Program gives blind, vision impaired teens skills to succeed

RICHMOND, Va. (WAVY) — Blindness or a vision impairment can make everything from day-to-day tasks to finding a job more difficult.

On Friday, 21 students graduated from a program meant to set them up for success.

It’s called the LIFE Program at the Virginia Rehabilitation Center for the Blind and Vision Impaired (VRCBVI). It’s a five-week residential program for high school-aged students. LIFE stands for “Learning Independence, Feeling Empowered.”

“A lot of times when people become blind, they’re not really sure what’s possible for their lives,” said VRCBVI director Melody Roane. “So we work with them on how they can live the lives they’ve always wanted.”

Roane said there are three main components to the LIFE Program: Skills of blindness training, working jobs in the community and confidence building.

“There are not that many states that have this resource,” said Roane.

Seventeen-year-old Adrianna Giddings from Newport News is one recent graduate.

“It feels amazing. I honestly didn’t think I’d make it this far,” she said.

Giddings is preparing to enter her senior year of high school. She said she’s walking away from the program with a whole new set of knowledge.

“I’ve learned the entire alphabet of uncontracted braille and numbers and simple punctuation,” she said.

Andrea Darmawan is a 15-year-old from Fairfax. She said the program helped her become more confident and assertive.

“There are so many instructors here who are also blind or visually impaired and they know how to present themselves well. They know how to get what they need and want,” she said. “So watching them, it was like, if they can do that, why can’t I?”

Darmawan hopes to pursue a career in law or writing.

David Bartling graduated from the program for a the second year in a row. The 18-year-old is from Oakton. He already plans on coming back to further his knowledge.

“Mobility is extremely important and independent travel. I’m going to really try and improve on those skills,” he said.

Bartling would eventually like to go to college and work in IT or as a lawyer.

Ray Hopkins is commissioner of the Virginia Department for the Blind and Vision Impaired. He said a program like this is important because society needs everyone to contribute.

“Economically, we can’t afford to write off the nearly one-fifth of our population that has disabilities,” said Hopkins. “They can make a difference and they don’t have to spend the rest of their lives basically sheltered away.”

During the graduation ceremony, Gov. Terry McAuliffe congratulated the group.

“I am so proud of the students we have here,” he told them and their families.

The students’ employers were also in the audience.

“My belief is that every citizen of the Commonwealth of Virginia, no matter what your background, whatever disabilities you may or may not have, we want you to have an opportunity to get a job,” said McAuliffe.

Giddings said, though she had to step out of her comfort zone, she’d recommend the program to other teens.

“Be ready. It’s a challenge and you’re going to really have to push yourself,” she said. “But once you do, you’ll see how much you truly can accomplish.”

To learn more about the LIFE Program, click here.