It’s been quite awhile since we’ve added a new blog post. It’s definitely been on our minds as the days pass quickly with family, work, school, and travel. We remain passionate about sharing our journeys, and providing education, advocacy, and stories about blindness to our readers.
I think back to my first school principal 15 years ago, who was extremely kind, and how he probably would have been more than happy to assist me with any accommodations I needed. But I was afraid to ask and too proud to admit when I struggled, which really took a toll on my happiness and even health.
I remember a particularly devastating moment during my first year of teaching. We were doing “student-led” conferences where the 7th grade teachers floated from table to table to meet with students and parents to discuss student progress. I kept waiting for one of my more challenging students to arrive with his parents so that we could discuss some behavioral issues. I never saw the student nor his parents, so I just kept floating from table to table and assumed the family was a no-show. At the end of the evening, our school’s dean said he’d like to talk with me. He told me that RJ and his parents had come to his office to voice a complaint that I had purposely ignored them and walked past the table they were sitting at during the conferences. I was stunned and awkwardly explained to the dean that I hadn’t seen them, which I knew sounded crazy. How could an entire table of people be outside of my line of vision? I asked him why they hadn’t just come up to me, and he said that he even offered to walk them back in to find me but they were too upset. I remember sitting alone in my classroom after the dean left, hot tears of shame and anger slowly trickling down my face as I recounted the evening, wondering if I had unknowingly skipped over any other students due to my lack of sight. I hated that my actions (or lack thereof) were so misunderstood. I later called the parents to apologize, but they seemed to have already pegged me as uncaring and incompetent by that point.
It took me a long time to even tell my team of teachers what had happened, but once I did they made a habit of whispering which students and parents were waiting at tables. But I still dreaded those evenings. Thinking of them now, I wish I had thought to simply ask if I could be seated at a table, or even in my classroom, and have the families come to me instead. Yes, that would have required our team and school to adjust how we were running conferences, but it’s a very reasonable accommodation that would have prevented both misunderstandings and stress.
Today, I am able to ask for what I need more easily. For example, I was struggling with some of our forms, particularly the handwritten ones since my screen-reader does not read handwriting, so I asked my director if one of the admins on our teams could read them to me. She was happy to help and even offered that they type the top portions of my forms.
This isn’t to say I’ve completely figured out how to handle vision loss in the workplace. Far from it. New challenges continue to arise, and I have to figure out how to navigate them.
After my first couple weeks of implementing 504 Plans, for example, I received an e-mail listing some errors in several plans I had finalized and sent to our filing clerk. This might not sound like a very big deal, but these were documents that had already been signed by staff and parents and filed in cumulative student records. In order to correct them, I had to re-upload documents, obtain new signatures and have clerks reprint and refile documents. My oversights cost other employees extra time and effort, which is not even close to the quality work I desire to do. And it sent me immediately into a shame spiral. Fortunately, thanks to Brene Brown and my “Daring Sisters,” I now have some shame-resiliency tools to help me work through blind shame, something I didn’t have in my 20s. Vulnerability is one of these tools, so I was able to share my struggles with a close friend who also has vision loss. She put words to my feelings, saying that my performance didn’t feel consistent with how I would want to perform if I had full sight. I also opened up to a co-worker, who not only offered to start peer-editing my 504 plans but also took the time to empathize and said, “You’re an asset to this team. You bring something that some of us don’t have.” I smiled when she said this because I immediately thought back to the first time I received an e-mail from a teacher and parent of a student with a visual impairment. I couldn’t wait to help a student in an area where I have firsthand experience. But I’ve noticed that it’s not just students with vision loss that I feel grateful to assist. I feel rewarded every time I put an accommodation in place that I know will help a student engage with learning in a way that fosters confidence, regardless of their disability.
