Eye2Eye Offers Support for the Visually Impaired From Those Who Understand the Toll of Vision Loss

Tracy Simon sitting at her desk by the phone
Tracey Simon, a peer support specialist who understands the devastating toll of vision loss, is using her experience to help others.

Tracey Simon, a peer support specialist, understands the devastating toll of vision loss. When she lost her sight, she experienced sadness, anger, isolation, and denial—yet, she had to learn to take care of herself and her children, how to grocery shop, how to navigate travel.

She recalls how even simple tasks became daunting. “Something I could easily do sighted, like plug a lamp into a wall outlet, now takes several minutes of fumbling. It can feel so defeating.”

Simon is now using her experience to help others with similar vision impairment. She is one of the first peer support specialists for Eye2Eye, a grant-funded, pro-bono program operated by Rutgers School of Health Professions Department of Psychiatric Rehabilitation and Counseling Professions.

The program’s mission is to connect people who are blind or have impaired vision with those who have also experienced vision loss and are trained to help them overcome the challenges.

“In Eye2Eye, there is mutual trust. As someone experiencing the same loss, you know how others feel,” Simon said.

Eye2Eye was originally founded by Steve Silverstein, a clinical psychologist and a former Rutgers Professor of Psychiatry who is now a Professor of Psychiatry, Neuroscience, and Ophthalmology at the University of Rochester Medical Center. Silverstein said he was inspired to start Eye2Eye because he recognized the lack of services for the approximately 1/3 of people living with vision loss who are experiencing significant depression and anxiety around the life changes imposed by their changes in visual function.

Through a generous grant from the Lavelle Fund for the Blind, the program first began taking calls in 2019, and since then has grown tremendously. It has served 560 people to date, with 322 of them receiving support in the past year alone. The program’s reach extends to over 40 states.

The program’s expansion has been pivotal to participants like June, a Texan in his 80s, who credits Eye2Eye with helping him learn to live life on his own terms.

“I had no idea how to cope with losing my vision as a senior. The extraordinary peer support specialists guided me through how to traverse my new life. I’ve found courage in their stamina, resolve and shared experiences, ” he said. “Because of them, hope reigns supreme.”

When the COVID pandemic heightened demand for Eye2Eye’s services, the program added additional peer support specialists and introduced monthly group calls for clients, offering a lifeline to individuals who felt isolated and providing them with a sense of community and understanding.

Last spring, Eye2Eye initiated an eight-week group workshop tailored to individuals newly grappling with vision loss. In this workshop, participants are offered a space to share emotions, discuss wellness and coping strategies, and learn about resources related to vision loss, such as assistive technology, mobility and orientation services, and self-advocacy.

Additionally, Eye2Eye has launched specialized groups, including those for young adults aged 20 to 35 and for family members and caregivers of individuals with vision loss, according to Alicia Lukachko, Eye2Eye’s program director.

“We’ve seen how expansion to meet the specialized needs of our clients is critical to enhance the well-being and independence of individuals with vision loss,” Lukachko said.

The grant-funded program was recently awarded $40,000 from the Fan Fox and Leslie R. Samuels Foundation in support of older adults experiencing vision loss in New York City. This past fall Eye2Eye was awarded $35,000 along with a challenge grant from the Reader’s Digest Partners for Sight Foundation. The Reader’s Digest Foundation will match funds raised through Sept. 30 to a total of $15,000.