Spokane Journal of Business

Returning independence to the visually impaired

Lilac Services provides client training, support in 14 INW counties

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-—Virginia Thomas
Vivian Huschke, vision rehab instructor at Lilac Services for the Blind, uses a talking label wand that enables visually impaired people to identify objects. Huschke is visually impaired herself.
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-—Natasha Nellis
Cheryl Martin, executive director of Lilac Services for the Blind, holds a photo taken during the nonprofit’s early days.
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For nearly 50 years, Spokane-based Lilac Services for the Blind has offered training, tools, and support for blind or visually impaired Eastern Washington residents.

“Often, when somebody becomes low vision or blind, they don’t realize what’s out there or what the possibilities are — that you can live independently, you can travel safely,” executive director Cheryl Martin says. “Life isn’t over when you lose your sight.”

Lilac Services for the Blind, located at 1212 N. Howard, has five full-time and four part-time employees, as well as 87 volunteers, based at the organization’s Spokane office. A satellite office in Wenatchee, staffed by one part-time employee, is open Mondays and Tuesdays. 

The nonprofit serves more than 900 clients in 14 counties east of the Cascades Mountains in Washington. Because most training is done in an individual’s home, Martin says she and the organization’s other instructors do a lot of traveling. 

Training typically takes several sessions, Martin says. An initial assessment visit establishes the client’s challenges and goals. From there, Martin and the organization’s other instructors work to help a client meet those goals by training them to navigate everyday situations such as getting around independently or cooking.

Training sessions also can include introducing clients to an array of high-tech and low-tech tools they can use.

Raised adhesive buttons are one of the more low-tech solutions Lilac Services offers.

“We mark sprinkler systems, washer and dryer dials, thermostats, irons, everything,” Martin says. “You can do things tactilely faster than trying to use the remaining vision you have.”

Other low-tech options include magnifying glasses, large print materials such as calendars, and tinted glasses for clients who have glaucoma.

Lilac Services’ certified orientation and mobility specialist teaches clients how to use a long white cane to navigate and to avoid obstacles. The organization also will help clients explore the option of getting a guide dog.

“In order to get a guide dog, you have to be able to travel independently and safely using a long white cane,” Martin explains. “We provide that instruction, then somebody from one of the guide dog schools comes out and tests the person. If they pass the test, then they can go on to get a guide dog.”

Only a small percentage of clients get a guide dog, Martin says. Many clients find that they don’t need a guide dog after they master use of the white cane.

The most notable change Martin has seen in her 32 years with Lilac Services for the Blind is the proliferation of high-tech tools for visually impaired people. 

Vivian Huschke, vision rehab instructor at Lilac Services, is visually impaired herself; Huschke says one device she’s found useful is a talking label wand. She demonstrates with a can of vegetable soup: Huschke sticks a small label embedded with a microchip to the top of the can and scans the label with the wand, which resembles a thick pencil. When the wand audibly prompts her, Huschke records her voice naming the contents of the can. When she presses the wand to the label, it plays back her recording. 

“You have to ask somebody to help you set it up, but then once it’s set up, it’s good for files, for food, for CDs, or for movies,” Huschke says.

To navigate her phone and computer, Huschke uses screen-reading software, which translates text into audible speech. Thanks to adaptability settings on phones and adaptive software, Huschke says people with visual impairments can do nearly everything sighted people do.

After Huschke received an Instant Pot pressure cooker for Mother’s Day, she used an app called Aira to connect with an agent with Aira Tech Corp., who guided her through the appliance’s instructions and settings by having Huschke use her phone’s camera to let the agent see the instruction booklet and appliance.

“I was able to have dinner ready by the time my husband came home,” she says.

Lilac Services also supports visually impaired people in finding ways to continue engaging in their hobbies, such as sewing or reading.

A braille library at Lilac Services’ Spokane office is open to clients, though Martin says the library is patronized less and less as digital audiobooks gain popularity.

The organization’s braille department, which is run by a volunteer, translates printed materials into braille.

“We used to do everything manually on braille writers, but technology allows us to scan any printed material; we have software that converts it to braille, then it’s printed out,” Martin says. “We do about 14,000 pages of braille a year.”

She adds, “If you know somebody who’s blind and you want a birthday card brailled, you can bring it in here. You need to give us a little advance notice, but we’ll braille it for you.”

Lilac Services also can provide braille playing cards and tactile dice so that vision impaired people can continue to play their favorite games with friends and family.

Many people isolate themselves after they lose their vision, Huschke says. Activities like games adapted for those who have visual impairments can be one way for them to keep an active social life. 

Through the organization, many vision-impaired clients find people who share their interests — even some who play baseball.

“The first time I was asked if I wanted to play baseball, I really thought it was a bad joke — I used play baseball in high school,” Huschke says.

She was introduced to beep baseball, a modified form of baseball in which the ball is outfitted with sturdy electronics that emit a beeping noise when thrown, and bases are large inflatables that also beep. When her team, the Spokane Lion Pride, plays against sighted people, those players are blindfolded to even the playing field.

Activities like beep baseball are crucial to maintaining a visually impaired person’s mental and emotional health, Huschke says.

“People who are connected, who have a social life, who feel like they belong to a group, do much better than people who are at home doing nothing and isolating themselves,” Huschke says.

Such activities are also important to physical health, Martin says.

“When somebody starts to lose their sight, their mobility becomes limited, because they’re so afraid of falling that they start moving less — so they lose their physical strength, and then they’re at greater risk of injury from falling,” Martin says.

As for the organization itself, Martin says the greatest concern is funding. Forty percent of Lilac Services for the Blind’s funding is through the Washington state Department of Services for the Blind, Martin says; the organization must seek out the rest through grants and donations. For 2019, that meant Lilac Services had to self-fund $240,000 of its $400,000 budget.

With that budget, Lilac Services provides free training, as well as devices such as the talking label wand.

“Some of the adaptive devices are costly, so we can’t provide everything,” Martin says. “Sometimes the hard part is that there’s great technology, but we can’t afford to give it away to everyone.”

In fiscal 2018, the state slashed funding for contracted organizations such as Lilac Services by 25%, Martin says. That decrease in funding led a Seattle-based organization similar to Lilac Services to shut down in June, she says.

“We had a slight increase in our last contract that we just got with the state, but it’s not to the level that it once was,” Martin says.

The organization also is looking for more instructors, Martin says, especially those who can travel to serve Lilac Services’ clients in outlying areas.

“We are extremely short-staffed, and 14 counties is a huge area,” Martin says.

Lilac Services for the Blind was established in 1971 by a committee from the Washington state Department of Social and Health Services. The organization originally was called Lilac Industries for the Visually Handicapped.

Virginia Thomas
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Reporter Virginia Thomas has worked at the Journal since 2017 and covers the banking and finance industries. As a reporter, she loves learning about Spokane's many growing industries. She enjoys travelling with her husband, snuggling with her cats, and cross stitching.

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