PORTLAND — Did you ever park at 189 Park Ave. for a Portland Sea Dogs game and wonder about The Iris Network? Did you know that Helen Keller hosted this agency’s first fundraiser in 1907?

The Iris Network has a long history of innovation and commitment to its mission of helping Mainers who are visually impaired or blind attain independence and community integration.

This is accomplished through a variety services, from counseling to deal with the emotional trauma of vision loss, to relearning daily living skills, to job retraining programs.

Today there are 40,000 Mainers who could benefit from Iris Network services and that number is expected to double within the next 15 years, according to the agency. These will all be people newly experiencing vision loss.

Helen Keller raised $1,000 for the Iris Network in 1907; in today’s dollars that would be more than $23,500. In 1929, she wrote in a fundraising letter for the Iris Network about the need for a comprehensive support network to prevent people from being isolated and dependent:

“Can you imagine what it would be like to sit always waiting and hoping that something would happen to break the terrible monotony? Something to do – some sort of work and recreation are necessary to the happiness of a human being. They are as important as the food and shelter which keep us alive.”

Keller asked for help to “… bring them courage, to offer training – to put within their reach the joy of normal activity.”

Two events this week will help carry on Helen Keller’s mission: “Adventures in Darkness,” a performance by Tom Sullivan, auction and dinner to co-benefit The Iris Network and Maine Handicapped Skiing on Friday, Oct. 15, and the 15th Annual White Cane Awareness Walk starting at the Maine State Pier on Saturday, Oct. 16.

The purpose of the Walk is to show the sighted world that people with visual impairment or blindness can safely travel in their communities with a little help from white canes and service dogs. There will be vendors, music and entertainment. For more information, call 774-6273.

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A closer look at vision loss

The most common cause of vision loss in the U.S. today is age-related macular degeneration. Though AMD can get progressively worse, it rarely leads to total blindness, but frequently leads to legal blindness and is often very disruptive of a normal functioning life.

A new case of AMD is diagnosed every three minutes in the U.S., and according to the Iris Network, Maine has the nation’s oldest average age, which greatly increases the likelihood of age-related eye disease like AMD.

Increasing diabetes due to obesity is another one of the leading causes of vision loss. Like AMD, it is progressive, but unlike AMD, the vision loss is usually total. Maine’s obesity ranking, though middle of the pack, is increasing dramatically.

There is also serious concern about digital-age eye strain, which affects younger people to a greater degree, given all of the electronic devices they use, especially those with small, hand-held screens. There is even a syndrome to define it: presbyopia.

Presbyopia, or “aging eye,” is usually seen around age 40. But optometrists are starting to see it in younger patients, due to computer use. Symptoms include eye strain, blurred vision, dry eyes, and headaches.

As we age, the lens of our eye naturally loses its flexibility, making it more difficult to focus on objects close to us. This manifests as difficulty reading small print, needing to hold material at arm’s length to see it, squinting while reading, and having tired eyes after reading or using a computer. Presbyopia can ultimately lead to eye diseases like AMD.

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