The Gift of 'Sight'
Joseph Thibodeaux teaching his OrCam device to recognize his mom.
Joseph Thibodeaux teaching his OrCam device to recognize his mom.
OrCam My Eye Device

It wasn’t exactly a chorus of angels singing. For Joseph Thibodeaux, a miracle sounded more like a robotic voice parroting, “Mom.”

Joe has been on the road to blindness since he was 12 years old. At 14, he was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa. The doctor described it as shotgun vision. Deterioration in the retina makes it hard to process light. It starts with blind spots in the peripheral vision and progresses to total blindness over time.

“His doctor told us he could be totally blind next week, or his vision might hold into his 50s, 60s, or 70s,” said Joe’s father, Robert Aul.

Now, at 44, Joe lives in a nursing home, where he can receive help to navigate the world. He is also in treatment for chronic, stage 4 kidney disease and remains on the waiting list for a transplant.

In early 2023, Joe learned about a device called OrCam. The artificial intelligence device attaches to a pair of glasses and narrates whatever enters the wearer’s impaired field of view. It can read text on a page, alert the wearer to objects and people in front of them, and when programmed, identify the faces of specific individuals. But at just over $4,600, it seemed like an unobtainable dream.

While talking about the device with a fellow resident who was also legally blind, they decided to start making phone calls to local universities, wondering if they could be included in research study or get a grant for the device. An administrator at one of the schools pointed them to an employee of East Central Electric Cooperative, who informed both men about the Operation Roundup Grant.

Operation Roundup is a member-run charitable foundation affiliated with the co-op. Each month members voluntarily round up their electric bills to the next dollar. That spare change – 48 cents on average – is added to a fund designed to help individuals and organizations in the ECE service area pay for serious needs.

A board of co-op members meets quarterly to review applications and award grants. In May, the board voted to grant two blind men the gift of ‘sight.’

On Thursday, June 1st, Representatives of East Central Electric were invited to join Joe and his parents as the OrCam device was fitted for the first time. The tight quarters of Joe’s room was filled with support as the company representative from NanoPac helped Joe fumble through learning how to use the device.

Joe plans to use the device to continue his education. But it will also come in handy as his eyesight further deteriorates. For the first go at facial recognition, he held a finger to the ridge along the side of the tiny camera as it took a series of photos of his mom, Faye.

As a test, she moved out of, and back into, his would-be line of sight. That’s when the sound of a miracle occurred.

In answer to the question, “What does this mean to you?” Faye was too busy holding back tears to express what was on her heart.

“He’s been without vision, and knowing what’s in front of him, for a long time,” Robert said. “This is going to help him navigate the world and regain some independence.”

For Joe, “This means a lot of different things,” but he ended it simply with, “I can read a book when I want.”