South Charlotte

Coping with the slow loss of vision

When people hear the term "legally blind," many are under the mistaken impression it means totally blind, with no ability to see.

In reality, the approximately 1.3 million legally blind Americans have varying degrees of vision. Someone is considered legally blind if they have vision that cannot be corrected to better than 20/200.

One local resident living with this condition is Michael Schiano, 59.

Schiano, his wife Rhonda, 50, and daughter Nicole, 14, have been Ballantyne residents since 2006. Schiano has an older daughter, Danielle, 31, who lives in New York, where he is from originally.

Schiano's problems with his vision began in his late teens and his 20s he was diagnosed with optic atrophy, a condition that affects the optic nerve. Although there are several conditions that can produce optic atrophy, a definitive cause has not been found in Schiano's case.

Although it was a startling diagnosis to receive, the impact on his life was not immediately dramatic. The condition progressed slowly until age 40. At that point, Schiano's vision became noticeably worse. He had difficulty reading and his peripheral and central vision was affected.

His sight continued to worsen, and, at age 54, Schiano was diagnosed as legally blind. He was no longer able (or allowed by law) to drive.

He describes it as "the first big effect" he experienced as a result of his condition because he and felt like "his independence was being taken away."

A couple of months after that, he became disabled. An accountant, Schiano loved his job and his coworkers, and it was a difficult situation.

Although not as severe as complete blindness, Schiano's condition was still life changing and presented challenges. He had to adjust to everyday situations. Helping him with those struggles is Metrolina Association for the Blind.

MAB is a nonprofit agency that has provided services to the blind and visually impaired since 1934. They provide personal adjustment and rehabilitations services in order to help clients develop better techniques of daily living.

Programs are tailored to meet each individual and increase their independence as much as possible. Many of these services are free while others require a nominal or sliding scale fee.

Schiano participated in a two-month program at MAB that included a support group.

Also part of the program was instruction on safety and emergency issues.

MAB also introduced specialized cooking equipment and reading and writing materials.

Schiano credits MAB with having a positive impact on his life.

"They changed my life because they help you to understand and deal with the situation," said Schiano. It helped him to accept his situation when he realized that "so many other people are going through the same thing."

Additional MAB services, such as mobility and computer training, have been helpful to him as well.

He is an avid walker, some days covering several miles around his neighborhood. It was on one of these walks that he discovered a traffic problem near Ardrey Kell High School.

For years, residents and parents have complained about the need for a traffic signal on Ardrey Kell Road near Travis Gulch Drive. Schiano contacted the Charlotte Department of Transportation. Like others in the past, his request was not given attention. Concerned not only for his own safety, but the safety of the students and other people with disabilities, he persevered. Eventually, a representative from the DOT met with Schiano and witnessed the problem.

The project was approved and in 2012, there will be a HAWK signal installed on Ardrey Kell near Travis Gulch Drive. A HAWK signal is a pedestrian activated crossing that when not triggered allows traffic to flow normally.

Schiano also has found other areas around town where walking is impeded for those with disabilities. He continues to bring attention to these situations in the hopes of making changes.