Cindy Bachofer completed her PhD at Vanderbilt University in 2013 and is currently the Low Vision Consultant at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually impaired. She grew up in Kansas in a big family and learned the importance of staying positive and working hard.
She earned high grades— but felt that with her low vision there must be better ways to access print and her schoolwork. She knew the name of her eye condition but not much else.
Cindy’s eye condition is called Retinopathy of Prematurity (ROP), an eye disorder that occurs when abnormal blood vessels grow in the retina (a light-sensitive layer of tissue found at the back of the eye) in individuals born prematurely. Abnormal blood vessels can weaken the retina and lead to detachments causing vision loss and, in some cases, even blindness.
Despite her reduced vision Cindy was able to read regular print, but with each grade the increased workload was a challenge. Now as a teacher and having had additional retinal detachments and surgeries, she found it increasingly hard to read her student’s handwriting and to grade papers. Ultimately completely losing her vision in her left eye— a gradual process that was interspersed with a string of surgeries— the shock of a life of limited vision settled in.
“I felt alone— I had no frame of reference of what vision impairment looked like and my job role had to change,” Cindy recalled. “Access to computers was still limited at this point in my career and so I went from teaching to a more administrative role, focusing on residence life and new student orientation at a small college campus in Kansas; “This was a very unsteady time in my life.”
Navigating Life with Vision Impairment
After her first round of surgeries, Cindy was prescribed a bioptic telescope low vision aid for full-time wear (not for driving). It was big and cumbersome. She felt awkward, self-conscious, and still alone.
She was now a grad student at the University of Kansas in the early 1990s and could feel people staring at her on the sidewalk and in stores. Moreover, she had no peers with low vision to talk to or to help explain what options she had. Being independent was a huge goal and she wondered what her choices were in a state that had limited public transportation.
“If I had more of a voice back then, I would’ve spoken up about how frustrated I was,” Cindy explained. She moved to Nashville and in that first year connected with a vocational rehab counselor. “She told me about Anne Corn— a professor at Vanderbilt— who was known for her work in low vision.”
Cindy needed a job and applied as a secretary for Dr. Corn, even acknowledging to herself that this role might be very temporary. Friends assured her if she could get her foot in the door at Vanderbilt, she could make a new life for herself.
The interview was brief. For her second question Dr. Corn asked “Why are you interviewing for this position?”
An Exciting New Chapter
Within a week of meeting Professor Corn— and after sharing info on her ROP diagnosis— Cindy was enrolled in the Program for Visual Disabilities. After a year in the secretary role, she served as a teacher with Project PAVE (Providing Access to the Visual Environment) and she met with students from across the state of Tennessee.
As a graduate student, Cindy read the assigned journal articles and textbook chapters on visual impairment. She had a plethora of knowledge at hand. This was so much more than the half-page about visual impairment included in her education textbook during her undergrad work.
“I’ll never forget the day, I got happy chills, reading about low vision, self-identity, clinical low vision exams and technology options available to children,” Cindy smiled. “I would read the chapters and think… that’s me! In the graduate school classroom, I found my voice to speak about my life living with low vision.”
From that point on, Cindy knew her role was to help students feel empowered to learn skills and set goals as a young person with low vision— to help them feel less alone in a world where they are usually the only one in the classroom with a visual impairment.
Her role became more and more focused on creating presentations for families and professionals in the special education field with attention to students who are primarily print readers and through Project PAVE providing instruction on the use of hand-held optical low vision aids that could help them accomplish tasks in their low vision journey.
Most importantly, Cindy wanted the students to feel proud of their identity, identity that included trials and triumphs. She wanted them to feel positive about themselves and their future. Gradually, some of them lowered their guard and were willing to talk about that fear of looking different. By emphasizing how their eyes worked and what they were able to do with their vision, she equipped them with the vocabulary they needed to explain their eye condition, when appropriate, and to advocate for their needs.
“The important crux of these services is showing these kids that yes, having low vision is one part of you-certainly not the most important thing about you-and by having tools and strategies, equal participation and inclusion is possible,” Cindy shared, passionately. “In our literature and research, many studies lump all levels of visual impairment into one group, but at the end of the day, being blind is different from having low vision. The students who don’t have studies dedicated to their level of vision, miss out on clearer understanding of their situation; in our role as vision professionals, we can help them recognize their individual needs and solutions.”
In August 2008, Cindy took a leap. Now as a PhD candidate, she moved to Austin to work at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired. It’s been 16 years, and she hasn’t looked back.
Myth-Busting: Low Vision People Can’t Drive
Cindy’s current role as the Low Vision Consultant at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired (TSBVI) is all about educating children, their families and professionals about access strategies, resources and tools they have available to navigate school, home and community as seamlessly as possible.
