On October 15th, we recognized “National White Cane Safety Day”.  In honor of this day, I wrote an article about my first time using a white cane that was published in The Mighty, and I wanted to share it with our readers as well.

Jenelle with her twin sister, both standing against a brick wall with their matching canes.

My First Time Using a White Cane to Navigate With Low Vision

My cane trainer and I had arranged to meet at a Starbucks in West Seattle, so my husband dropped me off on his way to work. I watched through the window as another car pulled into the space where his Prius had just been. A lady who looked to be about my age, in her mid 30s, stepped out wearing a cute professional-looking outfit with pretty long brown hair she had likely curled at the ends with hot rollers. She glided casually into the coffee shop to order her beverage, and I felt terribly envious of this stranger. While I sat waiting to meet my cane trainer due to my deteriorating peripheral vision, I imagined her on her way to some fabulous job looking perfectly put together, and driving her own car wherever she pleased.

Her carefree independence stood in stark contrast to my need for a tool that would help me to navigate. I glared inwardly, recalling the diagnosis of retinitis pigmentosa at a young age, a disease that slowly takes away peripheral vision leading ultimately to complete blindness. I pushed the angry thoughts away as I pictured my two young children waiting for me at home, needing an independent and confident mommy to care for them.

I decided to check my email on my phone to distract myself from my jealousy. As I scrolled through emails, I heard a tapping sound behind me. My trainer, Marci, said I would be able to recognize her right away because of her long cane that would be tapping along. I quickly jumped to my feet, turned toward the woman holding the long stick and said, “Marci?” The woman ignored me, and chatted with another woman about the busy morning. My eyes traveled down to the bottom of the stick, and I realized it was a broom. She was a Starbucks employee, taking a brief break from sweeping to chat with a customer. I quickly sat back down, hoping no one had seen or heard me asking for Marci.

The real Marci arrived with her tapping cane a few minutes later. I wasn’t sure if she would be completely blind, but I could immediately tell she had some vision from the way she made eye contact with me. She looked to be in her mid-50s with gray hair peeking out of her nice summer gardening hat, white pants, and a gray shirt. We sat and chatted until Marci suggested we move outside to continue our discussion and start the training. We stood up and made our way to the door. I had my cane out for the first time, and followed Marci out the door, not sure how to use this long white piece of aluminum in my hand.

Outside I felt thankful for the pleasant weather, and enjoyed getting to know Marci as we sipped our beverages. She showed me some cane basics, and I began to think this day would be better than I had anticipated. We decided to continue our training around the neighborhood, but needed to throw our garbage away before heading out. Marci led the way back into Starbucks to find a garbage can.

As soon as we entered, I could feel all the eyes on the two women with the long white canes. My ears perked up, keenly aware of every conversation we passed. “Really makes you thankful for what you have, doesn’t it?” I heard one woman remark as we reached the garbage can. There was no doubt in my mind that she was referring to Marci and me. Another woman was joyfully explaining the canes to her small child, “…and so now you know how people who can’t see can walk around by themselves” she was saying in the same tone that I had used dozens of times to explain difficult subjects to my daughter, trying to sound casual and cheerful. And as we walked out the door, I heard an older gentleman telling his friend about a blind woman he once knew. Our two minute trip to the garbage had sparked all sorts of conversations. I knew that was not a bad thing, but it didn’t feel good either. I felt completely exposed, and I wanted to hide.

As Marci and I made our way through a West Seattle park, I saw lots of moms about my age with strollers and toddlers that reminded me of my sweet little 2-year-old boy waiting for me at home. Some eyed us suspiciously while steering their children out of our path, while others offered a friendly “Hello, ladies! Beautiful day, isn’t it?” I wondered if the friendly ones would have been friendly if we didn’t have canes, or if the suspicious ones would have looked suspicious if we didn’t have canes. “I’m just like you!” I wanted to shout at them, “If I had my stroller here, pushing Benny along while he munched on Cheerios, you would not be able to tell I am different.”

I soon learned I had to pay less attention to what everyone around me was doing, and start focusing on the task at hand. Learning to walk with a cane took more concentration and coordination than I had envisioned. Right foot goes with left tap, left foot goes with right tap, side to side sweep, but not too high. Right foot, left tap, left foot, right tap, I repeated in my head and tried to stay focused.

“You’re moving your arm too much,” Marci coached me, “You really only need to move your wrist, and keep your arm out in front of the center of your body.” This felt like a lot for me to remember and it didn’t come as naturally as I had hoped it would. Marci was kind and encouraging towards me. She also had high expectations and knew instantly if I was not doing the techniques correctly.

“You’re still moving your arm too much.” she would correct me. “You need to move your arm to the center of your body,” she continued. “You’re tapping and stepping on the same side.” It reminded me of the one time my husband had tried to give me golf lessons, correcting every element of my form. “Keep your head still,” he would say so many times, and I was convinced I was keeping it still as he continued to correct me, to the point I finally shouted “I am!” at the top of my lungs, and we both agreed golf lessons weren’t the best activity for our marriage.

