Magnification equipment helps the visually impaired read

Clare Howard

Gary Bohlen clearly remembers the day he hung his head low with frustration and thought "Lord, put mother in front of a machine that will help her start reading."

Moments later, a man who graduated from the University of Heidelberg in Germany with degrees in low vision and blindness stood before Bohlen's mother in central Illinois with a machine.

"Mother started reading the Bible as she normally would," Bohlen said. "This has increased her quality of life something fierce."

That was two years ago. Bohlen, his mother and other family members had been at the Sight Center in East Peoria, Ill., looking at vision aids for over an hour. They were discouraged. Then Andreas Heim, who has offices in the same building, offered one of his machines to try.

Heim is president of Magnified Vision Inc. He worked as a teacher, consultant and mobility trainer in Germany and in central Illinois before starting his business. His office is filled with technologically advanced equipment manufactured around the world.

Heim still calls Pauline Bohlen, 88, to check how her equipment is working and what's happening with her macular degeneration.

"Andy worked with mother like a son would. He is so patient and knowledgeable," Gary Bohlen said. "Mother would adopt him into the family. He goes the extra mile to this day."

Heim works with a number of equipment manufacturers and seeks out the best equipment for a wide array of vision problems. But don't call him an equipment salesman. To his clients and their families, that would shamefully misrepresent what he does.

More often than not, Heim is out of the office. Last year, he traveled more than 40,000 miles. He usually visits clients in their homes and children in their classrooms. He attends and presents at conferences nationwide.

He delivered a new vision aid to a classroom in northern Illinois not long ago. He put the machine on the desk of a girl whose vision was so poor she couldn't participate in classroom activities. As Heim was standing near the student's desk talking with her teacher, the girl started giggling.

She had moved the magnifying camera on the machine from focusing on a printed page to scanning the classroom. For the first time in her life, she could see the smiling faces of her classmates.

"I have a huge range of clients I help. One woman who lost her vision told me she had no reason to get out of bed in the morning," Heim said.

After graduate school in Germany, Heim declared his status as a conscientious objector rather than face the draft. For his mandatory social service commitment, he worked at a school for the blind outside of Heidelberg.

"I enjoyed that work. The children were 6 to 21, and we had fun," Heim said.

He met and married a woman from Morton. They have a child with Down Syndrome. In 2003, they moved to central Illinois so their son, Sammy, could have a network of family members around him and be included in a regular classroom.

Initially, Heim worked as an itinerant vision teacher with Mid-Central Association and was based at Richwoods High School. The following year, he started his company because he recognized the lack of available technologically advanced vision aids in the region. In 2007, he incorporated as Magnified Vision Inc.

"I don't feel good if people buy a machine after seeing it. They need to spend time with the machine without me there," Heim said.

Children who grow up with low vision develop a network of resources through the schools. People who have lived independently with normal vision all their lives, often struggle alone with vision loss late in life.

"They don't have a network of resources, and they don't know technology has taken off in this field," Heim said.

"Seniors are a growing segment of the population. We see and we are aware of people with hearing aids. But blind people and people with low vision are seen rarely. Low vision hits people hard. They are not done with life, but suddenly can't do so many things."

Low vision often leads to social isolation and depression, he said.

He carries dozens of machines with literally hundreds of modifications to individually customize machines to clients. But the machines are expensive, often $3,000 or more, and there is no Medicare coverage.

Independent seniors who have worked all their lives are often frustrated to learn Medicare won't help. Betty Jean Steinbach, 84, bought one of Heim's machines.

Steinbach had served with the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service during World War II and taught school for 58 years, quitting only when she couldn't see the lesson plans.

"I was hiring someone to write my checks and drive me places," she said. "The quality of my life is so improved. I can't drive, but I can write checks myself, reconcile my bank account, read the paper, work the crossword puzzles, read obituaries. When you live independently, these are the things you just don't want to give up. I was able to go to my savings for this, but many people can't afford these machines. I do think Medicare should help pay."

Steinbach navigates the aisles of a grocery store with what looks like a Blackberry in her hand. Actually, it's the latest in technologically advanced vision aids, a hand-held device that helps her read labels or order from a restaurant menu.

Angie Kinney, 86, was diagnosed with macular degeneration three years ago. A friend asked Heim to call her.

"I can read now!" she said. "I don't know why my doctor didn't refer me to him."

Heim has a limited number of used machines when people trade in for a newer model.

"Everybody who is sight impaired and wants to live independently needs these machines. They are a necessity," Steinbach said. "I don't want to give up."

Clare Howard can be reached at 686-3250