My director is working with me to find less cumbersome ways to do my job, including having someone proof my forms for typos. It’s not that I’m not able to spot typos, but I’m not able to “spot check” a document or quickly scan over it like most people can. My screen reader is picky about what types of documents it will read, and it doesn’t always read everything that’s on the screen. Staring at pages and pages of typed documents with intermittent gray boxes causes me a lot of eye fatigue and headaches, so we’re working on ways to streamline the process.
The irony of trying to figure out my own accommodations in order to put accommodations into place for students is not lost on me. I think back to my years as a student and remember teachers telling my parents that I needed to speak up and ask for help, which always confused me because I often didn’t know what I needed.
Now, after years in the classroom, both as a student and a teacher, I’m finding my stride. I’m learning to celebrate the new tasks I have mastered – as small as they might seem at times. I am learning not to compare myself to my co-workers, as they seem to master new things more quickly and with more ease. I’m struggling at times, but I’m not allowing my struggles to shame me.
Photo description: water-style script type font with Brene Brown quote mentioned.
A friend sent me a framed Brene Brown quote for my birthday that says, “I will not shrink back. I will not puff up. I will stand my sacred ground.” It now hangs over my work desk so that I can glance up at it as a reminder before my meetings. I visualize the name of the student and their needs, and pray for guidance on how to best help them.
I know I may not immediately have all the answers for them, but I at least want to start at a place of empathy and understanding. I’m learning that the more practice I have at standing my own “sacred ground,” the more capable I am of encouraging others to do the same.
In keeping with a blog-length telling of this story I’ll skip the details of the obvious acceptance of the position, the additional HR paperwork and even my first work trip to Northern California (though that most surely will end up as a future post, as several noteworthy challenges presented themselves on the trip, including my Uber getting pulled over on account of me, a pleading conversation with a police officer and some guide dog conundrums)
I was, of course, excited by the flexibility of the new position and how many of the meetings would be done virtually. What I hadn’t accounted for, however, were the many pieces of technology I would need to familiarize myself with in order to conduct these meetings.
When I shadowed my first meeting and saw the experienced support coordinator sharing her computer screen and clicking from resource to resource using her mouse, seamlessly demonstrating extremely visual techniques and interventions, my first thought was “how will I EVER be able to confidently lead an interactive meeting like this?” I doubted my ability to even log in correctly, much less share the proper materials with parents. And my nerves turned to cold sweats when I held a practice meeting with one of my co-workers and mistakenly clicked on my text messages after hitting “share screen,” promptly lighting up my shared screen with all of my personal text messages.
“Um, maybe you don’t have to share your screen during meetings,” she offered. I could tell she was nervous for me.
“Ugh”, I laughed, mortified, “I’ll keep working on it before I do an actual meeting.” And I did. I practiced with my assistive tech trainer. I practiced with my husband. I practiced with imaginary meeting attendants. I came up with techniques to ensure nothing else even appear except the exact document I needed to share, closing every single item on my computer prior to practice meetings (which, if looking at my desktop on any given day, is A LOT of windows!).
Nonetheless, nervous adrenaline pulsed through my entire body as I logged into my first virtual 504 meeting.
The aspect I was most nervous about was how large I had to blow up the accommodations in order to see them well enough to read aloud because it meant that the parent would also have to read a super enlarged version that caused parts of the plan to disappear off the screen. I was also nervous I wouldn’t be able to find it on the desktop or that I would read it in a stammering way, as my fields of vision are so narrow that I really only see one word— and sometimes even one letter— at a time. I went over and over the accommodations in my mind beforehand so that I could paraphrase some of them and not have to read word for word. And when it came time to share my screen, I took my time even though I felt self-conscious about making everyone in the meeting wait in awkward silence as I focused on choosing the correct document. I zoomed in as much as possible, just to glance over a couple of the words, and then paraphrased each accommodation as the parent read along.
I have been leading these meetings for the past month, and I have moments where I think “holy cow, I’m doing it!” I’m sharing my screen, moving seamlessly through Google Docs, and using technology in ways that felt impossible a couple months ago.
