Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Blind Florida attorney decides to give back and runs new blindness organization

From the Naples News in Florida:

The texture of the concrete wall is different to the touch outside the Bayfront Place office where David Weigel (pictured) now spends much of his time.

The door handle of a nearby restaurant is shaped like a bunch of grapes. Walking past other storefronts, tapping his white cane for the blind left and right, left and right, he reaches a garbage receptacle that tells him he must take two steps down to the sidewalk.

Drawing upon orientation skills acquired in the past two years and innate determination, Weigel walks along the Gordon River boardwalk near Bayfront Inn to reach the sidewalk on U.S. 41 East. He draws upon the sensations felt through his shoes and how he gets closer to the sounds of traffic.

At the intersection of Goodlette-Frank Road, he listens to the sequence of cars turning left and turning right, until he knows when pedestrians can enter the intersection to cross the six lanes of traffic.

“I approach any walk as a bit of an adventure,” he said. “It’s always a feeling of accomplishment when one can achieve the destination.”

The 61-year-old former Collier County government attorney is tackling a myriad of obstacles since losing his eyesight. Simultaneously, he’s at the helm of a relatively new nonprofit organization, Lighthouse of Collier Inc., to help the visually impaired and blind in the community.

A handful of fundraisers provided a basis for Lighthouse to launch and begin providing some basic services. The nonprofit was incorporated in May 2009, and received its federal tax-exempt status as a nonprofit in August. So far, about a half-dozen people have tapped Lighthouse for services.

“We have cast out a net for persons visually impaired and blind,” Weigel said recently at Lighthouse’s donated office space in Bayfront Place. “We hope people will call and ask any questions. People can come here for training and camaraderie and use this as a learning place.”

Lighthouse can offer socialization assistance to parents of children with vision loss and blindness and vice versa, he said.

By some estimations, 14,000 residents in Collier have significant vision impairment. Because of Collier’s aging population, the numbers are likely to climb, he said.

Lighthouse also is networking with the Visually Impaired Persons of Southwest Florida Inc., headquartered in North Fort Myers, until it can branch out into “hard services” such as orientation and mobility training. Those services are still available in Collier by VIP, which has served Lee and Collier since 1974.

A big chunk of VIP’s funding comes from the state’s Division of Blind Services, Lee County government and the Lee County United Way. Lighthouse needs private support in Collier, said Doug Fowler, executive director of VIP.

“Right now, government funding is on the decline and private fundraising has to pick up the difference,” Fowler said.

Lighthouse is working with Collier government agencies, namely the Supervisor of Elections Office for secret voting machines for the visually impaired and blind, and with the county’s Department of Transportation to install audible signals at certain intersections, Weigel said.

“It’s not a magic bullet but it provides another guidepost for when to cross with the traffic patterns,” he said.

* * *

While growing up in Indianapolis, Weigel suffered an accident at 13 that resulted in his losing sight in his left eye.

“With one eye remaining, adaptation was almost seamless,” he said.

He played tennis and baseball but avoided contact sports. His friends didn’t treat him differently, even when he needed surgery to receive a prosthetic eye.

After law school at Tulane University in New Orleans, he returned to Indianapolis and worked in the civil court system until an opportunity came to work in Europe for two years.

He returned to Indianapolis in 1977 and worked in the Indiana Attorney General’s Office. He moved to Naples in 1983 and spent two years in private practice before joining the Collier County Attorney’s Office, becoming the fourth attorney in the office.

In 2003, he started to have hemorrhaging in his right eye that would temporarily disrupt his vision; in time he suffered a retina detachment. Surgery caused a second detachment that compromised his vision to a moderate degree.

“You cope with prayer and support from family and friends and colleagues as well,” he said. “I would read, it just changed over time and I had to use a magnifying glass.”

In 2007 with his vision deteriorating, he began receiving mobility and orientation training from VIP.

“I resisted this early and did not want to come to grips that this would be my life,” he said.

His orientation specialist, Mike Brust, started teaching him how to get from his office to the elevator in the government center and later to the outside snack bar in the complex of government buildings in East Naples.

“He looked at me like I was out of my mind,” Brust recalled of the snack bar destination. “Now the man can walk miles. David is very gutsy. He is not afraid to get lost and if he does, he knows how to solicit help.”

Brust has worked with Weigel for two years.

Weigel learned how to get to the CAT bus line outside the government center, to get to the nearby Walmart store in East Naples, and to walk around his neighborhood. He is learning to cross U.S. 41 N. at Pine Ridge Road to get to the CVS store at the intersection.

“I haven’t done it absolutely alone,” he said. “It takes a lot of concentration.”

He has not taken a CAT bus home yet from Bayfront but he can when the time arrives. He also knows there is a CAT line to the Golden Gate Community Center where the Collier County Association for the Blind has programs.

Weigel has been trained to use a computer without a mouse with the help of an audible program for computer navigating. He has learned to use kitchen equipment, even to do some cooking.

“I can make great scrambled eggs,” he said. “We learn how to fold money so we are less dependent or vulnerable on daily commerce.”

Orientation and mobility training takes memorization and motivation, said Brust, the specialist working with Weigel. They usually work twice a week for two-hour lessons.

“He has come a long way,” Brust said, adding that the mobility training is the only way someone visually impaired or blind can gain independence.

The biggest challenge for the visually impaired are drivers, and today the driving public is getting crazier and crazier, he said. That disrupts the ability for the blind and visually impaired to be independent.

Brust has been a mobility specialist for 20 years, having been married to a blind person. His training involved being blindfolded for four hours a day for a semester while working on his master’s degree.

Intelligence and motivation for successful orientation and mobility training are critical, along with what level of independence an individual wants, he said.

“You truly cannot do anything if you can’t navigate your world,” Brust said. “Nothing is possible if you don’t know how to get up and travel as a blind individual. It is absolutely the definition of independence.”

Among Weigel’s destination goals is Fifth Avenue South, where he used to enjoy the restaurants but hasn’t been for a while.

“There’s no reason why they can’t be somewhat every day places again,” he said.