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Published: Wednesday, 8/10/2011

Low-vision organization focuses on members' abilities

Paul Rachow, one of the six organizers of the support group in 2005, uses a magnifier to study his notes for the meeting at the Holland branch library. Paul Rachow, one of the six organizers of the support group in 2005, uses a magnifier to study his notes for the meeting at the Holland branch library.

When Kathy Fink goes bowling, she can't see the pins.

"I just know where they are," said the Maumee resident, who averages about 145 on the lanes. Besides bowling, she does couponing, sometimes spending three or four hours on a shopping trip at a local store, and she likes playing card games on her home computer.

On a recent morning, Mrs. Fink and her husband, Thomas, gathered at the Holland Branch Library with other members of a support group for people who have low vision.

Mrs. Fink, who will be 64 in September, could only see black spots after she woke up following eye surgery in 2003.

"I was bitter for a week or so," she said, and then she decided it was time to get on with her life, even if it took her an hour to make the bed that first time after losing much of her eyesight.

"She's remarkable. I'm proud of her," said her husband.

The Frog Town Low Vision Support Group, which meets at 10 a.m. on the first Wednesday of the month at the Holland library, 1032 South McCord Rd., includes many remarkable people.

The group's purpose is to maximize the independence of people with low vision through education and support.

Paul Rachow, who was one of the six organizers of the group in 2005, said some of the 30 members are "totally blind and some are just starting to have vision problems."

Five percent of Americans have low vision, and the number is growing; low vision means a person has trouble seeing and his or her eyesight cannot be corrected with regular glasses, contact lenses, surgery, or medication, according to information provided by the support group.

During their meetings, members share stories about how they overcome obstacles and how they see themselves as abled, not disabled.

Members joke and banter like a family group around a holiday dinner table. These are people who delight in the fellowship and the friendship at the heart of the support organization.

That's not to say that everything is peachy. It's not to say that the members haven't faced dark days.

Mr. Rachow said that too often, people lose their sight and then their friends and relatives as well.

It happened to him, he said. "Friends of 40 years do not answer your phone calls. They do not go to lunch with you anymore. When you go to church, the seats around you are empty."

People sometimes are uncomfortable being around those with low vision, Mr. Rachow said, and because of that, they avoid contact.

Feeling accepted, feeling a part of a group where people are compassionate and understanding has kept Cynthia Taylor of West Toledo coming back month after month.

Kathy Fink of Maumee, who suffered severe loss of vision after eye surgery in 2003, uses the low-vision computer station at the Holland branch library as directed by branch manager Linda Kerul. Kathy Fink of Maumee, who suffered severe loss of vision after eye surgery in 2003, uses the low-vision computer station at the Holland branch library as directed by branch manager Linda Kerul.

"I keep coming because the meetings and the people here are a lot of fun. I like to be with them socially, and the meetings are always very informative."

During the meeting last week, she was recognized as the newest member, or "new Frogger," and she was given a club frog lapel pin. She has been legally blind since 2006.

Club members said they like meeting at the Holland library where specialized computer software and equipment assist their use of the Internet.

Character labels on the keyboard are larger than on standard machines, as is text on the computer screen.

"We are testing this out to see how it works," said Linda Kerul, branch manager.

Other library users are welcome to use the low-vision computer workstation, she said.

She said "there is a need" for other libraries in the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library system to offer the equipment.

Mr. Rachow, who lives near Holland, said, "We want to get the word out about the low-vision computer so it could be made available in other libraries, and that would give others the independence we have." He has had low vision since 2004.

As the meeting continued, talk turned to brushing teeth ... not their teeth, but the teeth of assistance dogs.

And the members talked about keeping the dogs' weight under control so that the canine companions "can go the distance with you," remarked Cathy Painter of Maumee, who attended the meeting with her dog, Chad Boy, and her husband, Allen.

Her vision has been affected by retinitis pigmentosa, and in the early 1980s, she was having trouble seeing traffic lights. By March, 1985, she failed the field test when she went to renew her driver's license. In June that year, she said, "I was told I was going to go blind and I was told there was nothing they could do to stop it from happening."

Married for 40 years, Mrs. Painter enjoys the camaraderie at the support group meetings. "It's the people here. It's about the friendship and the fellowship here," she said. "We all have something in common. We've all had our bump."

Her bump in the road led her to her church, where, she recalled, "I would cry and cry and cry."

How, she wondered as she wept, could she possibly continue to take care of the house while her husband, the breadwinner, continued to work? How, she wondered, could she possibly cope with the loss of her friends who acted as though she had just dropped over dead?

But then it dawned on her. "For everyone, there is always something. Nobody ever has a smooth road," she said.

She said she asked herself "What do I do now?" and found the answers to go on with her life, knowing that not only would she survive, she would thrive.

She sometimes gets bruises on her knees. Her husband leaves chairs out, instead of pushed in, and she bumps into them. "She's not handicapped to me at our house," he said, and that's why he forgets from time to time to put the chairs away where Mrs. Painter won't run into them.

Charter members of the group include Shirley and Ron Thompson of Toledo; she has macular degeneration, and they agree that strong spousal support is key to making the transition to a life with low vision.

The Toledo area has other low-vision support groups, said Monica Drouillard, rehabilitation counselor with the Ohio Rehabilitation Services Commission, who attends the Frog Town group's meetings.

But, she said, "this seems like the largest and most active group."

Area residents who are interested in attending the Frog Town Low Vision Support Group can contact Mr. Rachow or his wife, Jan, at frogtowngroup2020@sbcglobal.net.

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