A New View on Life
Mark Collins works at the Base Supply Store on post, using special equipment, like magnifiers and audio devices, that enhances the capabilities of vision-impaired employees. Photo by Mike Strasser (Travellers Tops; A New View on Life) PHOTO BY MIKE STRASSER

When Mark Collins was told he was losing his vision, the diagnosis was given so direct and matter-of-fact, he was stunned.

Twenty years later, Collins, 51, recalls falling into a depression soon after. Losing sight meant losing independence of sorts, Collins said, and he found himself exploring options to maintain his self-esteem and self worth.

“I’m a fiercely independent person,” said Collins. “Having gone from driving a car to no longer being able to safely operate one was hard. I miss it terribly still.”

The disease that prevents him from such activities is a form of macular degeneration, often called AMD or ARMD (age-related macular degeneration), and is the leading cause of vision loss and blindness in Americans aged 65 and older. Collins was diagnosed with cone dystrophy, an inherited ocular disorder characterized by the loss of cone cells, the photoreceptors responsible for both central and color vision.

“Basically, the detail of my vision is gone,” said Collins. “What you can see clearly 400 feet away, I need to be 20 feet away to see. The sharpness of my vision deteriorates, and everything becomes a blur.”

While it is rare to develop the degeneration at such an early age, Collins, at 31, spent the next eight years adjusting to the changes before becoming legally blind.

A Pennsylvania native, Collins traveled with his father, soaking in sights like the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone National Park. He was told by a state agency counselor that his best option would be to collect social security benefits. Having worked as a produce department manager, Collins found duties like inventory control becoming difficult. Finding suitable employment with his disability proved an even greater challenge.

Collins engaged in several work training programs and held several jobs that compensated for his disability. He went to school for a year to become an occupational therapist assistant, before “hitting a brick wall” in that pursuit.

“During the time I had begun doing this,” said Collins, “the program director said he knew I was getting good grades, but just found out that insurance companies running hospitals and medical centers were pushing these performance standards for therapists, and in my situation there were too many cases where I wouldn’t be able to identify a patient displaying physical symptoms, like a stroke or maybe signs of choking, because they aren’t in my field of vision. I decided I couldn’t continue pursuing this, even though it was something I really wanted to do, if I couldn’t follow through all the way.”

He continued, however, to pursue work in the medical field, and became certified as a medical office assistant through a state program. It was at this time Collins met his wife and moved to Pittsburgh. Even in this happiest of times, Collins continued to struggle in the job market.

“While I was gainfully employed, the work I found had far too much demand on my vision and I found it difficult. There were a lot of frustrating situations before I finally found a good job here.”

It was by coincidence that lead him to the job he currently holds and excels at on Fort Lee.

“My wife was online one night and happened to visit the Virginia Industry for the Blind Web site,” said Collins.

The VIB is a self-sufficient and self-supporting industry, providing employment for blind and visually impaired individuals. Since its establishment in 1925, VIB has provided training and employment opportunities with the goal of enabling self-esteem to individuals that comes from self-sufficiency.

His first job with the VIB was at a tax office in Richmond. He completed a four-month training program to learn the collections system, and did very well in this field.

Two years later, Collins began working at the Base Supply Store on post, so his wife could be closer to her National Guard unit at Fort Pickett. With his managerial skills and an ambition to advance his career further, Collins said the move from Richmond to Fort Lee was a great decision.

“Probably the best thing that’s happened to me in 15 years,” said Collins.

The new job suited him so well, that he is currently training in managerial skills with store manager Helen Millner for career development.

“His story is so inspirational and one that others can certainly learn from,” said Millner. “In the four years I’ve managed here, I’ve never worked with someone so motivated and enthused about his work. From the first day he started, Mark has worked to better himself, to learn and continue developing his skills.”

Millner has worked with Collins to develop career goals and progressively increase work responsibilities. His ultimate goal is to one day manage a base supply store.

“Helen has been very helpful in setting up a program for me to learn the managerial side of the store,” said Collins. “She’s teaching me all the things that go into managing the store, and showing me concepts that even in my own limited managerial experience, I never knew before. So the way I’m being trained, the knowledge I’m gaining, and how Helen is working with me to obtain my goal, has been a great experience.”