Carmen de Molina followed Bri Gowen’s voice as the group left the restaurant. They turned left out the front door and headed across the parking lot to a grocery store. Cars pulling into the lot hummed behind them, while others in the group chatted a few paces in front. Gowen used the sounds to understand the surroundings.

De Molina’s cane tapped the edge of a curb, and she felt uneven rocks on top as it crunched slightly into the base of a landscaping island. She and Gowen decided to go around and followed the rest of the Visually Impaired Program’s independent living skills class during a recent session.

It was the first time since de Molina lost her sight five years ago that she’d been to a store without her daughter guiding her, she said.

Cane travel takes months to master, even if you do it every day, the class’ co-facilitator told de Molina.

“I don’t do it every day, because I don’t go anywhere,” she said.

“Oh, but you’re going to start,” Gowen said. “Imagine, this time next year you’re going to be making Thanksgiving dinner for your family.”

De Molina’s smile flashed over her sunglasses. She started the class at Wyoming Independent Living a few weeks ago to continue gaining independence, she said.

The class is one of many services offered by the statewide nonprofit to help people with disabilities live as independently as possible, executive director Amy Burns said. The agency’s services also include transportation, advocacy, peer support, case management for in-home assistance and a program to help people transition out of nursing homes.

Disabilities can include sensory impairments, mobility impairments and mental health issues, Burns said.

“There are a lot of different programs, but it’s all centered around the idea that the person living with the disability is the expert on what they need and how they want those services delivered,” she said.

The agency serves about 1,500 people a year and provides information and referral services to another 1,000 people throughout eastern Wyoming, Burns said. The nonprofit also works with communities, businesses and organizations interested in becoming more accessible and inclusive, she said. The services are expanding through the state, and the goal is to be a hub for the disabled community, Burns added. Half of the nonprofit’s staff and board members also have a disability, and leaders are seeking more people who’ve experienced disabilities and are interested in lending expertise and support, she said.

“It’s an agency of people with disabilities for people with disabilities,” Burns said.

Learning new methods

De Molina and Gowen found another curb as they reached the end of the parking lot. It’s a good indicator they might be at the store, Gowen said. De Molina walked onto the sidewalk and searched for the door. She stepped around the corner and tapped a wall, then followed the voices into the building. Class instructor and Visually Impaired Program Lead Specialist Laurel Henry swept her own white cane in front of her feet as she led the class through the front of the store.

The eight-session class covers daily living skills like cooking, cleaning, labeling and organizing at home, as well as how to navigate outside, said Henry, who is blind. The participants also learn about using technology, including screen readers, computer magnification programs and mobile phone programs. They discuss the feelings that come with adjusting to vision loss.

Before shopping, the class that day ate lunch at a nearby restaurant to practice navigating public spaces. Later that week, they’d cook lunch with the food they bought at the grocery store. On graduation day, they’ll cook a meal for their friends and family.

“My main thing is I want people to know that even if you lose vision, you can still lead a wonderful life,” Henry said. “And you can do everything you did when you were sighted. You just have to do it a little bit differently.”

The class walked to the customer service desk at the grocery store, where they met a shopping assistant. Customer service is usually at the front of the store, Henry told them. It’s a good idea to have a list as well as a system to identify the groceries at home, she added.

“Communication is really, really important,” Henry said. “I always look at what someone is putting in my cart as well. When they grab it off the shelf, I grab it and make sure I know what it looks like and make sure it’s exactly what I’m looking for.”

She holds and feels the items to know if, for instance, it’s a can of tomato paste or soup.

The class started in the produce section, where the customer service assistant helped them find avocados, tomatoes, peppers and onions.

Gowen mentioned that she uses customer service at stores from gas stations to thrift stores, and she’ll even ask them to read ingredients at the grocery store.

“I need to know what I’m eating,” she said.

Gowen reminded de Molina to keep swinging past her shoulders on both sides as they passed displays in the store. Henry asked the assistant about paper plate prices and packages. She felt larger and smaller options with her hands. She opted for the bigger plates and grabbed two packages — just in case.

“How do you think you find the front?” Henry asked the group when they finished their shopping.

De Molina correctly said it was the left, and the group headed in the direction they came in.

“We just kind of let them figure it out,” Gowen said. “You don’t want to do things for people because they’ll never learn to do it on their own.”

Gaining independence

John Wall has been through several of the Wyoming Independent Living classes, including the VIP class, and now helps lead classes. He’s also used other services, including transportation.

During the grocery store outing, he helped show the group how to choose and inspect vegetables with their hands as well as ask questions about colors and prices.

He’s experienced vision loss because of multiple sclerosis, he said. Just because you used to do something a certain way doesn’t mean you can’t learn new ways, he told the class members. He’s learned much from the Wyoming Independent Living programs and the people in them, he said.

“The main thing is give people a little more confidence within themselves to be more independent,” Wall said.

De Molina said she’s felt more confident since signing up for the class. That afternoon at the restaurant and grocery store went pretty well, she said, and the instructors agreed.

She lost her vision because of diabetes. As her sight declined, she had to leave her job at an assisted living facility. At first, she didn’t want to leave her house or even her bed. Then, two years ago, she was persuaded to take a class at Wyoming Independent Living called “Living Well with a Disability.”

“I didn’t even want to talk to anybody or anything, I was so depressed,” she said. “But I’m better now. Sometimes, I go, ‘Gosh, I have to accept that I’m never going to see again.’ I’m fine now, though.”

That first class helped her start adjusting and learn that there’s life without sight, she said. She made friends with Wall and others. She’s learning to think of the things she can do and enjoy — like hugging and kissing her grandkids, she said. De Molina had always loved reading, so she also plans take the Braille class next month.

She’s still afraid of falling while walking on her own and has to move slowly. But she looks forward to more cooking, more shopping and simply walking outside on her own as she practices and improves.

“I’ve learned independence,” she said.

Follow reporter Elysia Conner on Twitter @erconner

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