills specialist, and the O-and-M trainer are all in the same small room separated from each other by room dividers, but they are so close together that their conversations with their clients are not private. In other clinics in the medical center, a patient meets his/her doctor or specialist in private so that all aspects of the reason for the appointment can be discussed with the patient without being overheard by other people in the area. Patient’s privacy is greatly needed when a person meets with his/her health provider or rehabilitation professional – thus the need for the Vision Rehabilitation Clinic to have its own space.

The renovation of the atrium and other parts of the medical centers clinics and its environs were made without considering that visually impaired veterans are also treated in the hospital. Although many of us who are visually impaired were led to believe that the renovation would create a viable easily recognizable low-vision lane to replace the existing one which was removed during the renovation, it has not been done. No thought was given to the fact that a low-vision lane would be fundamental in assisting visually impaired veterans in their quest for independence and self-esteem in the hospital. The renovations took away the low vision lane which had been created by a former O-and-M specialist and a member of the hospital’s Patient’s Advocacy staff. Before the renovation, visually impaired patients were able to enter any of the hospital’s many entrances and go to the elevators or find our way to many parts of the hospital without sighted assistance once the O-and-m specialist had taught us to use the low vision land-marks. Currently, with help, we get pass the security guard and to the information desk where we must wait for escort service to guide us to our destination. Having to wait for assistance to get to our appointments leave us with a feeling of inadequacy, dependence on others, and very low self-esteem. In the past, we were able to use the low-vision lane to get to our health-care providers or rehabilitation specialists on our own. In the Washington DC Veteran’s Hospital visually impaired veterans are not treated with the same respect and dignity as are sighted veterans by the hospital’s administrators or many of its staff members. These sighted administrators and staff members don’t seem to realize that we lost our vision after adulthood and must learn new skills to successfully succeed as viable, productive human beings, and we may need a few extra tools to help us attain these skills.

During the renovation, touch-screen devices were placed in various locations throughout the hospital to direct patients to clinics and other locations within the hospital and to check them in with the time they arrived for an appointment. I sincerely hope you can use your influence to get working space for the Vision Rehabilitation Clinic under the supervision of the Eye Clinic and the hiring of a living skills specialist and an O-and-M trainer for its staff.

Sammie C
Retired blind veteran

Dear Sammie
I referred your missive to the Director of the VA Medical center in Washington DC. He assured me that he would look into your concerns.

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