Jeannie Massay was born in 1968 in Oklahoma City, the youngest of three children and the only girl. She said she was blessed to be a daddy’s girl, with brothers who did whatever she told them to do. “They always had my back and were loving and supportive,” she said.
This is the message I want to share with blind people: that our hopes, dreams, goals, and aspirations are no less real simply because we do not see.
Jeannie had good vision for the first thirty-seven years of her life, though she did suffer from severe astigmatism and wore strong glasses to compensate for it. She attended Windsor Hills Elementary School because her mother was a teacher there. “I have been an avid reader all of my life, and because my mom was a reading specialist who worked with sixth-graders, after school I went to her classroom to learn about Pompeii, the pyramids, and all kinds of things younger children didn’t normally get to read about.”
In junior high she attended Leo C. Mayfield. As a student she was involved in competing in intermural basketball and softball. She was also involved in the Pep Club and Student Council. In ninth grade Jeannie had unexplained weight loss and severe abdominal cramping, but soon the symptoms went away. They would return every couple months, and initially she was diagnosed with hyperglycemia. When she was sixteen the cramping, weight loss, and lethargy caused the doctor to do a blood glucose tolerance test, revealing a blood sugar level as high as 900. A normal blood sugar is considered to be around one hundred, and one is considered to be a diabetic if blood sugar levels exceed 140. She was hospitalized for a week to learn to manage her diabetes.
Jeannie attended Putnam City West High School, where she played competitive softball and performed in the band for three years. She was on the debate team and managed to get A’s and B’s, which kept her on the honor roll. “Although I didn’t do badly, I wish I had done better. I was pretty social and liked to talk to people. I was a pretty well-rounded kid, but it was tough being a diabetic and wanting to eat like a teenager. Since I wanted to fit in and do what I thought was normal, at times I went to the pizza parlor and the hamburger joints.”
After high school Jeannie attended the University of Central Oklahoma, living at home until her senior year. She thought she wanted to be a political scientist until her first class and then decided this was not what she was meant to do. Instead, she began studying psychology, and in 1990, during a two-week period, she graduated, got married, and watched her husband leave for active military service. Jeannie got a job selling cosmetics in a department store. When her husband Mark was transferred from Fort Knox to San Antonio to go through medical training to be a dietitian, she moved to be near him. After his training was completed, Mark was stationed at Landstuhl General Hospital in Germany, the largest military hospital in the European Theatre.
When Jeannie was eventually able to go to Germany, she loved it: the people, the food, and the opportunity for travel. She taught at a department of defense dependent school, providing instruction in reading, math, and language arts. She also worked with a behavioral management specialist, which led her to think at the time that she did not want to work with children—all the funnier because she eventually came to realize this was her calling and now her job is counseling children and teenagers.
Jeannie and her husband were in Germany just over three years during the Bosnian conflict. When the military began downsizing, Mark was offered early contract closure and both returned to the States. Jeannie went back to selling cosmetics, working at Estée Lauder. She started by working behind the counter, then became counter manager, and then assumed the job of account coordinator, managing seven counters around Oklahoma. When Mark received a promotion, both moved to Alexandria, Virginia, where he managed Marriott contracts for Georgetown University. Jeannie was able to continue her work with Estée Lauder but now she was back to working on the counter. Soon that counter was bringing in $1 million a year.
Yet another promotion for Mark found the couple moving to Jackson, Mississippi. Estée Lauder helped Jeannie find another job, this time managing multiple counters. The couple was in Jackson for two years, but a merger sent Mark to St. Louis, where he ran the food and conference center for Boeing. Jeannie went to work for a subsidiary of Estée Lauder, Origins, where she worked as the coordinator for eight stores in Missouri and Indiana. While in St. Louis the couple lived in an old Jewish Temple which had been renovated into an apartment. This she loved. Soon she was given the opportunity to interview as an account executive for Origins, flew to New York for the interview, talked with Mark, and was gratified to learn that his reaction to making a move that would further her career was unequivocal: “You have followed me around for ten years, so now I will gladly follow you.”
