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Program focuses on life skills

Wed., Aug. 27, 2008

Course increases independence of visually impaired people

Ken Shellenberger, of Post Falls, is blind in his left eye and has limited vision in his right. He also has diabetes and was struggling to determine whether he was putting the correct amount of insulin into the syringes he uses to inject his medication.

The “visual impairment services team” at Spokane’s Veterans Affairs Medical Center helped him find a syringe that was easier to read. The program coordinator, Suzanne Bennatt, also gave Shellenberger a telephone with large numbers and raised dots with sticky backings to mark buttons on his microwave, making them easier to identify.

“For me, that’s all for free,” said Shellenberger, an 83-year-old World War II veteran. But “how many people aren’t getting that?”

On Tuesday, the VA teamed up with the Idaho Commission for the Blind & Visually Impaired to provide life-skills assistance to 10 North Idaho residents, including Shellenberger. The agencies each invited five clients with various degrees of vision loss to an independent living skills training session in Coeur d’Alene. The two agencies would like to hold such joint training sessions in North Idaho twice a year.

The Idaho Commission for the Blind’s Coeur d’Alene office serves the state’s five northern counties, where more than 7,000 people are blind or visually impaired, according to news reports. More than 4,600 of those people live in Kootenai County.

The men and women taking part in Tuesday’s session gathered at the Coeur d’Alene VA center to learn techniques that will make basic life skills easier. They learned about folding different denominations of money to distinguish between bills. They learned techniques to prevent cuts while peeling and slicing vegetables and meat. They learned about new technology, such as a battery-powered device that buzzes when liquid being poured into a cup reaches the top.

“That’s great, that’s great,” said Betty Johnson, of Coeur d’Alene, who is blind and attended the session with her husband, Eugene “Red” Johnson, who also has vision loss.

Betty Johnson was still working as a grocery store demonstrator just three years ago when her vision began to decline. The couple has since moved into a Coeur d’Alene retirement community.

“I had a garden and we did all our own cooking. I was just driving about five years ago,” said Betty Johnson, 82. Following her vision loss, she said, “You just can’t get out and about. It just changes your whole life.”

The Johnsons attended another independent living skills training in Spokane several years ago. “We had so much benefit from it we thought we could use a refresher course,” Betty Johnson said. “It just has helped so much.”

Rehabilitation instructors came from the commission’s Pocatello, Lewiston and Twin Falls offices to help Coeur d’Alene staff and Spokane VA vision therapists with the training. Sessions were also held with family members to help them better understand their loved ones’ challenges.

“Easily 10 to 12 people every six months need a training like this one,” said Michelle Grandstaff, rehabilitation instructor for the commission’s Coeur d’Alene office.

Contact Alison Boggs at or (208) 765-7132.

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