Meet Nancy D. Miller, CEO of VISIONS/Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired in New York City

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Nancy Miller, LSMW

Ms. Nancy D. Miller, LMSW, began working with people of all ages who are blind, visually impaired, and multi-disabled in 1971. Since 1987, she has been Executive Director/CEO of VISIONS/Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired, an 88-year-old vision rehabilitation and social service organization in New York City.

Ms. Miller has a Bachelor of Science degree in Human Development and Family Studies from Cornell University, a Master of Science degree in Social Work from Columbia University, and is a New York State licensed social worker.

In addition to providing innovative and well-established vision rehabilitation and social service programs, VISIONS owns and operates VISIONS Center on Blindness (VCB), a 37-acre residential rehabilitation and family support program in Rockland County, New York, and leases space for VISIONS at Selis Manor programs and an innovative senior center at the Selis Manor location in Manhattan.

VISIONS also operates workforce development programs for children who are blind or multi-disabled starting at age 10; youth in transition from school to work; and adults and seniors preparing for and securing employment.

Ms. Miller serves on the Board of Directors of the Council of Senior Centers and Services of New York City, Inc., is a Co-Founder and current Board Member of the Disabilities Network of New York City, and is the Founding and Current President of the New York Vision Rehabilitation Association. She is a founding member of the Aging and Vision Coalition of New York City, under the auspices of the Aging in New York Fund of the New York City Department for the Aging.

Ms. Miller has received numerous community awards, including the Father's Day Community Award from Beyond Focus Media in Brooklyn; the Rehabilitation Practitioner of Distinction Award from the Metro New York Chapter of the National Rehabilitation Association; the Maggie Kuhn Advocacy Award from Presbyterian Senior Services; the Senator John E. Flynn Recognition Award from the American Council of the Blind; and the VisionServe Alliance Excellence in Leadership Award.

VISIONS logo

Maureen Duffy: Hello Nancy. I am a longtime admirer of VISIONS/Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired! As I understand it, you were one of the first agencies to focus specifically on the needs of older adults who were experiencing adult-onset vision loss. Can you tell our readers about your approach to – and philosophy of – service delivery?

Nancy Miller: Thank you, Maureen. VISIONS started serving seniors in 1926 when it was known as Vacation Camp and Dormitory for the Blind (VCB). Programs focused on social services, jobs, housing, and support for families, all offered in racially integrated services, unusual for that time. Programs that focus on workforce development, intergenerational activities, caregiver support, creating an accessible senior center, mainstreaming seniors with vision loss into neighborhood services, encouraging volunteerism, health and wellness, social networking, technology training, and support groups were added later.

In 1984, VCB merged with the Center for Independent Living (CIL). CIL was innovative in focusing exclusively on vision rehabilitation services for older adults with acquired vision loss, in both a residential setting and in the home. VISIONS promotes the independence of people of all ages with blindness or severe vision loss. We partner with our participants, especially seniors, to take advantage of opportunities to remain actively involved at home, work, and in the community. All VISIONS services are free of charge and offered in the person's language of preference.

MD: You also offer a wide variety of programs that include instruction in orientation and mobility, vision rehabilitation therapy, and occupational therapy – plus you provide a wide range of community-based services. Can you tell us more about these programs?

A woman standing demonstrates a needle threader to four woman seated around a table

NM: From the early 1980s to the present, VISIONS has used a multi-disciplinary team approach to offer blind people of all ages, and especially seniors, the skills they need for independent everyday living. Each professional brings their unique body of knowledge, experience, and expertise to the training. All VISIONS professional staff are certified or licensed and most services are offered in the person's home and neighborhood environment. This is especially helpful to train family members and significant others to support the person's independence, rather than doing everything for him or her.

In addition to home-based training, VCB has developed into a residential rehabilitation center. At VCB, families, youth, adults, and seniors can learn and practice skills, develop healthy habits, increase physical activity, and use peer support. The usual stay is one to two weeks and staff will follow up when the participants return home.

VISIONS staff is about 25% people with vision loss and other disabilities, so there are many role models. VISIONS dance instructor is a senior with both vision and hearing loss herself and she commands a loyal following in her classes. VISIONS provides the tools, skills, and encouragement to help people meet their personal goals. Our success rate is very high.

MD: I know that you are also deeply involved with a number of critically important professional issues, including licensure for vision rehabilitation professionals. Can you tell us more about your work on these issues? And what do you think is the most critical issue in the vision rehabilitation field at present?

NM: As the president of the New York Vision Rehabilitation Association and a New York State licensed social worker, I believe in a state credential verifying that the professional has gained both the educational competencies and unique skill set that defines their professional role, duties, and title.

Unfortunately, both orientation and mobility specialists (O&Ms) and vision rehabilitation therapists (VRTs) came to this conclusion fairly late in the game. Professional preparation programs started in the 1960s and to date, no state licenses O&Ms and VRTs to work with people of all ages with blindness and severe vision loss. This must change and we are working hard in New York State to be the first state with O&M and VRT licensure.

There are already nearly 50 licensed professions in New York and I believe strongly that we will not be able to attract people to O&M and VRT without state recognition. It is also primarily a protection for the consumer. How many of you would seek out a doctor who is not licensed? Shouldn't that same standard hold for the professionals who will teach you how to cross the street independently, cook your dinner safely, and take care of your children with no sight or with limited vision?

In addition to the shortage of O&M and VRT professionals, some of the other professional issues I think need to be addressed include:

  • Negative employer attitudes and stereotypes regarding the value of blind employees and their abilities to add to the bottom line of any business.
  • Ageism in general, but especially as it relates to seniors who lose vision but want to remain in the workforce, volunteer, and stay independent at home.
  • Lack of awareness of the full range of vision rehabilitation services, what they are, and where to get them. According the National Eye Institute, only 3% of people who could benefit from vision rehabilitation ever receive it.
  • Promoting the belief that society benefits when all of its citizens, including people with vision loss, are viewed as an asset.

We thank Nancy Miller for her support of VisionAware, as well as for her unceasing and longstanding support of quality services for blind and visually persons throughout the country. You can learn more about VISIONS at www.visionsvcb.org, on Facebook at visionsvcb, and on Twitter at visionsvcb.


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