Optometry Podcast: Tom Barracato Shares his Journey in Eyecare and OptiCon

Few people have served their profession as much as Tom Barracato.  As an optician and owner of the small, family business Adolph Optical in Akron, Ohio he has volunteered his voice as a leader for opticianry as member and past-chairperson of the board of directors of the American Board of Opticianry (ABO) and National Contact Lens Examiners (NCLE). His career got an early start; Barracato joke that he has been involved in opticianry from the moment he was born. His father became an optician as a corpsman in the Navy, and after returning to Ohio when his military service ended he worked as an optician in Cleveland and then Akron where he opened Adolph Optical in 1971.  In that era, frames came disassembled so you could custom order different sized temples or face shapes, and then assemble the parts together. Barracato got his start assembling frames in the lab on weekends with his dad. Today at Barracato’s practice, his dad still sometimes comes in to work at the age of 83. 

Barracato pursued a business degree at college with plans to pursue a career in marketing, but he fell in love with the profession of opticianry working for his father at Adolph Optical and has never left. The optical shop is now 48 years old, “but we don’t want to get too big,” he explains. His passion is for family owned small businesses where his customers and local community get personal service. 

As a young man, Barracato remembers going to the Optician’s Association of Ohio (OAO) meetings.  There was a sense of community as the roughly 1,500 members of the profession took their educational credits each year at this state meeting.  He was asked to be a trustee for the state association on the local Cleveland level, and then for the central state board, and in 2009 he became president of the OAO.  “I found out a long time ago if you go to the bathroom at the wrong time, you can wind up president,” he jokes, but his passion for leadership in the profession is clear. He started attending national Optician’s Association of America conference meetings regularly at that time, and eventually served as president of OAA in 2014.  Concurrently he was appointed by the governor of Ohio to serve on the licensing board for opticianry in that state; he has served in that position for 13 years being re-appointed by multiple state governors. 

The ABO NCLE is the national certifying body for opticians, and Barracato has served on the board for this organization for the last several years.  The certification practicals administered by the ABO NCLE are used by the majority of states for optician certification. He is a strong believer in the importance of being a member of local and national organizations, and in collaborating with members across all eyecare services. “The whole community has to work together where it’s ophthalmological, optometric, or opticianry.  Not everyone wants to get involved [in their local and national organizations], but when something bad happens – maybe a Senator introduces a bill that’s going to deregulate [the profession] – the phone calls go out to the OAA and ABO NCLE to help fight the battles to protect the profession.” Recently in Virginia there was a legal movement to deregulate the profession of opticianry in that state, and the opticianry national organizations immediately went to bat to protect its’ members professional status. The swift response was extremely successful, and the bill was quickly dropped by legislators.

“There’s always going to be some disruptive technology coming along. Ultimately opticians are a very important part of the eyecare delivery process,” Barracato believes. One of the ways optometry, ophthalmology, and opticianry can best work together to serve patients is to participate in educational events where all functions of eyecare meet face to face.  That’s one of the biggest draws of Vision Expo as a conference. With the abundance of online credit hours available, Barracato thinks there is still a special place for face-to-face continuing education meetings, and building that sense of community in his profession is really what the OptiCon events at Vision Expo are all about. OptiCon was built to be education for opticians by opticians, and they are now in their 10th year of hosting events at Vision Expo. 

“One of the things that OptiCon at Vision Expo is doing is trying to expand the business aspect of the offered education.  Business knowledge is more important now than ever,” shares Barracato. How are small offices like his own Adolph Optical in Akron going to compete with retail juggernauts like Eyemart Express or online disrupters like Zenni Optical or Warby Parker? A focus on bringing retail strategies to small business owners is what sets Vision Expo education apart from other conferences for eyecare professionals. “I would go listen to Phernell Walker speak anywhere, anytime,” he shares about one of OptiCon’s most popular speakers, who is teaching 6 courses this year at Vision Expo West. He’s also worked with Dr. Mick Kling to build out business education for this year’s OptiCon events. 

“You’ve got to get to the OptiCon hub,” is Barracato’s top advice for this year’s Vision Expo West attendees. The keynote speaker, Rebecca Alexander, is a must-see event. She’s a phenomenal athlete and disability rights advocate, having climbed Mount Kilamajaro, swam from Alcatraz to shore in San Francisco Bay, all while suffering from vision and hearing loss as a result of Usher Syndrome.  Her struggles with vision loss and her determination to pursue her life’s dreams were featured in the documentary Sight: The Story of Vision and in her autobiography, Not Fade Away, which is being turned into a movie where Emily Blount will be portraying her on the big screen. 

Save the Date for Climbing Even Higher: An Inspirational Story of True Vision with Rebecca Alexander 

Thursday, September 19th 12:30-1:45 

A complimentary lunch will be served at noon, sponsored by Essilor. Alexander’s presentation will be immediately followed with a book signing event. 

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