Perhaps you’ve seen people with canes and accompanied by guides navigating the streets of Forest Park. These are patients and staff members from Hines Hospital’s Blind Rehabilitation Center. They’ve found that Forest Park provides the perfect training ground to teach patients orientation and mobility.

Hines is the birthplace of blind rehabilitation for veterans. The program started there in 1948 and is still on the leading edge. Five years ago, a new 34-bed facility was built on the hospital’s sprawling campus. The building serves as a dormitory and training facility for patients undergoing rehabilitation.

It has a college atmosphere, with patients taking six classes a day during their stay, which typically lasts four weeks. They learn basic living skills like cooking; using a telephone and labeling clothes to make sure they match. They craft products like furniture, ceramics and woven goods. Computer skills and visual skills are taught. Patients also learn how to maneuver with a white cane.

Training begins inside the facility, until the patient is ready to explore the hospital’s 147-acre campus. This includes traversing the congested corridors of the half-mile long main hospital building. After they achieve competence on campus, staff members drive them to Forest Park.

They park in front of a randomly chosen house, which becomes the patient’s “home.” From this base, they explore the residential areas of Forest Park. Patients learn to maneuver down sidewalks with their long canes. Our town is ideal for training, because it’s very pedestrian friendly. Motorists are used to people walking and are respectful to the patients and their guides.

After the patient becomes comfortable on quiet streets, they progress to Madison Street. Guides give them the assignment of walking from their “home” to a business such as a hardware store, or bakery, the latter being easier for them to find. The auditory traffic signals on Madison are a great help to the patients.

The “final exam” for patients in the mobility program is to find their way downtown to Macy’s, where they are rewarded with lunch. Guides shadow the patients during these journeys and intervene only when necessary.

Staff members are proud of their service to veterans and project a positive attitude that permeates the program. They treat patients from age 19 to 95, but most are in their 70s. Of the estimated 155,000 visually impaired veterans in this region, only 48,000 have taken advantage of the rehabilitation program.

The facility also helps young veterans who have recently lost their sight in combat. One of these, Steve Baskis, was a star pupil. Steve lost his sight last year in Iraq. Thanks to the skills he’s learned at Hines, Steve is running the Chicago Marathon on Oct. 11. Next week, I’ll tell you Steve’s story and his fond recollections of living in the town where he relearned how to find his way around.