Likewise, I was certain I had it all down, and then I would hear Marci behind me, “You need to keep your arm still.” I was tempted to yell “I am!” a few times, but decided that was not the best way to thank a generous person who was donating her time to teach me. Instead, I offered to treat her to lunch to show my gratitude.

As we walked to the restaurant, side by side, canes in hand, it was like a magical “parting of the red sea.” I was elated not to have to dodge people and objects. Most people just quickly stepped out of our way, avoiding us and our canes and giving us lots of space. It was such a nice change from frantically trying not to bump into bodies that seemed to appear out of nowhere. But then I heard a loud voice.

“Ladies! Ladies!” a woman to our right was yelling in a commanding voice, “There’s a bunch of construction up here to your right, so you’re going to want to move to the left!” she announced importantly as she slightly pushed me toward Marci. “We’ve got it — thank you!” Marci replied. She had warned me about the special “helpers” who would think it’s OK to touch a complete stranger. Still, I felt so uncomfortable and frustrated by this. I could see the construction and the orange cones, and even if I couldn’t, my cane and ears would have alerted me to both. On the one hand, I knew the woman was just trying to be helpful. But on the other hand, I felt as though her helpfulness was telling me “You aren’t capable of navigating with your cane.”

I also knew part of my irritability was due to the fact that I really needed to eat some food, so I was delighted when we arrived at the sandwich shop for lunch. It was a casual sandwich cafe where you ordered up at the counter, seated yourself, and then collected your food when they called out your name. These type of restaurants often gave me anxiety because there was a lot to navigate in line, reading the menu from a distance, and then finding a table while carrying a tray full of food and grabbing your own beverage. So I was pleasantly surprised when we entered and an employee immediately came over to us, saying “If you’d like to find a table ladies, I’d be happy to go over the menu with you and bring you your food and drinks.” His helpfulness felt like actual help, and the way he spoke to us was not demeaning or belittling at all. He was making it clear that he knew we were capable of finding our own table, and yet he was trying to make the process of ordering and paying for our food less strenuous.

I was exhausted by the late afternoon. It reminded me of traveling overseas, and how tired I would feel at the end of each day after trying to converse in a foreign language. During these travels, I felt a strong sense of relief when I stepped into my hotel room and could turn “off” from focusing so hard on seemingly everyday tasks. I was looking forward to that familiar feeling of relief as I boarded the bus home.

My first time felt overwhelming, and exhausting. But I definitely wanted to try again. Each time I used my cane after that day, it got easier and more fluid. I soon found myself moving through life with newfound confidence and freedom.

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Disabled_JoyThomas

OCTOBER IS NATIONAL DISABILITY EMPLOYMENT MONTH (NDEAM). HERE’S WHAT EVERYONE SHOULD KNOW ABOUT THE VALUE DIFFERENTLY ABLED PEOPLE BRING TO THE WORKPLACE.

I recently returned to the field of education after an eight-year stay-at-home-mom hiatus. In addition to the typical reentry jitters and pondering over whether my favorite coral blazer is still in style, some more significant questions surfaced as I signed my contract: How will I travel to trainings and meetings after the closest bus routes to my house were just cut? What if one of my students or parents is allergic to my guide dog? And how many sessions with my accessibility specialist will it take for me to confidently use all the technology required to do my job?

As a person who is legally blind, these are legitimate questions to ask, but they’re also relatively straightforward to solve, especially when compared to the invisible barriers people with disabilities face.

The concerns that kept me awake the nights preceding my first day of new-teacher training were far more nuanced than transportation hiccups. My mind darted anxiously from cultural stigma to past experiences to potential perceptions, but it ultimately landed on this one question: At this organization, will I be valued for what I can bring or overlooked for what I lack?

As an educator with significant sight loss, I’ve had several work-related situations cause me to pause and wonder how to proceed.

In my early 20s, after my very first teaching job interview, the principal said the reason he wasn’t hiring me was that my eyes sometimes drifted to the sides instead of looking right at him. I later found out my student-teaching supervisor had called him to say how well I’d done with the eighth graders, explaining that my vision loss didn’t affect my ability to teach. She told him about the system I’d developed for calling on students though I couldn’t see their raised hands, and how I was so in tune with my three language arts classes that I made each of my 90 students an individualized certificate listing their unique gifts at the end of my 16 weeks with them. The principal still chose not to hire me. Neither did the principal at the school where I student taught. Fortunately, a principal in a nearby town was able to look past my disability and hired me to teach seventh grade language arts.

Yet consistent positive reviews in my first few years of teaching failed to shield me from others’ doubts. One behavioral specialist didn’t want to place her student in my classroom because she was afraid I wouldn’t keep a close enough “eye on him,” despite that he had an aide who would be there most days. While the student participated well in my class overall, I began to sense that his aide was focused on scrutinizing my ability to do my job rather than on helping this student. Thankfully this was not the sentiment of all my coworkers. I felt supported and valued as a team player by most. But an undercurrent of dissent can poison a sea of supporters when you’re feeling watched and pressured to prove yourself.

