Lighthouse's president leads change in vision rehabilitation

November 15, 2004

The world of the partially sighted and the blind has changed significantly over the last 20 years.

The world of the partially sighted and the blind has changed significantly over the last 20 years.

As president and chief executive officer of Lighthouse International, Barbara Silverstone, DSW, has had a front-row seat for this paradigm shift. That seat has often placed her directly behind the steering wheel.

"She's made vision rehabilitation a true specialty, and she's changed Lighthouse International, as well as the field," said Arlene R. Gordon, a member of the Lighthouse board of directors and a former associate executive director.

"The focus is on integration, so we've divested ourselves of all segregated programs," Gordon said. "We see Lighthouse International as a place for people who are losing vision or who have lost it, where they can come and receive the kind of rehabilitative services that will allow them to continue to function with some adaptation."

"That was pretty much what was practiced in the whole field," Dr. Silverstone recalled. "You existed to offer special programs for people who were blind because it would be difficult for them to take advantage of community programs."

By the mid-1980s, more Americans were starting to realize that disabilities should not hold them back from productive lives in the mainstream. Passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990 helped drive acceptability and eliminate the need for shelters. Today, Lighthouse International has just one remnant of its earlier days-the 80-year-old music school, which offers something that isn't duplicated in the wider community, Dr. Silverstone said.

"This has been a very successful conversion of Lighthouse International over the last 20 years," she said. "We train and place people in the competitive workplace, more than 100 people a year. We reflected what was going on in society, but I think we [Lighthouse International] took the lead in the field of vision impairment."

Now, the 99-year-old, New York City-based agency employs a three-pronged approach-clinical, education, and research-with each aspect intertwined. Some 5,000 clients who arrive each year for clinical services benefit from the agency's research, and that research has shown that clients' families and the public can better help the client when they are properly educated about vision impairment and rehabilitation.

Focus on research Ten years ago, Dr. Silverstone worked to establish the Arlene R. Gordon Research Institute, complete with a multidisciplinary team of psychologists, sociologists, computer scientists, and social welfare researchers. The only vision rehabilitation agency with a research arm, Lighthouse International has secured grants from the National Institutes of Health, including the National Institute of Aging, National Eye Institute, and the National Institute of Mental Health, and other organizations. The grants fund research into a host of subjects, including aging and vision loss, educational models for children with vision loss, education and job-related issues, driving and night vision, and depression.