Kingwood resident creates support group for people with vision loss
Since surviving a car accident that caused the loss of his sight, Kingwood resident Ron Graham has worked to unite members of the visually impaired community.
Graham is the founder of Visually Impaired People of South East Texas, a support group for people who are visually impaired in the Kingwood and Humble areas.
"The purpose of VIPSET is to bring together the visually impaired in our communities in an effort to facilitate better sharing of information and resources," Graham said. "It is a brainstorming of the ideas that we have accumulated. I come home so touched and wired from the meetings. I like to say we are our own best resource."
Combating isolation is a common problem, Graham said, and the support group provides resources.
"We are trying to reach the people who are affected by vision loss," he said. "We want to let them know they are not alone."
A friend in technology
Technology such as iPhone and iPads, talking-book programs and computer-screen readers can make communicating easier for the visually impaired. During VIPSET meetings, Graham helps members learn about the new methods.
"After my accident, when I came to the realization I was blind, I threw my computer away," Graham said. "But now it is the first thing I turn on every morning and the last thing I turn off every night."
Graham uses a $1,200 text- to-speech software program for the computer that reads aloud what is on the screen. He calls it the "Cadillac" of read-aloud software. Graham said there are low cost or free alternative read-aloud programs for computers that are available for the blind including NVDA, a Non Visual Desktop Appliance that is accessible online.
The popularity of the support group is growing, said Julie Johnston, a member of VIPSET.
"It has been really encouraging watching VIPSET grow," Johnston said. "When we had our first meeting, we only had a few people, and now we are up to about 40."
The VIPSET experience has been positive for Johnston.
"It has been amazing, and I have met some very good friends," she said. "A lot of the people in the group have very interesting lives and adversities, and they share those journeys with each other."
Graham's sightless journey began 17 years ago when a car accident severed his optic nerves. Since then, he celebrates the date as his rebirth.
"I made the accident my motivator," Graham said. "I got a do over. I had to learn to walk and talk again. It is not a day to mourn about what I have lost because my life is a lot richer now."
Before the accident, Graham had a 13-year career as a captain with the Texas state prison system and planned to become a warden.
"I had to learn to let go of that dream," he said, "but vision loss also means you can dream new dreams. I lost my sight, not my life."
Graham earned an associate in applied science degree from Central Texas College in Killeen in criminal justice. He has a bachelor of science in behavior science and a master's degree in clinical psychology from the University of Houston Clear Lake. Graham also carried the Olympic torch through Beaumont during the ceremonies of the 2002 winter games in Salt Lake City.
"I never thought I would be participating in the Olympics," he said.
Now married and the father of an 8-year-old son, Austin, Graham's family has learned to adjust.
"Life is a little different for us," he said. "I have to be very organized, and I have to remember where I put things so I can look them up. It is challenging for my wife."
Graham met his wife, Mendy, a school teacher, at a cooking class for the blind. Mendy was there assisting one of her students.
Mendy says Graham plays ball with their son and helps him with his homework. He also takes on many of the domestic duties.
"He is a pretty remarkable guy," she said, "and our life is actually pretty normal."
Graham, who was not wearing a seat belt at the time of his accident and left the road at over 100 miles-per- hour, speaks openly about what he calls his life lesson. He asks people if they can live with the consequences of their choices.
"Ron comes to school to talk to students," Mendy said. "He is very good with them, and I think they really listen to him."
Graham recently participated in the planning of the Houston Area Insight Expo 2011 with the Houston Area Visually Impaired Network.
More than 130 members of the visually impaired community and approximately 79 volunteers attended the expo at the University of Houston, enjoying panel discussions, workshops and more than 25 exhibitors.
Excited about possible future events, Graham said the expo was unprecedented.
"It went gangbusters," he said. "To the best of my information, no effort has ever been made to bring the visually impaired together in such a unified effort. And the best aspect is that this is all grass roots.
"It is spurred by those of us who are visually impaired trying to help others within our community who need to know about the resources and information that exists to help us live independently and enjoy our lives."
VIPSET meets the third Monday of each month at the Second Baptist Church in Kingwood.
For more information about VIPSET, call 281-360-8602, 713-825-9108 or visit vipset.blogspot.com