TSBVI enrolls students ages 6-22 following a school district referral and selection by the Admissions Committee. A significant perk of the school is a Short-Term Programs course in collaboration with Outreach department that Cindy spearheads called In the Driver’s Seat: Introduction to Safe Driving with Low Vision. This parent-student weekend workshop is designed to connect students to other students and families to other families interested in learning about the possibility of driving whether with or without use of a bioptic (a telescope mounted on eyeglasses that the driver uses to briefly spot visual information further in front of them such as a street signs and traffic signals). Reactions to this topic range from disbelief to amazement. Attendees may have never heard of a bioptic, hold misconceptions about how they are used or mistakenly believe that using the bioptic is as easy as putting on a pair of glasses.
One component of the workshop is to address misconceptions regarding how a bioptic device is used. Cindy is passionate about dispelling the myth that the visually impaired can’t be safe drivers. Sessions include a panel of bioptic drivers who answer questions directly and honestly, a low vision specialist who explains visual factors of driving, and an on-foot practice for students testing a bioptic in the parking lot. Cindy summarized, “Our goal is to change the negative perception about people with low vision using bioptics to allow them to be eligible to drive; it’s a privilege, not a right, to drive and with specialized training from a Certified Driving Rehab Specialist and practice, these teenagers can grab the car keys and go.”
Bioptics can be helpful for a lot more things than just driving. Newer designs are hi-tech in appearance and not nearly as heavy or bulky. Bioptics, developed by companies like Ocutech, are available to help people of all ages diagnosed with low vision, to see their loved ones, go to concerts, travel the world and do simple tasks like watch TV and read— but they also are the reason that those with low vision who meet the visual criteria in their state may be able to drive. The misunderstanding is that those driving are always looking into the bioptic’s telescope portion when actually the driver is scanning at all times using their vision through their regular eyeglasses (if they are required) and only popping their vision into their bioptic when needed for a split second. It’s similar to using the rearview and sideview mirrors, she explained, but they help bioptic drivers see much further up the road, giving them lots of time to make the driving adjustments needed to be safe on the road.
Over the past decade, Cindy has done interviews with 111 program attendees, exploring their decisions to either pursue driving, or to wait and consider it later, or simply to use alternate modes of transportation. That’s a 75% response rate of the total 148 attending families/students!
What Should Doctors Know About Low Vision?
This is another subject that Cindy is passionate about. Having gone through school without vision services or a network of peers with low vision, she’s working hard to ensure that students get the support they need to feel empowered.
“I want doctors to know that their patients with a visual impairment should be referred for a low vision exam, that they learn about special-education professionals such as a Certified Orientation and Mobility Specialist who teach independent travel skills, as well as vocational rehabilitation programs including transition services,” she explained. “The number of referrals of low vision patients to these crucial specialists and networks is alarmingly (and inexcusably) low.”
Toward this goal, Cindy works hard to create new programs and new events that increase a student’s sense of independence and confidence. Whether it’s leading lessons on use of a bioptic or other optical devices, understanding eye anatomy or how-to’s on print-reading strategies, she wants a world where visually impaired students feel that their lives are supported, and their future is promising.
Her core belief is that impaired vision can be enhanced with tools, strategies, resources and networks— and those networks can form a community that believes that having low vision and having a rich quality of life can go hand in hand.
“I have the dream job: I get to work with kids and help create connections in the 21st century so they don’t feel alone like I did in the 1970s,” she said, in closing. “With access to education, strong social relationships and job and career prospects, our students can use their vision effectively in every-day life and be excited for what’s ahead.”
Upcoming Program: In the Driver’s Seat: Introduction to Safe Driving with Low Vision
This year he Driver’s Seat workshop is “going on the road” in November as a one-day condensed course at a regional center in northeast Texas and as the full weekend program at TSBVI Outreach Conference Center in March 2024. Eligibility for the workshop includes:
- Student attendee meets Texas visual criteria for driving (acuity of 20/50-20/200; visual field of 140 deg diameter. A TVI/COMS or low vision specialist can help with questions)
- A parent or guardian attends with the student
- Students in grades 9-12
Program highlights includes a panel of bioptic drivers, overview of pre-driver readiness skills, and a student lunch and Q&A session with a low vision specialist.
Ocutech Bioptics are especially helpful for viewing television, movies, and theater, seeing faces, signs, blackboards in school, shopping, and traveling. Ocutech wearers have even used their bioptics to hike, golf, bowl, paint, fish, drive tractors and mow the lawn. Most states in the U.S. and some countries will license eligible visually impaired individuals to drive while using a bioptic telescope.
Ask your low vision specialist if an Ocutech bioptic might be right for you. For more information about Ocutech bioptics or for a referral to a low vision specialist visit www.ocutech.com.
Complete the self-assessment form at /self-assessment-form/ to receive a reply from Ocutech’s experts about your special visual situation.