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Braille Institute: Creating an organization that evolves with the community

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Richard Ybarra, executive director of the Braille Institute San Diego.

Braille Institute was founded in 1919 by J. Robert Atkinson, a Montana cowboy who was blinded as an adult after a gun accident. Through the last 95 years, thanks to the support of its generous donors, Braille Institute has grown from a sole focus of publishing books in braille to providing an unparalleled range of services that help tens of thousands of people primarily in Southern California, but also across the country. Specifically, Braille Institute San Diego has helped more than 8,000 area residents who are blind or visually impaired.

No doubt Atkinson would be proud of the impact made by Braille Institute today. Braille Institute is able to provide all of its services free of charge to all who seek assistance. Organization leaders have carefully expanded its programs to serve people who are visually impaired as well as people who are blind, and their families. Through the years, Braille Institute has developed an expertise and a welcoming community for people who are blind or visually impaired.

"In reflecting on Braille Institute’s nearly 100 years of service, like many healthy nonprofit and service organizations, we continue to engage in the constant process of renewal and change to ensure our programs are reflective of the evolving needs of the communities we serve," says Richard Ybarra, Executive Director, Braille Institute San Diego.

Today, the majority of Braille Institute students and clients still have some vision, but their sight loss has progressed to a point that regular eye glasses no longer help them. Many Braille Institute students/clients are learning how to cope or live more fulfilling lives despite their vision loss, which is most commonly due to progressive ocular diseases such as glaucoma, macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy and retinitis pigmentosa.

As medicine and technology have evolved, so has Braille Institute.

Today, Low Vision Consultations are often the first step many adults take when coming to Braille Institute. These one on one consultations are provided by Braille Institute specialists who take the time to understand their particular needs and demonstrate and recommend assistive devices such as special lighting, magnification devices and other visual aids. They also introduce clients to iPads, apps and other computer technology which have proven helpful for many people who have vision loss. The goal is to help the client make the most of their remaining vision and to educate them on the vast array of resources available to them either at Braille Institute or other organizations such as the Department of Rehabilitation.

One example of Braille Institute’s efforts to address the ever-evolving needs of people who are blind or visually impaired is the creation of new technology centers called Connection Pointe. At Connection Pointe, free demonstrations and individual instructions are provided on all of the latest mainstream and adaptive devices, including tablets, voice output software and much more. This program was created as part of the Braille Institute Digital Literacy initiative to help people with no or low vision learn how common devices like smart phones, iPads and handheld digital magnifiers can help them stay connected to the world around them.

"Contrary to what many people think, mobile technology can make a huge difference in the life of someone who is blind or visually impaired," says Ybarra. "Just as Braille Institute has built a strong leadership position in braille literacy though our nationally recognized programs for children, we are determined to replicate this success in the area of digital literacy. Given the accelerating use of technology, we know it is imperative for Braille Institute to continue investing in this area. We are creating programs so that our students can use technology to achieve their social, academic and professional goals."

In addition to Low Vision Consultations and Connection Pointe technology programs, adults who have sight loss can take advantage of a myriad of free classes which are offered in both English and Spanish. Adults who are blind or visually impaired can learn to regain confidence in the kitchen, stay connected through technology, get around town or travel the world, rediscover fun and fitness through leisure activities and express their creativity through art classes.

Whether through Braille Institute classes, the free audio-book and braille Library program — which serves more than 30,000 people — or outreach presentations that bring Braille Institute programs and services into the community, Braille Institute leaders, volunteers, donors, staff, students and clients stand ready to champion the best ways to serve those who seek support.

"Braille Institute is about more than just braille," Avimael Villagas, a San Diego Braille Institute student, so aptly observes. Villagas recently traveled from San Diego to the Braille Institute headquarters in Los Angeles to meet others and hear from organizational leaders. During the many presentations, he heard the unwavering message from Braille Institute leadership that the organization is built on the passions and expertise of its volunteers, donors, staff, students and clients.

At Braille Institute, we demonstrate that vision loss is not the end of independence, but the beginning of a new way of living. Our free services help people of all ages learn practical skills and techniques.

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For more information about Braille Institute San Diego, call 1-800-BRAILLE or visit BrailleInstitute.org.

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