Fast-forward to last spring when I began applying for jobs after my mommy-hiatus: I was surprised to find that an element of discrimination still exists, at least in the hiring processes of several places in Southern California. The director of a local academy, for example, asked me how I was able to teach with my limited sight. I felt my throat tighten at the bluntness of her inquiry and tried to maintain focus as her hiring assistant sat next to her, sighing heavily throughout the interview, stating at the end of our conversation, “I really doubt we have a place for you here.” I debated not bringing my cane or guide dog into my next interview but worried I would appear intoxicated if I fumbled to sit down.

Thinking I’d have a better chance gaining employment at a local institute for the blind and visually impaired, I applied for a position as an instructor after noting that I met all the position’s qualifications. In my cover letter, I highlighted my active involvement within the blind and visually impaired community and how I have mentored others experiencing vision loss. I was disappointed when I didn’t get an interview or any written response at all, after multiple attempts to follow up on my application. When I expressed this to a friend who is blind and volunteers at the institute, she told me, “Oh, you shouldn’t have said you’re visually impaired in the cover letter. They don’t really hire people with low vision very often. Mostly just as volunteers but rarely as paid teachers.”

Right about now, anyone versed in disability law is raising a hand to comment, ready to point out that a seemingly small action, like asking someone directly about their disability during a job interview, is illegal and could even be grounds for a court case. I do realize this, but sitting in a courtroom just doesn’t seem like the best use of my time and energy. This is not to say others shouldn’t involve legal action in certain cases of work-related discrimination. I have friends who’ve had to fight to keep their jobs after losing vision, and I wholeheartedly support their efforts.

According to recent statistics, 17.5% of people with disabilities were employed in 2015, compared to 65% employment among persons without disabilities. I am convinced that at least a portion of those remaining 82.5% desire to work but are unable to cross barriers into the workplace.

As I continued my own job search, I remembered an interaction I had at an Apple store in Chicago a couple of years ago. I was asking about voiceover on my iPhone, and the technician became stumped over a couple of my questions. He apologized and said he’d check with his coworker, an expert in voiceover who used it all the time. “He’s blind and teaches all of us new tricks on voiceover,” he added. His statement gave me a sense of pride for some reason, like the technician without sight wasn’t some employee who everyone had to help but someone who brought unique, needed expertise. Simply hearing about this employee reminded me that I, too, have unique expertise to offer.

Being a credentialed teacher, not a techy, I knew finding a cutting-edge school would be more difficult than finding a trending tech company. Yet the explosion of new charter schools in California offered a large pond from which to fish, one that ultimately led me to my current position with an innovative charter school.

Since those in leadership typically set both the tone and precedent for interactions among coworkers, I was immediately impressed by how my director conversed with me about my needs. She offered her assistance and support if needed but didn’t hover or seem concerned. Not once has she asked me how I’ll keep up with paperwork, travel to meetings or learn the detailed technology component of my position. Not once has she asked me how I’ll do my job. She hasn’t asked me because she’s focused on something far more important than my disability: what I can bring to her team.

While it requires openness, hiring someone with a disability is hardly an act of charity. Yes, incorporating someone who is differently abled often entails accommodations, extra meetings or time in training for both the new hire and others within the organization. There are potential risks and real barriers, but there are also real benefits.

People with disabilities are accustomed to finding alternative solutions to difficult questions, because troubleshooting is part of our daily lives. There are strengths I bring to my position because of, not in spite of, my vision loss. I relate with students who are struggling in a way that others may not, and I will not cease searching for the unique ways students show their intelligence, not just the traditional ones our education system deems important.

When an organization offers someone the opportunity to bring their talents, skills and knowledge to the table, they will absolutely show up and thrive. Giving a differently abled person the chance to excel in what they are skilled at not only allows that individual to succeed, but it also promotes a culture of perseverance among everyone. When I watch my students progress in their learning journey despite challenges, I feel motivated to move forward in my own educational discoveries. And when an organization hires and values qualified employees who are differently abled, the organization sends a resounding message to its team and to the public: “Here, we care about what each employee uniquely brings.” Or, as stated simply in the words of my favorite poet, Maya Angelou: “In diversity there is beauty and there is strength.”

 

My first day of school jitters reminded me of being a kid.  I barely slept a wink the night before classes began.  My younger sister is graciously allowing me to crash on her couch while I’m in Seattle for classes every 3 weeks.  And she even made me a “first day of school” sign along with all sorts of school supplies and snack goodies waiting for me when I arrived at her apartment.  Sisters are the best!!!

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One of the questions I’ve been asked most about going back to school is, “What does MSW mean?” Master of Social Work is the full title of the program, and the field has a long and interesting history (which I am totally geeking out over, so if you have a few spare hours, I’ll take you on a trip down the memory lane of social work compliments of my required course readings).  Social work is often one of those obscure fields of work that leave people who don’t work in the field wondering what exactly it’s all about. While some consider it a noble profession,  others have negative impressions based on personal experiences or observations from the media.  Some have accused the field of having a bit of an identity crisis since practitioners work in a wide variety of roles.  From my perspective, the social work field is appealing because of these vast opportunities including leadership and direct service roles, research, policy, “licensed” clinical work, and many opportunities to affect social change. Continue reading