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Future In Sight helps the vision-impaired live full lives

  • Jason Valley wasn't able to go on the canoeing trip with the others because of his back condition but he was able to provide the barbeque when they got back from their trip on the Contoocook River last week. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Nancy Druke, vice president for programs at Future In Sight, waves as the group head out up the Contoocook River last week. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Stephanie Hurd prepares to head on the Future In Sight canoe trip down the Contoocook River last week. GEOFF FORESTER/ Monitor staff

  • Stephanie Hurd walks down to the riverbank with her husband Jeff as they prepare for the canoe trip down the Contoocook River. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Nancy Druke (right), vice president of Future In Sight, heads out with a group for a canoe trip up the Contookcook River. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 9/20/2018 8:30:49 AM

Life has been everything but easy for Jason Valley and his family since he lost his sight following surgery to extract a staph infection from his spine more than two years ago.

Tasks that were once mindless – like walking 350 feet to the mailbox at their Tilton home – are now a challenge Valley never thought he would encounter.

Valley’s days are now spent in the dark, his eyes closed shut behind metal-framed sunglasses, shielding the light that is amplified when his eyes open and can deliver a piercing headache.

But what he hears – things he has always heard but did not always notice – brings about a serenity similar to what he used to feel while enjoying the outdoors with his wife, Cathy, and their two children.

“The human brain, I’ve learned, filters out a lot of beautiful things,” he said, standing near the bank of the Contoocook River on a sun-washed September morning. “I’m listening now and there is a beautiful bird calling, just singing away. Behind my left shoulder, there was another one chittering moments ago. If you just stop and listen, nature sounds beautiful.”

Valley is an active member of Future In Sight, a Concord-based nonprofit that provides “a holistic continuum of care” to people with blindness and visual impairments. On Wednesday, a group of about a dozen people paddled out from the Contoocook River Canoe Co. for a couple of hours to enjoy one of the final days of summer.

The organization has served about 3,500 people this year – including about 150 children – and Future In Sight President and CEO David Morgan, who attended Wednesday’s event on the river, said there are about 32,000 people in the state dealing with sight loss.

“For a lot of folks, living with sight loss is like going through the process of dealing with a lost loved one,” Morgan said. “You go through a personal crisis and you struggle to cope and until you build a new set of coping mechanisms and skill sets and start to navigate your role and build self-confidence, it’s pretty traumatic.”

Valley, who used to work in IT, said he contracted staph infection through his hand while fixing the breaks on his SUV. It eventually reached his spine and required extensive, invasive surgery His retinas were “blown out” by sepsis and his optic nerves failed following his first surgery in April 2016. He says one of the earliest emotions he felt after losing his sight was of isolation.

No longer could he get in the car or hop on his motorcycle and roll to any destination he chose. He says the world felt smaller, shrunken down to the space of his mind.

“You’re locked in a cage with the door wide open,” Valley said.

A year after he lost sight, Valley finally gave in to his wife’s insistence to join a support group. He still feels like he is in that cage but has found comfort in knowing he is not in there alone.

“The camaraderie, trading stories, seeing how people are doing,” he said, listing the positives of connecting with others who live with blindness. “You get to reach out and shake someone’s hand. You get to hug.”

Valley didn’t go on the water Wednesday – a canoe seat is hardly comfortable with a collection of plates and pins and screws locked into his spine. He instead stayed back on the river bank where he and Cathy cooked a barbecue lunch for the group when they returned.

An experienced cook, Valley relied on muscle memory while handling the food on a portable grill. He uses a cooking thermometer that audibly communicates the temperature to him through a speaker, one of the many “accessibility tools” he has discovered or been introduced to since joining the peer support group.

Stephanie Hurd, community relations coordinator for Future In Sight, was born with low vision and it continued to deteriorate over time. The Portsmouth resident has been working with the organization for more than 10 years and said that peer support is especially beneficial to people recently diagnosed with vision loss.

“Everyone is at a different spot in their journey with vision loss, and a newly diagnosed person is encouraged by their peers,” Hurd said. “They thrive off of each other. And people who have been visually impaired for a long time or blind do serve as mentors. It’s a win-win situation, really.

“When you see someone struggling near the beginning of their journey and sometimes it helps that I am blind because they say if you can do it then I will give it a try.”

Future In Sight was known as the New Hampshire Association for the Blind until last year when it changed its name after 105 years. The change was made in an effort to reach more people who could benefit from the organization’s services.

“Part of that was to remove the stigma associated with being blind,” Morgan said. “What that did was make our name more accessible and increase referrals and allow doctors to have those kinds of conversations without a name that might turn some people off. We serve all of those folks we’ve always served and more.”

Outdoor trips like this one are one facet of what the organization offers. People newly diagnosed with vision loss typically begin with orientation and mobility – learning to use a white cane as they walk and developing a mental map of their surroundings. Valley said he’s already mapped out most of downtown Concord, where he makes weekly visits to hang out with his friend, Tom, who is also blind and met in a Future In Sight group.

Participants also learn about assistive technology, such as Valley’s cooking thermometer or voice control for using a computer and accessing the internet. This leads to independent living skills, such as cooking and doing things around the home.

Finally, the organization encourages people with vision loss to get outside and socialize. They’ve gone on fishing trips, rock climbing excursions, and last week a group played a game of “Beep Baseball” with the New Hampshire Fisher Cats in Manchester.

The issue people often run into with these activities is transportation as those with vision loss have to rely on someone to drive them to the event. This is one reason why the organization is always looking for more volunteers to help transport clients.

Peer support is a crucial element of the program, something Hurd, Morgan and Valley all agreed upon. The group took Wednesday’s canoeing trip to spend a warm day in the sun, but perhaps more importantly, they were there to enjoy each other’s companionship.

Valley wore a blue T-shirt on Wednesday, one of his favorites, with a stick figure character and the words “I live in my own little world … but it’s okay, they know me here!”

That is still how he feels sometimes, he said, but the feeling of isolation has eased.

“This isn’t a problem unique to me,” Valley said. “There is a room full of people who either were born without sight or lost sight sometime from early childhood on. It’s a close-knit community.”

(Nick Stoico can be reached at 369-3321, or on Twitter @NickStoico.)

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