Robert Fitzgerald, MS ‘99, has always advocated for disadvantaged populations. The training he received at the Pennsylvania College of Optometry (PCO), which established Salus University in 2008, was instrumental in helping him build a successful career in that area.
“I’m a big fan of PCO/Salus,” said Fitzgerald, who works at the Veterans Administration (VA) with the blind and vision-impaired populations. “PCO/Salus helped me realize that I wanted to continue working with the blind and visually impaired. It cemented for me that it was an awesome field!”
Originally from Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, Fitzgerald graduated from Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon, with a degree in Latin American Studies. Fluent in Spanish, he took a job with a Head Start program in Santa Cruz, California, doing social work for the Spanish-speaking parents of the children in the program.
From there, he moved back to the Philadelphia area in 1994 to be closer to family where he was hired by Associated Services for the Blind, which was found to develop and provide services to the blind and visually impaired Latino population. As a Latino outreach coordinator, he started an English as a Second Language program for the blind, a Spanish-speaking support group, a life skills independent living class, and a radio program in Spanish.
While working there, he simultaneously went to Bryn Mawr College for a master’s in social work and to PCO/Salus for a master’s in Orientation and Mobility within the Blindness and Low Vision Studies (BLVS) department, which at the time was under the auspices of PCO.
“I wasn’t sure that with a social work degree I was going to continue with the blindness and low vision population or not,” said Fitzgerald. “I wanted to have a specialty providing blind rehabilitation and the PCO degree allowed me to do that. It provided me with the special skills to provide rehabilitation and build on my prior experience in the field.”
Following his graduate studies at PCO, he worked for the NJ Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired providing O&M instruction to both children and adults. He also continued to work with the Latino population providing O&M services as a private contractor with the state of Pennsylvania.
In 2008, the Philadelphia VA Medical Center hired him to develop a clinic to provide Low Vision and Blind Rehabilitation, as well as vision rehabilitation for the traumatic brain injured population, a position he’s held for the past 15 years.
“A Blind Rehabilitation Outpatient Specialist is a multi-skilled specialist that provides instruction in low vision, orientation, and mobility therapy and vision rehabilitation services. It’s kind of the physical therapy and occupational therapy for the low vision and blind population,” said Fitzgerald. “I’m out in the field providing services in Veterans’’ homes and community so they are independent.”
He’s maintained a strong connection with Salus and serves on the BLVS department’s advisory board. He’s also been a preceptor for the program and at one time had Jamie Maffit, MS ‘06, COMS, CLVT, the current director of the O&M program, as a student intern.
“I really want to help out Salus and be able to train people to get experience working with the VA. People really want to work with the VA in this field,” said Fitzgerald.
In addition, for the past four years, Fitzgerald and the VA have partnered with Salus to provide eye screenings for homeless veterans in New Jersey.
When he’s not at work, Fitzgerald loves to ski. He goes to Colorado every year to ski and his daughter is currently in France studying international business so the family is planning a trip to ski the Alps mountain range as well. Fitzgerald also loves to go camping, and kayaking and is a runner.
He plans to stay with the VA until retirement and is thankful that he has a job that allows him to work with patients in their homes.
“I’m able to combine my social work, which helped with adjustment to blindness and low vision issues with my patients. Then I’m able to use the rehabilitation skills to better work with those patients,” he said.