About 20 percent of people age 65 or older are considered visually impaired, which is defined as they should not drive a car and cannot read without a magnifying device. As the baby boom population ages, as many as a quarter of a million people in southeastern Wisconsin are expected to become visually impaired within the next 25 years.
The Badger Association of the Blind and Visually Impaired is preparing for that eventuality by shifting its focus from a former model of providing care, to one of rehabilitation, where the blind are taught to be independent and do things on their own, says Patrick Brown, executive director of the organization.
When Brown took over the helm of the organization 16 years ago, the Badger Association of the Blind was a boarding home that took care of blind people and sold equipment to 500 members. Last year, the nonprofit organization served 6,000 people. The boarding home is gone, although there is an apartment complex for the blind who are able to function largely on their own.
“Previously, we were a boarding home where we were making beds, doing their laundry, and cutting up their meat,” Brown recalls. “Today, we have a rehab center where we teach them how to cook their own food, do their laundry, catch buses and do a variety of other things on their own. So, there has been a big transformation in how we look at blind people.”
Founded in 1919, The Badger Association of the Blind currently has a staff of 25 people — 40 percent of whom are blind — and a budget of $1.5 million. The organization has been working to update its Hawley Road facility and training programs to meet the increased demand for services as the population ages.
“We are blind people helping other blind people. We are answering much more in terms of community awareness,” Brown says. “We have a speakers bureau. We help employers thinking about hiring a blind person what to expect – helping people understand what blindness is and what it’s not.”
Last summer, with a grant from the Pettit Foundation, the Badger Association updated the Outlook Shoppe, the only place in southeastern Wisconsin where people can buy adaptive equipment in person, and made it easier to test the equipment in person.
The Badger Association also updated its kitchen facility to help train people more effectively in its Activities in Daily Life program. Rehabilitation specialists teach cooking, nutrition, household maintenance skills, personal hygiene, organizing and money management. The association’s computer classes help many adults remain a vital part of the workforce and foster independence.
“For the future, we are setting up to figure out how we will deal in the kind of increase in numbers that we anticipate,” Brown says, mentioning the support groups and mentoring programs instituted under his watch. “We are taking our organization into the 21st century, and looking at what else is going to happen so that we are prepared when that day comes.”