PORTLAND — The city may soon be home to the only training and rehabilitation center for the visually impaired north of Newton, Mass., after the Iris Network received a $1.1 million grant from the federal government.

The funding was secured by the state Department of Labor’s Division for the Blind and Visually Impaired.

The new immersion facility, which will be called the Vision Rehabilitation and Vocational Training Center, will be built at Iris’s existing location in the William J. Ryan Building at 189 Park Ave. The division is part of the state Bureau of Rehabilitation Services.

James Phipps, Iris Network executive director, said the current service delivery model is one-on-one, and the staff drives more than 175,000 miles a year to see patients all around Maine.

He said building the immersion facility will instead bring small groups of clients to Portland.

“It’s certainly possible to provide a comprehensive vision rehabilitation program on an itinerant model, but it takes a lot of staff time to deliver those one-on-one services, especially in a very rural state like Maine,” Phipps said.

He said an added benefit of the “immersion model” is the economics, because there is no staff travel time, and one person can work with a group.

“But the benefits to the clients are significant because they move through the vision rehabilitation process much more quickly if they receive six or seven hours a day of intensive training for a number of weeks at a time,” Phipps said. 

Phipps said there are four primary programs at Iris, including vision rehabilitation and therapy services, a low-vision clinic, a technology and employment program, and resident support services at the Iris Park Apartments for visually impaired people who may also have other disabilities.

“Blindness does not limit the ability of someone to live and work independently and function as an active member of the community,” Phipps said. “But when it’s paired with other disabilities it can make it difficult to function fully and independently.”

In addition to the grant, which comes from the Rehabilitation Services Administration of the U.S. Department of Education, the Iris Network will contribute just over $300,000, or 20 percent of what the federal government provided. An additional $275,000 will also come from public and private funding to complete the renovations.

Phipps said he also hopes to create a $1 million endowment for the Iris Network in the coming years.

The immersion center program will bring clients to Portland for 10-week intensive programs, which will include low-vision therapy, vision rehabilitation programs, and vocational training. The program will run Monday through Friday.

Phipps said Iris will not provide housing for the clients, but will arrange for rental apartments. Transportation should not be an issue, he said, because Iris Network is on a METRO bus route.

“Our job is to teach these clients to live independently in the community, and there’s no better way to do that than to begin integrating clients into the community immediately,” Phipps said.

He said even if clients need more than one 10-week period, it will take considerably less time than a two-hour session that meets once a week, which he said could take years to be successful.

Phipps said he hopes that construction and renovation will begin by the end of October or beginning of November, and will take about six months to complete.

Some of the new features will include a “training apartment,” where clients can learn how to navigate independently, as well as updated training spaces on all floors of the building for things like “adjustment counseling” for clients who are new to vision loss.

“We all have things to deal with in life, and this is just another one of those lemons that get thrown at us,” Phipps said. “In order for us to be healthy people we have to figure out how to make lemonade. Part of the sugar that goes into that lemonade is the vision rehabilitation that folks need to go through to come out on the other side as independent, healthy people.”

Colin Ellis can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @colinoellis.

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