By LENORE DEVORE
Phillip Williams was almost 15 years old when the juvenile version of macular degeneration – Stargardt disease – began to take his eyesight. What starts out robbing people of their central vision eventually leaves its sufferers blind or legally blind.
“I went through the rest of high school coping with (the transition from ) being a sighted individual to having continuous macular degeneration,” said Williams, 53, the senior pastor at Cornerstone Church in Fort Meade who is legally blind. “I’ve dealt with it ever since.”
When he moved from South Florida to Fort Meade, he realized he needed help, especially finding doctors closer than those he was seeing in Miami. He received initial help from the Division of Blind Services, who then sent him to Lighthouse for the Blind in Winter Haven. Lighthouse trains the visually impaired to perform daily living tasks and to gain or keep employment.
After going through their training program, he wanted to give back. Now he serves as a facilitator there.
“I’m with Lighthouse for the Blind because of my own personal experience with losing my sight,” Williams says. “They taught me iPhone use, typing shortcuts, how to use MicroSoft assisted technology, and other technology.”
He also learned about Zoom Text, a software program that magnifies the images on a computer monitor up to 36 times. It even reads what’s there. “They put me through training” and got him access to Zoom Text, he says. “I was able to increase my ability to use technology through Lighthouse for the Blind.”
Now he’s a leader and mentor for others struggling to move forward, holding support-group meetings twice a month so the visually impaired who have gone through Lighthouse’s training have a safe place to share struggles, challenges, and successes.
“What are some of the things you are dealing with? What causes you to struggle? How do you handle this?” he says of the things they discuss. “People just talk. There might be a person working in a particular area who can answer: how are you able to do that?”
He calls one man, Greg, the group’s hero. Greg, he says, “put out some CDs on how to exercise. He’s completely blind.”
As a group, they also tackle topics such as how to garden and how to walk through their neighborhoods. “It puts us back in a place and we realize we are not helpless, there are things we can do. We use each other as resources and figure out how to do things.”
Accomplishments are celebrated, and the group learns to “not be afraid of loss of sight,” he says.
Lighthouse Executive Director Sheryl Brown says she loves having Williams there, mentoring and caring for others.
“It makes such a difference when we have someone who is visually impaired or blind lead a support group or teach our classes (our instructor is blind) because they can relate and also serve as a role model that being blind or visually impaired is not limiting. Life can go on to its fullest,” she says.
She also likes the fact that Williams is employed, sending a positive message to those around him.
“We always like to get the word out that you can work or keep your job even if you develop a vision loss with today’s technology,” says Brown, who emphasizes that Lighthouse, which has served the visually impaired for 78 years, continuously runs six-week programs to train people.
After he went through training, Williams says, Lighthouse asked him how it could help him improve his education. “Between Lighthouse and the Division of Blind Services, they put me through a master’s program, through the seminary. That assisted me with what I was doing through my church.”
He now works to train young pastors, and helps his church find resources for the visually impaired.
“I connect with my denomination’s leadership over my specific issues, which helps them realize there is help out there … like readers, assisted technology, closed-circuit TV that’s put in a format to read to them.”
More than a half-dozen retired members of the church assist him as needed, driving him to appointments and the like. “They’re a huge help when it comes to transportation. When dealing with the church, people want to assist.”
His wife of 34 years, Lisa, is a full-time pre-kindergarten teacher in the public school system. They have three children, ranging in age from 15 to 30, and two grandchildren.
Williams’ biggest concern is the lack of information available for people who are visually impaired or legally blind. “I think it’s a disability that doesn’t get a lot of attention.”
That could change with people like Williams as advocates, people who Brown calls “a leader, a role model, and a positive influence.”
By LENORE DEVORE