Interview with Kirsten Ervin
Stephanie Van works as a Vision Rehabilitation Therapist with the Bureau of Blindness and Visual Services, Office of Vocational Rehabilitation. She is also the author of “Craft Adaptations for Vision Impaired Adults of All Ages”, soon to be re-published. It draws from her experience of teaching crafts to visually impaired adults for 16 years. Much of Stephanie’s knowledge is first hand, as she is both an avid crafter and a person with a visual impairment.
What is a Vision Rehabilitation Therapist?
VRTs instruct people with vision loss techniques and compensatory skills for maintaining the highest level of independent living possible. We do this for people of all ages, typically in a community setting, either home or work, and sometimes in groups.
When did you start making things?
As far back as I can remember, I loved art class in school. In particular, I like simplistic art, with bold colors, not too much detail, abstract rather than realistic. I grew in learning what I had to adapt for myself in art. In graduate school, I studied techniques that could apply to doing anything and everything in daily living, including arts and crafts.
Describe your visual impairment:
I have Retinopathy of Prematurity. I was born three months early. I had too much oxygen in the incubator and it did some retinal damage. My vision has also changed over the years, I’ve lost some more of my visual field and had cataracts.
When did you start teaching crafts?
My first job out of graduate school was on the Eastern side of the state, at a local nonprofit [serving people with visual impairments]. I was often asked by potential customers and families, “Is there anything I can do to fill time, to make myself feel better, to create again?”
At the same time, I was finding myself having to “sell” rehab teaching to new referrals. People don’t know what they don’t know, and sometimes what they need. I started a craft class for between 6 and 22 people. I began to seek craft projects anywhere and everywhere, at art fairs, in shops, to see what people like. I asked myself, “How can this [craft] be adapted so that it is viable, cost effective, not too complicated, and how can it also provide a sense of self-worth, accomplishment and confidence? How can people ‘do it myself’ with vision adaptations and adhering to vision rehab techniques? “
The class also incorporated five volunteers, and they were instructed to serve as the students’ eyes only, not to do the task for them – I was very strict about this, I insisted. If the volunteers forgot, I reminded them. Let them do it for themselves.
It’s often harder to teach volunteers than the people in the class, because they often don’t have the patience or think they’re being helpful [by being too involved], but it’s really counter-productive to the goal of the project. People who are blind or visually impaired do take longer to complete tasks, yet they can be completed. I chose projects with immediate results and feedback. I didn’t want people to lose interest. The class was only an hour and a half. I taught the class for 16 years.
Tell me about your book.
I also sought funding to write my book about how to set up a craft class for someone with vision loss: “Craft Adaptations for Vision Impaired Adults of All Ages”. The book took what I had learned from my experience, comments from the class, skills I had developed. I provided task analysis of each craft with contraindications for people with additional disabilities.
My audience for the book was individuals with vision loss, senior centers, activities groups, day programs. It’s not really about the specific craft projects, but about the underlining principles, and techniques, using less detail, more tactile elements, using templates. The projects are set up so that each participant made something that was different and creative. The projects are all designed to get people started thinking and to expand on the principles.
The class was also a way to get people to participate in rehabilitation, starting with crafts and then transferring to home skills. They were often reluctant and resistant to rehab, but when these same techniques were introduced in a fun and non-threatening way, they met people, grew in confidence, and then were able to transfer those skills to other areas of their life.
What do you like to make?
I don’t stick to anyone thing for very long. I like to do water color, make strange accessories, using heavy watercolor paper and templates to make flowers, and other shapes as gifts. I also like crocheting and making jewelry from sculpey. I’m also interested in wire jewelry.
What has been your experience in taking art classes?
I’ve not done as many art classes for two reasons: availability and accessibility.I’ve never gone to Pittsburgh Center for the Arts because it would take me 2 hours to get there one way on the bus and then, only at certain times of the day. I’m also hesitant because of generally how people react to blind or visually impaired people – either with pity or awe. Neither of those attitudes work when you want to be a student. Or it’s an attitude of “I don’t know what to do for you”, and because you as the student are new to the medium, you don’t know either, making it hard to advocate for yourself.
I have no issues going places by myself, but from years of experience it’s hard to navigate and orient myself in a large art studio, where things are a very neutral color and there isn’t a lot of contrast.
What would you need to have art classes be accessible?
Contrast, the availability of a task light, orientation to the room, a guided tour of the room, an ability to control my own work area, not in a selfish way, but so that I know where things are and they don’t get moved. Using a cafeteria tray or desk organizer really helps. So does fixing small objects to the table with a duct tape loop.
Why should blind people make art?
It might seem like an odd question to a normal person, but there is the possibility of making art tactually and appreciating the end result. The art process does a lot for your mind, it’s calming, a stress reliever, and it attacks the common co-disability of depression that a lot of people with vision loss experience. Not everyone is creative or artistic, but it gives an awareness of abilities rather than disabilities, that you are on an equal level with sighted peers. I also don’t know anyone who doesn’t appreciate a gift. I always told my class, the finished product should be quality enough that you could either sell it or give it as a gift.
What are your recommendations to art organizations to increase accessibility to folks who are blind or visually impaired?
Welcome the person at the door first, in a person-to-person voice. Ask, “What can I do to help you?” Create a clear pathway to the studio, have maximum contrast in the space, define each person’s workspace, with limited distractions, so that people can exercise both independence and control. And I mean control in terms of choices and independence, controlling your little corner of the world.