And I’m allowing myself to celebrate those moments of success, something I really didn’t take the time to do in my early working years. I honestly don’t think I was even aware of the beautiful ways I developed to compensate for vision loss in the workplace in my 20s. I felt ashamed of doing things differently, of using non-visual techniques and of admitting that I needed accommodations. I didn’t like to admit that most tasks take me longer. It sometimes feels embarrassing to celebrate acquiring new skills that seem very simple to others. But I think it’s absolutely essential to acknowledge small victories, as they bring awareness to growth. When we don’t recognize growth, we can begin to feel like we are forever striving but never really getting anywhere because there is so much to learn.
The white cane continues to be a sign of independence for the blind community. White canes also continue to baffle the public. That’s why October 15th, White Cane Awareness Day, is an important day to dispel myths and provide information on what the white cane is all about.
White Cane FAQs
Q: If someone has a white cane, does it mean they need help?
A: People with vision loss use white canes to navigate independently. A person using a white cane is less likely to need assistance because the white cane is used to locate and avoid obstacles. It is best not to assume that someone needs help, but rather offer assistance if you feel inclined and be respectful if they do not want assistance.
Q: That person is using a white cane, and now they are reading a book. Does this mean they are pretending to be blind?
A: Vision loss comes in many different forms, requiring different adaptations. Some people who use white canes have peripheral vision loss which makes navigating safely without a white cane challenging, but maintain central vision which allows them to see print and recognize faces and objects using their central vision.
Q: Why are the white canes so long?
A: The length of the cane is important because it signals to the user what is happening several steps ahead of them. If the cane is too short, the user will not have enough warning that a curb or staircase is ahead.
Please let us know if you have more questions or comments about white canes!
Photo Description: Picture shows a person’s legs walking with a white cane navigating ahead.
When the topic of vision loss in the workplace comes up, a discussion about suitable careers for people with vision loss typically ensues. These career options can sometimes feel limiting because we live in a very vision-centered society. Reflecting back on my past employment experiences, I have definitely not chosen visually easy ones.
This is not at all to pat myself on the back in the bravery department, as I honestly didn’t really think the visual challenges through until I was thick in the midst of them. I simply followed my interests, which is how I ended up as a foster care case manager at age 22, a position that required more driving than most UPS delivery employees. For a person without a driver’s license, that’s a bit of an issue, especially since it was before the days of Uber in a suburban setting where “mass transit” involved a fleet of soccer moms in mini vans. The position also involved transporting minors that were wards of the state, so I couldn’t exactly pick them up in taxicabs, though the cab fares probably wouldn’t have covered my social service salary anyhow. I had to get creative and ended up on trains (for the occasional urban trips), planes (for court-ordered, out-of-state sibling visits), and automobiles of individuals willing to be fingerprinted, including my generous husband!
Fast forward to this past spring, when I was checking my e-mail before going to bed (a habit I’m trying to break) and saw a message that made me sit straight up in bed and elbow my husband. “Oh my gosh, babe, listen to this new internal job posting!” It was for a “student support coordinator” at the charter school where I was working part time. The position said it involved meeting with parents and teachers of struggling students in order to recommend interventions. But the part that most drew me to the position was that it involved creating 504 plan accommodations for students with various disabilities.
“Wow,” my husband elbowed me back, “that sounds perfect for you. You’ve been dealing with accommodations your whole life.” He was right, and as a general education classroom teacher, I always felt a certain connection to the students who had extra challenges, though I never wanted to be a special education teacher. I’ve always identified more with students who are completely capable of doing grade-level work when given the right accommodation because it’s so similar to my own story. I can perform just as well as any classmate or co-worker when accommodations are in place.
I began drafting a cover letter that very night (hence, the reason you should never check e-mails before bed unless you plan on staying up until midnight). I notified my current director, who wrote a recommendation letter, and started prepping for the interview.
