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by Virginia Reagan
(Editor's Note: This is reprinted from the Blind Mis sour ian; the newletter of the National Federation of the Blind of Missouri. The article was originally titled, "Getting A Job".)
When I compare myself to what others have accomplished, maybe it looks like I haven't done much. But when I compare myself to where I was a few years ago, I can see I've come a long way.
Five years ago I was in a nursing home. No one questioned but what I should be there --that is, no one but me. Today I am working full time, rent a house, and live alone. A big change, no?
I am what is usually known as multiply handicapped. But putting that label on myself really doesn't tell you anything. Labels tend to cover up details. So let me tell you a little about the subject I know most about--me.
I have been orthopedically handicapped since 1949, and at various times I was bedfast, in a wheelchair, wearing braces, and walking with crutches. At the present time I am in a wheelchair most of the time, wear long leg braces on both legs, have ulnar deviation braces on both hands, and can walk short distances with crutches. I have been blind for going on six years.
Many people think of a person in a wheelchair as helpless, and a blind person as helpless; since I was both, and still am, they seemed to think I was a basket case. But they never could find a basket big enough formed.
In 1977, I was in a nursing home in Springfield, and this was my third nursing home. That year I had orthopedic surgery three time and ended up, health-wise, in better condition than I had been in years. I started talking about getting out of nursing homes, getting a job and living alone. Most people thought I was crazy to even think about such things. At first an occupational therapist talked about rehabilitating me in Springfield. Then she finally decided my multiple handicaps were more than she could handle, and I was sent to Rusk Rehabilitation Center in Columbia.
How did I like Rusk? Frankly, I didn't. They asked me what I would like to learn, and I told them I wanted to learn how to cook, make my bed, and do other housework from a wheelchair. I don't know why they bothered to ask me, since we never did any of those things, instead, they spent about three weeks teating the movement in my hands, and I think I flunked most of their tests. They told me all the things I shouldn't do; I just said, "OK", and kept on doing them. When I talked about getting a job, they discouraged me. In looking back on it, they were probably just trying to be practical. But I thought, and still think, they just gave me up as a hopeless case. After three and a half weeks they were ready to send me back to the nursing home in Springfield. I felt betrayed, and thought going back to a nursing home meant that's where I would stay the rest of my life. They were told by the nursing home in Springfield that I would have to go on their waiting list, and it would be at least two months before they could take me back. That's when they asked me if I would be willing to go to another nursing home in the state, if they could find a vacancy, and I said yes. A few days later I went to a nursing home in Warrensburg. I resented going to any nursing home, and when I arrived (by ambulance, no less) I had a chip on my shoulder.
After spending a little more than seven months in that nursing home (which I hope was the the last nursing home I'll ever be in) I was able to move into an apartment for the handicapped in Warrensburg. I had some hostile words with the doctor before I got my discharge from the nursing home. He told me I had my visual handicap, orthopedic handicap, might have a seizure while I was cooking, etc. It was depressing just listening to him. After listening awhile to his litany of my handicaps, I told him by biggest handicap was people like him. He said they couldn't FORCE me to stay in the nursing home against my will, but I wouldn't have his blessing. I told him I wasn't asking for his blessing, just my discharge. I even talked to the chief administrator of the nursing home. He told me he honestly doubted that I could make it living alone, but he thought if that was what I wanted, I should have a chance.
On June 2, 1978 (with the doctor's discharge but not his blessing) I moved out of the nursing home and into my own apartment. I won't say it was easy, because it really wasn't. The very first night I was in the apartment, I fell out of my wheelchair. I was worried I might have to call someone for help, but I found my wheelchair and after a struggle was able to get back into it. I'm just a so-so housekeeper. But the first six weeks I had that apartment, I spent all my time sweeping and dusting and keeping everything in perfect order, so the place was spotless. I knew myself that I could keep an apartment clean, but I felt I needed to prove this to others. After six weeks of incessant cleaning, I was sure I had proved my point and went back to my usual untidy ways. Now people would know if my aprtment was messy, it was because I let it get messy, and not because I couldn't cope with sweeping floors, washing dishes, and keeping things tidy.
