Iris Network program in Portland trains visually impaired for life, work

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PORTLAND — That Buxton resident Chris Carroll will completely lose his sight is certain.

Just when is uncertain.

On April 22, Carroll, 26, worked with therapist Laura Vittorioso at the Iris Network Rehabilitation Center, 189 Park Ave., on life and job skills that can give him a measure of independence and productivity.

“They are helping me prepare for when I lose my sight,” said Carroll, who has retinitis pigmentosa, an inherited disease that leads to blindness due to degeneration of the retina.

The center was established last September at the 108-year-old Iris Network, which began as the Maine Institution for the Blind.

In a therapy session, Vittorio worked with Carroll and Lebanon, New Hampshire, resident Nik Mastromarino. They learned about lighting options to help them read without too much painful glare.

Within two hours the same day, Orono resident Brittney Kingsbury, Jefferson resident Garrett Knight and Tiffany Lannon, of Houlton, were preparing to graduate the 12-week program.

“It is much more than the tools they use,” Rabih Dow, Iris Network program services director, said. “It is about options, having choices all the time.”

Dow, who is blind, lost his vision as an onsetting condition, and estimated 90 percent of blind people endure the same. At the same time, the unemployment rate for those with severe vision loss or total blindness is near 70 percent.

Those with vision impairment and blindness can go on disability, but the aim of the Iris Network Rehabilitation Center is to put people to work.

“We move people from the first stages of coping with vision loss to a place where they can compete in the market place,” President and Executive Director Jim Phipps said.

The 12-week course is run in collaboration with the Maine Department of Labor Division for the Blind and Visually Impaired and the Federal Rehabilitation Services Administration. It is open to people from teenagers through their 60s, who have the stamina and ability to work eight hours a day.

“Their identity gets threatened,” Dow said. “Coming here, the rest of your identity has a chance to come out.”

Students are referred by a social worker and live on campus near Deering Oaks Park.

“Once a connection is made, they can be in here in a week or two,” Dow said.

Enrollment is always open, and Dow said it is preferable for students to be at varied stages of the program in order to provide peer support. And he would not want to make any prospective student wait for a new session to begin.

“It is not fair,” Dow said. “They have a life to lead.”

Mastromarino, 38, was in his second week at the Iris Network. He was born with retinopathy of prematurity, a condition where abnormal blood vessels develop behind the retinas.

He was leading an independent life before two retinal surgeries in his left eye, and he wants it back. He said he wants to go back to his job bagging groceries. He wants to be able to safely cross streets.

“The great thing about this place is, it is intensive and there is structure,” Mastromarino said.

Carroll and Mastromarino are learning about the tools, large and small, that help with everyday life. They said learning Braille is the toughest challenge; Mastromarino is also learning to use a cane.

The digital age has brought innovations such as a Braille app for cell phones and other electronics, and devices to print labels that become audible when scanned.

“The technology is there, but universal design is not universal yet,” Phipps said.

Overall, the Rehabilitation Center provides low vison therapy, orientation and mobility training and counseling. There is also a woodshop and mock apartment to enhance living skills.

Basic mobility is critical, Dow said.

“Before you are putting your feet down, you need to know where you are going,” he said.

Phipps said the center can also benefit a labor market where employers are finding it hard to fill some jobs, including places such as call centers.

“Our clients are very well positioned to fill the gaps,” he said. “There are a lot of jobs people who are blind can do very well.”

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Chris Carroll, seated, works with Iris Network therapist Laura Vittorioso on April 22 as part of life skills and employment training provided at the new Rehabilitation Center in Portland.

Nik Mastromarino said April 22 that the Iris Network Rehabilitation Center in Portland is putting him back on course for independence as he endures vision loss.

Rabih Dow, program services director at the Iris Network in Portland, which trains visually impaired and blind students in life and employment skills.

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Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.