SFA student ShyAnne Stringfellow with employees at the Lufkin State Supported Living Center

ShyAnne Stringfellow, a senior from Harleton studying rehabilitation services with an orientation and mobility concentration, helps lead new employees at the Lufkin State Supported Living Center through an exercise designed to help them better understand the challenges people with visual impairments face. This training in February was held before social distancing measures were enacted across the state due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

NACOGDOCHES, Texas — Nearly 20 new employees at the Lufkin State Supported Living Center are blindfolded while seated at tables in a training room. They are given objects of various shapes and sizes and asked to guess what they are.

Some easily determine they’re holding cereal bars and cans of soda. “But what kind of cereal bar and which soda?” asks DJ Dean, clinical instructor and orientation and mobility internship coordinator in the James I. Perkins College of Education at Stephen F. Austin State University.

This exercise highlights one of the challenges Lufkin SSLC residents with visual impairments face when shopping at the center’s cantina. It also helps new employees better understand the residents’ perspectives.

The 13 state supported living centers in Texas provide campus-based services and support to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. One in four people with intellectual disabilities has a visual impairment, according to research.

“This means your vision impacts your ability to complete everyday tasks,” Dean said.

About 50 of Lufkin SSLC’s 275 residents require some type of visual aid. Because of this, two years ago the center partnered with faculty members and students in SFA’s undergraduate orientation and mobility program to conduct “blind mobility” training twice a month for new direct support employees.

While providing SFA students with a transformative learning experience to sharpen their teaching skills, the training shows Lufkin SSLC employees how to safely guide residents up and down stairs and curbs, through doors and in and out of chairs while respecting the residents’ independence.

ShyAnne Stringfellow, a senior from Harleton studying rehabilitation services with an orientation and mobility concentration, emphasized this independence and the importance of gaining the residents’ trust when instructing new employees.

“You need to let residents know what’s going on around them at all times, especially when you are approaching and leaving,” she said. “Always ask them before guiding them if it’s OK for you to lead them because you want to give them the choice of going with you. You want them to feel that independence.”

SFA students and faculty members also volunteer at Lufkin SSLC events throughout the year, including Fall Festival, the Bream Buster Challenge and Christmas activities, such as the parade, gift wrapping and the tree lighting ceremony.

“Participating in the trainings and other events at the facility gives me the hands-on experiences I need and gets me outside my comfort zone,” Stringfellow said. “I also really enjoy working with the new employees because I already feel as though I’m doing my part to help advocate for the residents of the facility, as well as any future clients I may encounter.”

SFA is the only school in the nation with an undergraduate orientation and mobility program. In addition, it’s one of about 10 schools in the nation that teach students how to train those serving as guides for people with visual impairments.

“We are lucky to have such a great partnership with the SFA orientation and mobility program,” said Lynn Hopper, Lufkin SSLC community relations director. “This training opportunity is great for our new employees and will directly benefit the people served at the facility.”

In 2019, Lufkin SSLC presented Dean and her students with the Volunteer Group of the Year Award.

“This is a great opportunity to assist Lufkin SSLC, as well as ensure SFA orientation and mobility students get hands-on experience working with other professionals and  individuals with disabilities,” Dean said. “I hope it motivates the students to seek out opportunities in their future communities once they are certified O&M specialists.”

For more information on SFA’s orientation and mobility program, email Dean at djdean@sfasu.edu.