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Impaired artists leading the way

Badger Association aids focus on adapting

Sept. 7, 2011

Rose Fortney holds a toilet paper roll up to her eye. It's the best example of her range of vision, narrowed to six to 10 degrees by a genetic eye disease that has left her and daughter, Alison, legally blind.

A normally sighted person typically has a 180-degree range of vision.

"I still have the clarity of the vision, but the field of vision is lost," she said.

Wauwatosa residents, the Fortneys have retinitis pigmentosa, which causes damage to the retina that progresses over time.

The mother and daughter are both artists, and they haven't let their visual impairments hold them back.

Instead, their lives have been about adapting and rising above their limitations.

"It just doesn't stop us," Rose said.

Association lends support

The Badger Association of the Blind, just across the Tosa border at 912 N. Hawley Road, has played a role in helping them, and they want to make others aware of the facility's services. They count among the nearly 200 Tosans who benefit from the services offered by the association, a number that has led to the city providing the association Community Development Block Grant funds for facility maintenance.

But many more people could find help from the Badger Association, said Dena Fellows, association marketing director.

About 60,000 people with significant vision issues live in the Milwaukee area, but only one-third receive services. Some are born blind, while others lose vision due to disease, injury or age.

"Unfortunately, the world still is a pretty visual place," Fellows said. "Our job as an organization is to provide awareness about the easy adaptations that can be made."

Those adaptations can be a simple as wearing the yellow-tinted glasses Rose wears to sharpen the vision she does have, or using a guide dog like Clyde, who is Rose's constant companion. Alison prefers to use a cane and she also makes use of voice technology to operate an iPad.

These forms of assistance also are useful in their professional lives, where they rely on large computer monitors and voice-activation technology to view and manipulate images.

"You have to keep making a living," Rose said. "A lot of us just can't escape it at some point in our lives."

Serious about art

Rose works "in crazy detail," creating pen-and-ink drawings. She is now moving into the realm of more tactile art, such as a type of drawing that is thermally applied to a sheet of metal so the lines of objects such as fences, leaves and bird feathers can be felt.

"I'm trying to create art for people who have total vision loss," she said.

Alison, 24, focuses on photography of animals, nature and sculpture, visiting gardens, parks and museums.

"It doesn't matter where I go, there's a good chance I'll have my camera," the young woman said.

She just completed an associate degree in graphic design at Milwaukee Area Technical College and she's finishing a second major in web design/visual communication with hopes of working for an in-house design studio.

"My professor was just amazed at what I was capable of," Alison said.

About Badger

The Badger Association of the Blind is making some changes this fall.

The organization will be changing its name to Vision Forward Association, to move away from the word "blind" and focus on adaptation, Marketing Director Dena Fellows said.

In addition, The Center for Blind and Visually Impaired Children will move into a nearly finished expansion to the Hawley Road facility so vision services for newborns to the elderly can be offered under the same roof.

Fellows expects the children's center to serve about 100 children ages 6 and younger. The facility will offer an adaptive gym and outdoor play equipment, classrooms with high-contrast colors, specialized lighting and tactile floor cues to help little ones navigate.

Many children with blindness have other physical issues, so a variety of therapists will be working at the center, Fellows said.

Badger Association also is stepping up its services for older children. Resources such as computer classes, advanced Braille instruction, after-school tutoring, and personal finance and intergenerational mentoring will help school-age children with social and emotional development and the transition to the work force.

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