Since the school is one of the largest charter schools in California with offices in various cities, and the Director for the Support Team was in Northern California, the interview was set up as a virtual video meeting in the videoconferencing app Zoom. I had to log into it in order to meet with a team of interviewers. The virtual interview setting brought some relief, as I didn’t have to worry about finding which chair to sit in, which person to look at or whether to bring my guide dog or cane, but some challenges arose for me as soon as the interview began. My internet signal was acting up, so my voice was cutting in and out. The director suggested I call in while still keeping my screen on in order to see the documents they were sharing. My heart immediately began to race as I attempted to dial in while everyone waited. Fortunately, I had done a “practice” Zoom session with my assistive tech guy, and he had shown me how the one-tap iPhone number automatically entered the access code for me, so I didn’t have to worry about fumbling with entering a code. Simultaneously, my mind raced over whether I’d be able to see the documents they were sharing with me. I had mentioned my visual impairment in my cover letter, but wasn’t sure who had read the it and couldn’t find my words to bring it into the conversation. (Looking back, the shared screen documents seem like an obvious segue.)
Even though I’ve written posts and published articles on the benefits of hiring people with disabilities, old stories of inadequacy and blind shame surface at the most inconvenient times.
The team gave me several scenarios, which they both read aloud and put up on the screen I tried zooming my screen in but still could not read the scenarios very well, so I tried to just focus on their words even though my brain felt engulfed with fog. I took very long pauses and admitted that I didn’t even know what tier 1 and 2 interventions were! The only question I felt completely confident and articulate answering was the difference between modifications and accommodations.
My stomach muscles knotted up as I realized I was majorly stammering through my answers, talking in circles. Was I making any sense at all?
I felt relief when the interview ended but immense disappointment over how it had gone.
So I was completely shocked the next morning when I received an e-mail from the director, saying she’d like to talk about the position in more detail. It turns out that the interview team liked that I had some background in social work in addition to education. This is a very involved position,” she said, “it’s full time, and there’s a lot to it.” She suggested I take the weekend to think about it and consider the impact on my current obligations.
Had I just been offered the job?!
I mulled it over for about 5 seconds before deciding it was for me. I didn’t overthink the visual challenges that surely were ahead.
In honor of our 40th birthdays, we’ve come up with 4 lessons we’ve learned over our 40 years of growing and living with sight loss.
Cheers to 40!
Community is essential. We live in a society in which independence is highly valued and misunderstood. Going it alone is often idealized while interdependence is minimized. We value connection and we love our tribe
Knowing when to lead and when to follow is part of finding your ease. Mobility for people with vision loss can bring up tricky questions like: Should i use a cane even though I can see decently well at times? Would a guide dog help me move about more quickly and easily? Should I take someone’s arm as I walk into the restaurant tonight? How should I respond when someone tries to grab my arm and steer me around or offers unsolicited help? Learning when to lead and when to follow is part of the journey.
Insight is one of the strongest forms of seeing. Our society places a lot of importance on physical sight, yet when we use our “third eye” to look inward, we can see ourselves and the world around us in new and beautiful ways. It takes a little bit of silence, a little bit of stillness and a whole lot of practice to find vision in the non-physical.
Dishwashers should never be left open. Our shins have 40 years worth of stories to tell.
Are you a woman with vision loss? If yes, we invite you to join us September 20-23 in Park City, Utah for a unique retreat experience. We attended retreats in 2016 and 2017, and loved connecting with our tribe. This year, Jenelle is thrilled to be part of planning and facilitating the 2018 retreat.
WHY ATTEND A RETREAT SPECIFICALLY FOR WOMEN WHO ARE BLIND OR EXPERIENCING VISION LOSS?
Thoughtful, research-based processes will lead us through identifying where we want to show up in our life and what is holding us back. We will spend time exploring courage, vulnerability, shame, and worthiness. Mindfulness, Self-compassion and other tools.
