Counting the visually impaired

January 8, 2001

Heather Heilman

There may be 20,000 blind and visually impaired people in New Orleans and the surrounding five-parish area. Then again, there may be many more.

"Nobody knows," said Ann Butcher. "We know the rate of blindness is on the increase nationally, and based on national statistics we probably have about 20,000 affected people here, but because we have an unusually high rate of diabetes and other health problems, it may be even higher."

Butcher, an assistant professor of health systems management, is the director of a joint project by the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine and the Lighthouse for the Blind in New Orleans. The goal of the project is to find out how many blind and visually impaired people there are in the area, and what kinds of services they most need. The blind often become invisible to the sighted community.

Lots of sighted people, for example, trip over New Orleans' treacherously uneven sidewalks. But few consider how hard it can be for the visually impaired to navigate the city's streets and sidewalks. "Many people have severe problems getting around," Butcher said. "You wouldn't know it because they don't always carry canes. But they're so visually impaired that they're legally blind. And a lot of blind people you never see at all because they're stuck in their houses. They never receive mobility training, they never learn Braille."

Butcher worked with Peter Fos, associate professor of health systems management, and students from the School of Public Health to develop a questionnaire and a survey unit. They've tried to get the word out through as many different media as possible, from public service announcements on television and radio to flyers distributed at grocery stores and shopping malls.

Blind and visually impaired people are asked to call in and participate in the survey. They can take the survey over the phone or a paper copy in regular or large print can be mailed to them. All responses are confidential. A phone bank at the Lighthouse for the Blind has been staffed since Oct. 23 and will be there until the end of February.

"The people who we've heard from so far have universally stated that they have trouble finding services," Butcher said. "The Lighthouse and other agencies want to provide new services, but in order to get funding they need to know what percentage of the population has a particular need. So the data we collect will be useful in trying to establish new services."

The Lighthouse currently employs approximately 60 blind people in light manufacturing, offers computer and job training, teaches mobility and organization skills, and does outreach work with visually impaired children in public schools. There are other agencies that offer training and services to the blind and visually impaired, but many people don't know how to find those services.

After the needs-assessment survey is completed, Butcher hopes to work on developing a clearinghouse hotline that will put callers in touch with the agency that offers the services they need. But some needs have barely even been addressed so far.

"One thing we've found out is that parents of blind children are really desperate," Butcher said. "They have a lot of trouble finding the right kind of education. There's a residential school for the blind in Ruston, La., and individual school systems usually have special education classrooms, but it's really limited."

That worries Butcher, because young blind people who don't get social services and career training can remain isolated and unemployed. But with good training and the use of new technology, a blind person can do almost anything a sighted person can do, Butcher said.

"Our survey unit coordinator is actually legally blind herself," Butcher noted. "And she does fine. She can do anything we can do."

Visually impaired people who want to make their voices heard are encouraged to respond to the Lighthouse survey by calling 897-3456 or, toll free, (866) 222-2229 for those outside the metropolitan area. As an incentive, every 10th caller will receive a sample of cleaning products manufactured by the Lighthouse, and at the end of the survey period, a drawing will be held to give away a talking thermometer and two stereo radios with compact disc players.

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000