VICTA New Zealand International Agency of the Month

Date Posted: 12/01/2014

By Maribel Steel, International Agency of the Month Correspondent and VisionAware Peer Advisor

Introduction

VisionAware is featuring international agencies in our field throughout the year to meet the needs of the world-wide audience that VisionAware embraces.

Establishment of VICTA

logo for VICTA

The Visual Impairment Charitable Trust Aotearoa (VICTA) New Zealand was established by a group of professional and lay people dedicated to meeting a gap in the rehabilitation services for people with low vision within their country. It was launched in April, 2013, with a petition to parliament calling for the restoration of low vision clinics in public hospitals. Thereafter the agency grew rapidly and has now attained a nationwide profile. In this interview, co-founder Dr Lynley Hood (also a VisionAware peer advisor) introduces us to the innovative work being carried out by VICTA.

Personal Beginnings into Low Vision for Dr Lynley Hood

Photo of Lynley Hood

How My Vision Loss Started

My experience of vision loss began December 2009. I was reading in bed when my right eye went blurry. "Time to put the light out,"I thought. Next morning it was still blurry. I had lost the central vision in my left eye, suddenly and permanently. Then the vision in my right eye began to deteriorate. Fear of blindness kicked in. If I lost the vision in my right eye as suddenly as I had lost it in my left, how would I cope? I needed information. I phoned the Blind Foundation - and discovered that I wasn’t blind enough to get any help from them.

Throughout 2010, eye specialists at Dunedin Public Hospital investigated my visual impairment. After eliminating all the common causes they began working their way through the rare ones. At each appointment my consultant would study the latest test results, rub his chin thoughtfully, and say, "This is not straightforward." Then he’d order more tests.

The Diagnosis

After many months there came a diagnosis. I have a rare retinal disorder that goes by the acronym Azoor (acute zonal occult outer retinopathy). After about a year, the azoor stabilized. I was left with a mild visual impairment, and a determination to ensure that other New Zealanders new to vision loss receive the help they need.

Dunedin VIPs Support Group Established

In 2011, I established a local support group, Dunedin VIPs (Visually Impaired People). We meet once a month to share information, support and practical know how about coping with vision loss. The stories VIPs tell me inspire and inform everything I do.

VICTA Seeks a Nationwide Solution

The need for low vision rehabilitation is a nationwide problem. It needs a nationwide solution. VICTA grew out of the Dunedin VIPs, and Dunedin VIPs continue as a support group affiliated to VICTA.

Further, I’ve been very fortunate in having the generous and much needed assistance of Associate Professor Gordon Sanderson, optometrist at Dunedin Public Hospital, Associate Dean of the Postgraduate Education at the Dunedin School of Medicine, and former Chair of the Blind Foundation.

Gordon and I drafted the trust deed. Then we recruited two like-minded trustees and established VICTA. One of our first decisions was to send out our correspondence on yellow paper - yellow being the color most visible to the human eye.

News Goes Out About VICTA

We launched VICTA in April 2013 with a petition to Parliament calling for the restoration of low vision clinics in public hospitals (there used to be ten, now there are only two). Gordon and I appeared before Parliament’s Health Select Committee and received a very sympathetic reception.

News coverage of the petition raised public awareness of the issue. Professionals and lay people with experience of low vision spoke out in support. Comprehensive, accessible low vision rehabilitation services in New Zealand are still a long way off, but the wheels of change are beginning to turn.

VICTA’s Mission

VICTA is a Dunedin-based charity with a nationwide reach. Our mission is to facilitate the independence, integration and well-being of New Zealanders with incurable vision loss who do not qualify for charitable assistance from the Blind Foundation (formerly the Royal New Zealand Foundation of the Blind).

According to New Zealand’s 2013 disability survey, 168,000 New Zealanders have incurable vision loss, but only 11,680 of them are eligible for help from the Blind Foundation. For the remaining 156,230, information, support and practical help is in most places scant, or non-existent.

Meanwhile, back in Dunedin, our VIPs are working on the practicalities of making life easier for people with low vision. VICTA's projects and publications are developed, tested and refined with enthusiastic input from Dunedin VIPs prior to being distributed more widely.

Taking the Low Vision Challenge

Each year we take the challenge of coping with low vision to wonderfully enthusiastic and creative design students. The process starts with small groups of students and VIPs spending about an hour discussing the everyday frustrations of living with poor eyesight. Then, weeks later, the students present us with their solutions. They create gadgets that slip electric plugs into sockets quickly and effortlessly, gadgets that pour exactly the right amount of milk into a cup of tea, and gadgets that are so simple, original and fabulously useful that they’re on their way to large scale production (but more about these another time).

We also work with Occupational Therapy students. Their task is to find a community group, identify an unmet need, and find a way of meeting it. The five students working with us this year are not only tutoring an introductory iPad course for people with low vision, they’re making brochures and posters, and presenting an expo in a local shopping mall at which members of the public will be invited to "take the low vision challenge" i.e. perform everyday tasks wearing frosted glasses.

Low Vision, High-Visibility

In addition to all the activity with students, Dunedin VIP’s are piloting VICTA’s high visibility wristbands (vizbands). Since we introduced vizbands late last year as a sign of low vision, local bus drivers have learned to take special care to make sure vizband wearers who struggle to read destination signs on buses don’t get left behind. Motorists are also learning to look out for vizband wearers who struggle to see the traffic when they’re trying to cross the road.

Additional features of the LoViz/HiViz (low vision/high visibility) project are high visibility walking and hiking canes. These are still in development so more about that later. Both these products are shown in the photograph below.

demonstrating using hi visibility cane and viz band

Support for VICTA

Since VICTA has no paid employees, no premises and a very modest bank balance, we don’t spend much on anything. Our income comes from grants, donations, membership fees and lots of donated labor, goods and services. Our beautiful logo is a gift. So we haven’t spent a fortune on branding, but we have certainly been fortunate. It’s been a busy first year.

Further Resources

Further resources are available from the comfort of your own chair, but why not pop over to New Zealand to read about the inspiring people and the work of VICTA!

Our thanks to Dr. Lynley Hood at VICTA for participating in VisionAware’s International Agency of the Month and helping us to share in a brighter vision for our world wide community.

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