Future Reflections Winter/Spring 2000, Vol. 19 No. 1

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What Have I Gotten Myself Into?

by Florence Dooley

From the Editor: Not every kid is cut out to be college material, and not every kid who goes to college should be there. This is true for sighted students, and it’s true for the blind, too. College is not the only path to satisfying, lucrative employment. It is very important, I believe, for parents, students, teachers, and counselors to explore a wide range of career possibilities before the student’s transition out of high school. There are always a few brilliant straight “A” students who seem destined for Harvard or Yale and high-powered occupations, but most high school diploma students—sighted or blind—are not in that elite group.

Unfortunately, some very respectable technical, non-college career choices—such as piano tuning and medical transcribing—continue to suffer a reputation for being the “stereotyped jobs for the blind.” Just a few decades ago, it was common for the most competent blind students to be tracked into these professions. Although grateful for employment, many blind people had other dreams; dreams of being teachers, lawyers, businessmen/women, pharmacists, social workers, secretaries, ministers, accountants, administrators, librarians, and on and on. And, as blind people pushed their way more and more into these fields and others, the old stereotyped careers fell into disfavor.

While we never want to go back to the days when blind students, regardless of ability and interest, were tracked into certain “good careers for the blind,” is it really sensible to automatically put every blind student who can get a high school diploma onto a college track, regardless of ability or interests? I think we have done some of this already, and the results are unhappy, unemployable young people. We should not let the successes blind people have demonstrated in college create a new stereotyped career path for blind youth. Jobs requiring technical training, such as piano tuning, culinary arts, and medical transcribing, are respectable, too, and need to be a part of a blind student’s knowledge about career options.

The following article was written by a parent whose son, blinded as a teen-ager, found his niche in one of the old, stereotyped blind professions—piano tuning. Is he happy? Is it a good job? Here is how Florence Dooley answers those questions about her son and his job and life as a piano tuner:

 

When my son Rodger was sixteen, a junior in high school, he was looking ahead to a happy, almost carefree future. He got A’s and B’s without too much effort, he had lots of friends, and he loved motorcycles. With his knack for mechanical things (he enjoyed working on his bike almost as much as roaring off on it with his buddies), his Dad and I thought Rodger would graduate, carve out a niche for himself in a mechanical or electronic field, and go on being the happy‑go‑lucky guy he’d always been.

Everything changed—and nearly ended—on May 23, 1982. Rodger had visited a relative and was coming home on his bike on a hilly country road. Suddenly, a deer leaped off the hillside above, landing on top of him. The deer did not survive, and for a long while we didn’t think Rodger would either.

He was found with his face crushed into a guardrail. He was rushed to the hospital and spent 18 hours in surgery, coming out with a cast from his waist down. At that point we began to realize that all our lives were going to take a very different course. And when the doctor told us Rodger’s eyesight was gone, totally and permanently, we knew we had a challenge before us that made every other challenge we’d ever faced seem insignificant.

Our son was in a body cast for many weeks and had 137 doctor visits in the first six months. He went through all of the emotional responses you’d expect:  frustration, anger, and depression.

But Rodger has never been a person to wallow very long in negative feelings. He was determined to graduate with his class and, against all odds, he received his diploma in May, 1983, nearly overwhelmed by a thundering ovation from his classmates.

After graduation, his friends went to college, trade schools, or to work. What could Rodger do? He still wanted to work with his hands. After installing a complete stereo system in his car, he realized his hands retained their dexterity and his brain could still deal just fine with spatial relations and logical operations. Only his eyesight was irretrievably gone. We checked out lots of trade schools for people with handicaps, but they offered little challenge and even less prospect of earning a decent living. To keep his spirits up and occupy his time between continuing surgeries, he began taking guitar lessons from a teacher at the Washington State School for the Blind, who asked, ‘’Have you considered piano service work as a career? The best piano technology school in the world is right here in Vancouver, Washington.” Rodger visited the Emil Fries Piano Hospital & Training Center, talked with the students and instructors, and entered in early 1986.

Did piano work offer him a challenge? Two weeks after he started the course, he groaned, “What have I gotten myself into? I’ll never be able to learn this stuff!” But the same determination that helped him graduate with his high school class got him through the two‑year piano technology course too. He found he liked the work and had good aptitude for it. I felt sure the outgoing personality that had helped him make friends all his life would help him attract customers and build a good business, and that has turned out to be the case.

Photo of Rodger Dooley and his former instructor, Donald Mitchel, working on a piano at the Emil Fries Piano Hospital & Training Center

Rodger Dooley (front, with screwdriver) and  former instructor, Donald Mitchel, work on a piano at the Emil Fries Piano Hospital & Training Center

 

Does piano work give him the opportunity to earn a good living? Rodger has been a self‑employed piano tuner‑technician for ten years now. His fiancée helps him keep track of his many appointments, and he hires a driver to take him to jobs. He’s bought a nice house and a new pickup, as well as some of those expensive “big boy toys.” Every summer he takes a month‑long trip to North Dakota, where we have relatives. Before his arrival, a notice is posted in the store: “Certified Piano Tuner coming to town.” If you don’t think there’s a need for piano tuners, just watch the response of a piano owner who doesn’t have one living in her town! Rodger alternates vacationing with tuning and servicing pianos in the surrounding countryside, so he has fun and makes some money during his month in North Dakota.

Rodger gets many thank‑you notes from his customers. Some say they’ve been disappointed in other tuners but are pleased with his work. He once tuned for a Johnny Cash concert and got a personal compliment from the “man in black” himself! Rodger has such a friendly, trusting relationship with his regulars that frequently they’ll leave a key and a check for him to fill in when he’s finished. Customers often say, “My piano has never sounded so good,” and “No one else could answer our questions about the piano the way you can.” He really enjoys knowing he has earned the trust and respect of his customers.

Rodger’s back in charge of his own life, and he always gives credit to the school that gave him the skills, confidence, and ongoing help to belong to this excellent profession: Emil Fries Piano Hospital & Training Center (now known as Emil Fries School of Piano Tuning & Technology). You can call the School at (360) 693‑1511. If you want, they’ll even put you in touch with Rodger so you can ask him yourself! Piano tuning can help your son or daughter to have a better life, too. Rodger’s glad he got himself into it!

 

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