To anyone unaware of the situation, it looks like Sofaia Kreider is simply taking a brisk walk, following a very determined man. But at closer quarters, it’s clear something more complex is happening.
This is no ordinary walk but a training session. This is no ordinary man but Vietnam-era Army veteran William Taite of Bellwood. And Kreider isn’t window-shopping: She is training Taite in the use of a specially-designed Trekker Breeze GPS unit.
Taite, who is blind, is enrolled in the Veterans Administration’s Orientation and Mobility course. He has already mastered the use of his white cane and, with Kreider’s help, is tackling the GPS unit, which enables him to plot a route – on foot or in a vehicle – and keep track of each intersection and the direction he is headed at all times. And Taite, 67, is very good at it. Kreider marvels at his impressive innate sense of direction.
Taite, who lost his sight to diabetes and glaucoma seven years ago, initially balked at the idea of taking his first course at Hines VA Hospital.
“I thought I didn’t need it,” he said. But after undergoing the six-week Life Skills training, “I realized I could regain a lot of my independence.” Taite doesn’t talk much, but when asked about the Blind Rehabilitation programs at Hines, he grows enthusiastic.
The Life Skills course, designed to teach sight-impaired veterans just how much they can actually do for themselves, includes not only basics like cane-use and cooking, but fun activities, some of which the vets never did when they had their sight but thoroughly enjoy once exposed to them. Vets participating in the program have regular recreation outings: They play golf, go sailing, bowling, even horseback-riding. Another popular option is visiting a riverboat casino.
There are also workshops on how to handle fearful or overly-solicitous family members. Yes, these vets can cook up their own meals with no danger, and are more than capable of going solo in most situations. Taite’s wife Jolean was, he says, initially skeptical about the training, but she relaxed once she saw he was indeed able to function safely on his own. The rehabilitation program sponsors a two-day family orientation for vets to show off their skills.
The program is open to all U.S. military veterans, but, says Gerald Schutter, the VA’s Blind Rehabilitation Service director, “there are over 150,000 legally-blind veterans, but only 50,000 come in for training. The other 100,000 don’t know they are eligible.” There are 13 VA centers serving the blind across the country.
“Though our program was begun in 1948, it is still a well-kept secret,” Schutter said. “We teach life skills to let people take back control of their own lives and do what they want to do. Many people just give up when doctors tell them, ‘There’s nothing more we can do to help you.’ They focus only on what they can’t do. But here we treat the whole person.”
The practical skills they learn, along with the bonding with fellow vets, brings a new interest in life to many participants. Many return on alternate years for a reunion of their cohort of around 35 participants.
Schutter pointed out that his department “wrote the national training program on the use of high-tech for the blind,” adding that “people don’t realize the iPhone is more accessible to the blind than any other phone.” They pioneered use of the Trekker Breeze since 2001, said Kreider.
The program also has fans outside the VA: the Chicago Public Schools has adopted it for use with sight-impaired school kids.
Schutter, whose department has nine blind staff members, said, “I was just in front of Congress a couple of weeks ago with a 2nd lieutenant who served in Afghanistan, who told me, ‘I was the first blind person I ever met.’ But after training at the VA, he met and bonded with others in the same situation and concluded, ‘They gave me my life back.'”
Schutter says family members regularly say, “He’s his old self again” once their vet has returned from training, armed with new skills and confidence.
Trainer Sofaia Kreider, who studied at Western Michigan University, is proud that she now works in the place where her college program originated: the Blind Rehabilitation Program at Hines. She calls it “my dream job.” Asked what he thinks of Kreider, Taite gives a big grin and pronounces her work “Outstanding – she’s the best.”
At the end of their walk – from Circle and Madison up to the Blue Line station – Kreider conferred briefly with her star student. She asked Taite, “Are you ready? You have to catch the bus for this next segment.” Taite nodded, then headed off on his own at a brisk pace.