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Pre-health professionals discover challenges of aiding the visually impaired
Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Fourteen students pursuing pre-health professions served as "sighted guides" for Dining in the Dark, an annual event held by CBA Vision Rehabilitation Services of Jamestown.

By functioning as the “eyes” of some dinner guests, SUNY Fredonia students pursuing careers in health care enhanced their ability to understand and be more responsive to the needs of their future patients.

Fourteen students, all members of the new Health Professions Club at SUNY Fredonia, functioned as “sighted guides” for Dining in the Dark, an annual event held by CBA Vision Rehabilitation Services of Jamestown to raise money and increase community awareness of the myriad challenges — both big and small — that visually impaired people face in their everyday lives.

Blindfolded so they couldn’t see anything, beginning with their assigned table, more than 130 guests had to rely on their guides, who also included nine Occupational Therapy students from Jamestown Community College, to get them through the four-course meal held March 21 at Mayville’s Chautauqua Suites. Instruction to become a sighted guide was provided by members of the CBA staff and board of directors.

“We taught students the techniques for working with someone who is visually impaired, how to get them to the table, describe what is on their plate, and indicate where their silverware and wine are — basically how to get them through the meal,” explained Lisa Goodell, executive director of CBA Vision Rehabilitation Services. For example, the plate became the face of a clock and provided reference points for locating items. Guests were instructed on using a knife as a barrier to scoop up vegetables and how to cut their entrée into bite-size portions.

Students learned how critically important it is to understand the needs of each guest and what he/she is experiencing. That heightened sensitivity will serve them well as health care providers.

“I think the major benefit to the students interested in health professional careers is that they hopefully can realize the health issues their patient will face are constantly with the patient. The doctor may see the patient for 15 minutes, but the patients live with their conditions,” said Dr. Theodore Lee, SUNY Fredonia biology professor and Health Professions Club adviser.

Students also experienced first-hand the importance that communication skills will play in their roles as healthcare providers.

Pre-dental student Nick Dragonette indicated that the senses of the blindfolded guests became more acute, thus enabling them to picked up on cues that their sighted guides never realized they were issuing.

“The most important thing that I learned from the event is that when you talk to people who need your help, you must sound confident in your voice. In the beginning I was stumbling over my words just a little bit and my group became a little nervous in what exactly they had to do,” Dragonette explained.

“By the end of the dinner, however, my group said they felt comfortable and at ease throughout the dinner and that I had done a great job. I think this came from me just gaining confidence in everything that I knew and needed to do for them to have a successful experience,” said Dragonette.

It was a valuable experience for Dragonette, who had never worked with visually impaired people, and fellow Health Professions Club members. “Having someone rely on you as much as the sightless diners did gave everyone a chance to improve their people skills and learn how to conduct themselves in a professional way around people who need their help,” he added.

Dining in the Dark has spurred Dragonette’s desire to engage in more volunteer activities, even if they’re not directly related to dentistry.

“Just being able to help people in general for a great cause like Dining in the Dark made me feel extremely good about the event after it was over,” he said.

CBA Rehabilitation Services began “Dining in the Dark” three years ago to help people come to terms with vision loss. “We want people to understand that life does go on after vision loss. They may have to do activities differently, but life goes on,” Goodell said.

That students with pre-health majors willingly donated their time for this event bodes well for their future success. Most are pre-med or pre-dental, though chiropractic, veterinary and optometry are also represented.

“I was most pleased about the students’ initiative and enthusiasm for this event,” Lee said. “It is important that a health care professional have initiative so that they will work to find out what is wrong with their patients. Pre-health students also simply need that initiative to complete the requirements for medical and other health professional schools. I was also impressed by the personalities of these students; they are truly a kind and generous group of students and they support each other.”

Goodell believes the dining experience will benefit the students regardless of their health career choice. She did note that three students expressed interest in the pediatric vision care, and two more are now considering it.

“They were a phenomenal group of students. We had more compliments on our sighted guides this year than in the past,” she said. “The SUNY students were thrilled to be a part of it,” she added, and several who live in the area said they want to participate in the next Dining in the Dark event.

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