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Grand Chief Calls Project NATIVE’s Help for Low Vision Native Americans 'Life Changing'

Linda Poolaw was too determined to let mere distance stop her from discovering tools and technologies that could help her deal with her vision loss. She drove across the state of Oklahoma from Anadarko to Tahlequah in search of help.

Her destination? A series of free workshops designed to help Native Americans with low vision. The program, called Project Native Americans Teaming in Vision Empowerment (or Project NATIVE), is headquartered in Tahlequah at the American Indian Resource Center. The grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Native Americans is the first across the United States to provide low vision services specifically for Native Americans. Services inform participants of the latest in low vision tools and technology as well as life skills, mobility instruction and self-advocacy.

Poolaw, of Delaware and Kiowa descent, is the Grand Chief of the Delaware Grand Council of North America. Poolaw has enjoyed a varied career with many accomplishments. In addition to working for Indian Health Services she served the Delaware Nation and the grand council. She has written several plays, a book, and researched and wrote about Native culture for a variety of organizations. Retired now from tribal politics, Poolaw continues to write, but in the last 15 years words on a computer screen had become too small for Poolaw to see. Diagnosed with a rare eye disease in the 1970s, advancing vision loss was stealing her ability to work and her independence.

 As her eyesight worsened over the years she went from typing her own research documents on a laptop to dictating into a machine for someone to transcribe. She found dictating a very difficult form of writing; it just wasn’t working. She began to write longhand but between her eyesight and arthritis it was slow and painful. Hearing about the Project NATIVE workshops from an advertisement in the newspaper she signed up and arranged for a good friend to drive her across the state to attend the workshops.

“I thought the workshops were wonderful. When I came back I was so happy I said I think I can see again!” said Poolaw. “I have a deadline on this [Smithsonian Magazine] story and I think I can get that in. I was hand writing before, and with arthritis it took me a long time. Then a lady would transfer my writing to a computer. Handwriting and dictating is not anything to writing on the computer, I can be so more creative this way. Now I am whizzing along.”

Since Poolaw already owned a laptop and was familiar with computers, Project NATIVE purchased low vision software called Zoom Text. The software not only enlarges the words, it reads the words back and lets the user know where they are on the computer. Zoom Text and a special keyboard for low vision users had Poolaw “whizzing along” the first time she sat down at the computer during the workshop demonstration.

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Poolaw is currently a consultant for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. Horace Poolaw, her father, was an internationally known photographer. Her assignment for the museum is to capture her father’s lifework in writing. Still known as a formidable woman at nearly 71 years old, Poolaw continues her involvement in Delaware culture and her work as an ambassador for her father’s lifelong work as an acclaimed photographer. She is eager to start working on a major exhibition of his work at the Smithsonian in New York City in the spring of 2014.

Poolaw has more exciting plans to flex her newfound computer capacities, saying that she will be, “Concentrating on using it as a word processor for my writing. Next week, I plan to explore more on the computer. I can’t wait to start corresponding with people and actually start doing some business on it. It’s changing my whole life.”

About Project NATIVE

Project Native Americans Teaming in Vision Empowerment, or Project NATIVE, provides low vision services to Native Americans with a vision loss.

Free workshop topics include information about home safety issues, moving safely and efficiently around the home and in unfamiliar locations, low vision aids (to watch TV, read, sew or use computers), and visual aids for arts and crafts and hobbies. From talking medicine reminders to magnifiers and special lights, participants will discover a variety of low vision tools for independent living.

All services are free and workshops are presented in a fun atmosphere by Native Americans. Three one-day workshops are part of the program and scheduled several times a year. If you or family members are interested in the free services offered by Project NATIVE, please call them at (918) 456-5581 for guidelines, applications and a workshop calendar or visit their website at Project NATIVE, based in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, and is funded by the Administration for Native Americans, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.