Soon after Ursula Rucki turned 50, the words in her beloved books became hard to decipher. A doctor diagnosed her with age-related macular degeneration (AMD), a leading cause of vision loss that affects more than 2 million U.S. residents.

As her vision worsened, teaching middle school math and science became too difficult — she couldn’t read the students’ papers to grade them — so she switched to teaching third grade. After three years, that too became more than she could handle, and she was forced to retire.

“I was really down and out. It was really scary, and I felt helpless,” the Morris County resident recalled.

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Rucki is not alone. As the U.S. population ages, more people are developing AMD and other age-related eye diseases. By 2050, 5.4 million U.S. residents are expected to have AMD, and more than 13 million will have some type of vision impairment, according to the National Eye Institute. February is Low Vision Awareness Month because eye diseases and vision loss have become major public health concerns.

Rucki found support at Vision Loss Alliance of New Jersey (formerly NJ Foundation for the Blind), learning skills and making connections with other adults who had lost sight. But it is Vision Loss Alliance’s revamped technology class that she credits with restoring her independence. The power of her iPhone and apps is reopening her world.

“I feel like I have so much independence because of this phone,” she said. The iPhone’s VoiceOver function reads aloud whatever is on her screen so she can easily find the program or app she needs.

Rucki listens to books, sends texts and emails to family members and friends, and plays Words With Friends with her grandson in Connecticut. The iPhone even corrects her German when she writes to relatives in Germany. She’s also learned to use apps that identify the contents of cans and count the bills in her wallet.

Rucki said Vision Loss Alliance’s 13-week program has made learning easy. “It’s a very structured curriculum,” she said. “They teach you step by step, and if you get stuck, the instructors are there to help.” Instructors work with participants in small groups, and learning is reinforced through group labs. Participants get a compact disc that guides them through lessons so they can practice at home. 

Technology program open houses will be held March 7 and March 14, from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. To register for one of the open houses (required), to get more information, or to register for the spring session that starts May 9, email programs@vlanj.org or call 973-627-0055, ext. 312.