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Commissioner Janet LaBreck Presents Keynote on Visionaries Day

Commissioner Shares Stories of Perseverance, Perspective, Potential, and Advocacy with Second Year students at New England College of Optometry

Commissioner Janet LaBreck has a long, strong connection to New England College of Optometry (NECO). As a child, she first came to the College as a result of vision issues and met with Dr. Asarkof, a leader in low vision. In 2008, she delivered the commencement address and was awarded honorary degree from the College. Commissioner LaBreck was very involved in helping develop the Low Vision Service of the New England Eye On-Sight Mobile Eye Clinic and was chosen as the recipient of the College’s “Profiles in Vision” award in 2011.

On Visionaries Day 2015, Commissioner LaBreck (seen in the photo with Dr. Gary Chu and President Scott) met with second-year students at the College and shared her life story of overcoming barriers, having perseverance, and giving back to the community through her work. She also discussed the role of practitioners in the rehabilitation process and its importance as an eye care professional.

Commissioner LaBreck grew up in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. When she started having problems in school, she was identified with vision issues. After many trips to various specialists, she was finally diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP), as well as were three of her five siblings. As her vision continued to deteriorate, she attended Perkins School for the Blind with her brother. Despite these challenges, she grew into a strong leader and advocate for the blind and individuals with disabilities.

Commissioner LaBreck recounted her first visit to NECO to see Dr. Asarkof. She explained how he helped her think about her disease in a new way. Up until this point, most of her doctors had told her she would never work and that her options were limited. Rather than seeing her condition close the door on possibilities, Dr. Asarkof helped her reframe her perspective on the diminishing vision as her new reality and helped her to find new ways to deal with her vision. “When I first got my diagnosis, people just told me what was wrong, but he helped me understand how this condition affected my life and which visual aids would allow me to function more effectively As a doctor, you can give people hope and help them see the possibilities of their future.”

Through these and other personal stories, Commissioner LaBreck asked the second-year students to rethink their interactions with patients and consider both what they say and how they say it. Speaking from the perspective of an individual who has been the patient, she shared insights into how the future doctors can think about the patients they see. “Your patient is much more than a diagnosis,” she explained, pointing out that a diagnosis is just one step of how information may change a patient’s life. What information a doctor chooses to share at this point is critical. “When you meet with patients, you have the ability not only to diagnose but to help them move forward. You do this by giving them the tools, information, resources, and technology they need.” These include knowing the resources available in the community, information about their condition and how to make changes in their lives to accommodate their diagnosis, the connections to get services, and the latest technologies to aid them on their journey. It also includes using language that’s appropriate, not only concerning their medical condition but also in how it will affect their daily life. “Use words the patient understands and language that is meaningful to them. Remember, each patient is different, and that’s where you need to start. You are the one who needs to adapt.”

Commissioner LaBreck has long been an advocate for both the blind community and those with other disabilities. Her path to advocacy began when Dr. Asarkof introduced her some new glasses to alleviate problems she had with glare. Unfortunately, this new technology was beyond her financial means. When Commissioner LaBreck petitioned Medicaid to get the glasses, she was denied. She made an appeal and was turned down at her hearing. When she asked which medical professionals had reviewed her case, the appeals board explained that one was not necessary for the appeal. Commissioner LaBreck insisted that for them to accurately review her claim and her situation, someone needed to examine her case individually. She then asked how to appeal further. Through her persistence and advocacy, she won her case. Her abilities were quickly noted and she was asked to become a patient advocate, a role she held for the next twenty years.

Commissioner LaBreck has worked to get resources and support for the blind community in Massachusetts through her community work and advocacy. She always approaches things from a place of possibility and inspires people to create change. After serving as the commissioner of the Massachusetts Association for the Blind, she was appointed by President Obama to be the Commissioner of Rehabilitation Services Administration in the US Department of Education.

Throughout her talk, Commissioner LaBreck provided invaluable insight into patients’ perspectives on getting a diagnosis, the power of information, the effect one doctor can have, and the importance of advocacy. “Remember to help your patients see the possibilities and the opportunities, not just the limitations. One of the best things you can do is really listen to patients and hear what each one needs. Then you can give them the tools they need. If you don’t know an answer to one of their questions, say that, and then find out where to get the answer.” She also urged students to think about how to be advocates for others. She urged them not only to practice, but also find ways to help their communities. “You are more than a doctor seeing patients, you can make a difference in your patients’ lives and in the community.”

Commissioner LaBreck

Commissioner LaBreck