Dr. Susan Ponchillia, a noted professor and researcher in the field of blind rehabilitation, died Oct. 12 in Kalamazoo. She was 55.
Ponchillia, a faculty member in Western Michigan University's Department of Blindness and Low Vision Studies for 28 years, was renowned for her work with the natives of Tlicho, a nation in subarctic Canada, who deal with a high rate of vision loss due to a genetic predisposition to rare forms of retinitis pigmentosa.
Her research took her and her husband Dr. Paul Ponchillia, a WMU professor emeritus in the same department, to the arctic region repeatedly over the past 20 years. Susan Ponchillia spent several months during a sabbatical year living in one of the region's remote native communities during the winter months.
In Kalamazoo during July of this year, she premiered a film she produced about her work with the Tlicho people. The documentary was designed to help educate people on the risk of inherited vision loss and explore how other cultures cope with such diseases. She regarded the work, "Sing Me a Fish: Tlicho People of Subarctic Canada Living With Vision Loss," as the capstone to her professional career. She was scheduled to retire in December.
Ponchillia also worked extensively with her husband to create and develop annual sports camps for blind athletes held on the WMU campus. For 22 years, those camps, cosponsored by the Michigan Blind Athletic Association, have attracted students with visual impairments from across Michigan and the Midwest and from locations as far away as Georgia, Maine and Alaska. Through the couple's support, internationally competitive goalball teams with ties to Kalamazoo developed and have competed at the highest levels of international sport.
Ponchillia earned bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees from WMU. She was a rehabilitation teacher in private blind rehabilitation centers before accepting a part-time teaching position at WMU in 1981. She became a full-time faculty member in 1984. She and her husband are co-authors of "Foundations of Rehabilitation Teaching," a celebrated 1998 textbook that earned international accolades as one of the few comprehensive works of its kind.
Additional areas of research and service for Ponchillia included work with people suffering from diabetes and resulting blindness and new developments in Braille technology. Ponchillia was awarded the College of Health and Human Services' Teaching Excellence Award in 2002 after students lauded her for her hands-on approach to teaching.
A memorial service will take place at 2 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 24, at First Presbyterian Church in Three Rivers, Mich.