I should mention that when I was in Springfield, I was helped by the Association for the Blind there. They taught me how to read and write Braille. It was through them I got a talking book machine and cassette and started getting books through the Library of Congress. They got me a Braille wrist watch. When I was at Rusk, they paid for an elaborate walker I use at home.
It was after I went to Warrensburg that I was first put in touch with the Bureau for the Blind. I had a great deal of help from them when I lived in Warrensburg. They provided many items that would help in daily living. Then they paid my expenses in getting my Master's degree. I had gotten my B.S. at another university when I could see, but all my graduate hours that applied on my Master's were taken as a blind student.
After I finished my Master's, there was the matter of employment. My counselor at the Bureau for the Blind gave me plenty of encouragement, but she was realistic, too. She told me it would take time. Then she sent their employment specialist to see me. We had a long talk about what kind of job I wanted, and my first choice was to get back into teaching. He provided helpful information, and later on I was reimbursed for most of my expenses in interviews. But most of all, he gave me moral support; I don't think he ever doubted that I would eventually get a job. But the nitty-gritty of finding a job was up to me, and that's how it should be. After all, jobs don't come just from wishing, and no one can get one for you.
I requested notices of jobs from Central Missouri State University, Southwest Missouri State University, and School of the Ozarks. I registered with Job Opportunities for the Blind (the job referral program opperated by the National Federation of the Blind and the U.S. Department of Labor) in Baltimore. I had my application in for six different state positions. During the six months after graduation, I filled out applications with 43 different schools in Missouri, had phone conversations with many others, and had eleven interviews. It was a long, hard process. I would get my hopes up, and then have my hopes dashed to the ground. After six months, I was really getting discouraged. I was almost ready to admit it was hopeless to try to get a job, but I went for another interview, and I got the job!
I am working full time now as a resource room teacher in Koshkonong, Missouri. I had to move since it involved a job in another location than the one I was living in. The Bureau for the Blind paid most of my moving expenses. I am renting a house... at the present time. I hope eventually to buy a lot and build my own home.
What's it like to have a job again? Well, it feels good to be getting a paycheck for work you did, rather than getting a handout from the government because you are handicapped and unemployed. It feels good to pay rent all by myself, rather than living in subsidized housing. It feels good to pay for all my groceries, rather than using food stamps for part of them. And when income tax time comes around, it will even feel good to have income tax papers to file.
I never used to feel that way. Spending money for rent and groceries was never a thrill. And taxes! What has changed my attitude? Years of unemployment, and being told your chances of future employment are almost nil; but then getting a job can change a lot of things.
Financially, I'm probably no better off now than I was before, but eventually I will be. I used to get an SSI check, a large subsidy on my rent, food stamps, and Medicaid. When all these expenses are taken out of a paycheck from which taxes have been withheld, I haven't gained much financially. But I have gained a great deal in self-respect. I don't have to depend on anyone except myself for financial assistance. I don't have to tell personal matters, especially finances, to anyone unless I want to. And I don't have to feel embarrassed when I am with other people who are complaining about income taxes; I can just add my own gripes to theirs. When others talk about their job, so can I.
I can't speak with any authority about semantics, whether the word "handicapped" or "disabled" are different in some way. Everyone, including people who are different in some way, have to be willing to prepare for a job, wait for a job, convince an employer they can do a job; and after they get a job, show they really can do it. People who are different may require special equipment or alternative methods to get the job done efficiently. It isn't up to your boss to know your special needs; it's up to us to let the boss know any special needs, and give him a good reason for each one.
I guess people who are handicapped, or disabled, or different, will always have a harder time getting a job. But when we do get jobs, we should prove to our employers that we are willing workers and efficient, agreeable, cheerful employees. If we are those things, they will keep on hiring us.
Virginia Regan wrote this article about five years ago. Since then, the job position she held was eliminated and, once again, Virginia was out of work. As before, she encountered ignorance and discrimination as she searched for new employmemt. Today, however, she is happily and productively engaged as a member of the Brethern of the Cross, a Roman Catholic lay covenent community. She is a live-in tutor and counselor for adolescent boys. She also does her share of the household work-- mending clothes, washing dishes, etc.
She also finds time to write and recently won second place in the Matilda Zicgler Magazine for the Blind 80th Anniversary Essay Contest. And, of course, she finds time to remain active in the National Federation of the Blind.
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