Activities. We will be hiking, challenging ourselves in a ropes course, horseback riding, biking, and plenty of time to enjoy the beauty in Park City at the beautiful National Ability Center.
Connection. Retreats bring together women facing challenges of living with vision loss while balancing the demands of family, friends, work and community. At the retreat, blindness becomes a common trait so participants can put away emotional armor and connect with peers without having to explain or educate on blindness.
Support. Share struggles and changes in your life with the group without judgment. Build friendship and extend support to other women along this emotional, mental, and even physical journey.
Professional facilitators.Becky Andrews, LCMHC, who is blind from Retinitis Pigmentosa, Lisa Bradford, LCSW are engaging and experienced therapists who will lead you through tough discussions and activities with compassion. You can find more information about them at: www.resilientsolutionsinc.com. We are thrilled to have Jenelle Landgraf, MSW student and co-author of doublevisionblog.com, who also has Retinitis Pigmentosa joining us as one of our facilitators. She will also be leading us in yoga each morning.
Quality amenities at the National Ability Center. Delicious food, comfortable lodging, and reliable transportation are part of the program. You can learn more at www.nac.com
Life-changing experiences. The time spent at the retreat creates a lasting impact that will stay with you as you move forward in your life with family, friends, work and community.
CONTACT BECKY ANDREWS, BECKY.LPC@GMAIL.COM FOR DETAILS ABOUT OUR 2018 RETREAT OR TO DISCUSS HOSTING A RETREAT IN YOUR AREA
2018 Retreat will be September 20-23, 2018 at the National Ability Center in Park City, Utah. The cost for the retreat is $595 (sharing a room) and $695 (single) and includes activities listed above, lodging, meals and transportation to and from the SLC Airport! ($300 Deposit due with remaining balance of $295 or $395 on September 1st.)
Open up to the stories we tell ourselves and gain an empowered outlook with the connections and activities at the National Ability Center. Connect with other men and women living with blindness without judgment. Discover valuable tools to deal with loss and uncertainty, and develop shame resistance. Choose authenticity and write the ending to your story.
I recently saw the motion picture premiere of Madeline L’Engle’s infamous A Wrinkle in Time, and was reminded of the rich wisdom enclosed in this childhood classic. I first read this story at age 10, during a time when I already knew there was something different about me compared to kids my age. I felt an immediate connection to the characters in this story, especially Meg – stubborn, caring to a fault, and easily angered by questions that didn’t seem to have concrete answers.
As I re-read this story with my daughter recently, I was struck not only by all the familiar characters and riveting plot lines, but also by the many morsels of wisdom that had escaped my memory. Especially one involving blindness. Continue reading →
I come from a large extended family. I am one of 4 children and my mom is the oldest of 9, so warm bodies have never been sparse on the holidays, even after half the fam moved to the Northwest. And my husband’s family, though initially smaller, has grown exponentially the past few years, both with new littles and adopted extended members, so no shortage there either. I also come from families of doers and helpers on both sides— everyone pitches in by bringing a dish to pass, assists with food prep before the meal and form s a cleaning assembly line of sorts afterwards. Continue reading →
Photo Description: Marci Carpenter, President of NFBW and Jenelle Landgraf posing for a picture at the Evening Banquet.
Last weekend I attended the NFB’s state convention in Olympia, WA. I was invited to attend as a scholarship finalist after applying for the scholarship program in early fall. It was exciting to meet the other scholarship finalist, Jennifer Rotz, who is pursuing a degree in Education and hopes to teach at the Washington State School for the Blind. I was instantly impressed by Jennifer’s resilient spirit and passion for teaching children.
I also enjoyed meeting a variety of other professionals at the convention, people who embody the NFB’s message of, “blindness is not the characteristic that defines you or your future. Every day we raise the expectations of blind people, because low expectations create obstacles between blind people and our dreams. You can have the life you want; blindness is not what holds you back.”
There is so much more I’d like to share about the convention, but this grad student needs to get back to studying!