The couple moved to Memphis, and Jeannie was responsible for the states of Tennessee, Oklahoma, and Arkansas. In this position she managed eighteen counters for Dillard’s stores and for other retail establishments. She supervised eighty people and loved the job.
Even the jobs we love the most come with significant drawbacks. Jeannie was traveling more than three weeks each month, and this was tough on her marriage and tough on her physically. “Sometimes I would work so hard that I would forget to eat. I got really skinny and sickly. So, after close to four years of this kind of life, Mark and I agreed that something had to change.” She chose to resign her position with Estée Lauder because she could not keep up with the demands of the job without continuing to damage her body. They decided to move back to Oklahoma to be closer to family and friends, drastically improving their quality of life.
Her next job was with the Oklahoma Blood Institute doing public relations and helping to run blood drives. She realized she liked working in this nonprofit organization because she believed in its mission, liked helping people, and felt she was doing something good for society. She worked there for two years before she had a hemorrhage in her eye. When she woke on a Friday morning and found that everything she saw was pink, she thought she was having a problem with allergies, because it had happened before. When the problem had not improved on Monday, she went to the doctor and on that day received 1,000 laser shots in both eyes. Problems with her vision would consume the next year of her life. Every two weeks she was having eye surgeries, procedures, and experimental injections. The frequent laser treatments on both of her eyes meant that she missed a lot of work, and the director of public relations called her in to ask why. No doubt feeling the need to expose her repressed inner doctor, the supervisor suggested Jeannie "get an eye transplant." In the quest to save her vision, she could not assure her supervisor that her attendance would improve, so she resigned.
Four times during that year of struggle to save her sight, she lost all of her vision. Each time it would return, there would be less of it. Emotionally she tells the story of traveling to a 7 AM Rotary Club meeting and finding that, on that day, she had so little vision that her usual ten-minute trip took forty-five minutes. “I freely gave up driving because I was terrified that I was going to hurt someone else.”
“I went through the next six months of surgeries and injections and finally came to the realization that I was mostly blind and it was going to stay that way. I couldn’t see to read or to sew, and at that point I had difficulty figuring out anything I could really do. Part of my self-concept is that I am a strong-willed person, but I couldn’t see how that strong will was going to save me.”
Mark was initially terrified by the onset of her blindness and for a time was very overprotective. Neither of the Massays knew a blind person, and the only thing Jeannie knew was that blind people carried long white canes. The rehabilitation agency had not offered her one, she had no idea where a cane for the blind could be had, so she began using a three-foot carved walking stick her father had used. “Mark and I moved in with my mom because I was familiar with the layout of her house. I started receiving library services for the blind but was on so much medication that I really couldn’t read or enjoy the books they sent. I signed up for rehabilitation services and tried to learn something about assistive technology, but only once did a rehabilitation teacher come to my house for fifteen minutes. Not knowing what else to do, I went to the Library for the Blind in Oklahoma City and spent hours there. They offered no formal training there, but I observed other people, listened to what they were doing, and came to understand a bit about the assistive technology used by blind people.
“The one thing I got from the rehabilitation agency that did seem to help was orientation and mobility services. I appreciated my instructor because she showed up for appointments and was the first person I could clearly see who wanted to give me back my independence.”
When Jeannie decided that she would need more training than she could get from an occasional home visit by the Oklahoma agency, she looked at residential rehabilitation centers. She considered attending the Colorado Center for the Blind and was given a long white cane, but the information she had heard about the National Federation of the Blind and the rigor of CCB training, along with biased information and the opinions of her counselor, convinced her that she should attend the Carroll Center for the Blind. She was at the center about six months, and in addition to personal adjustment to blindness training, she also went through an office skills program so that she could learn enough assistive technology to go back to school and get her master’s degree. As she gained confidence and a working set of blindness skills, Mark once again saw in Jeannie the fiercely independent woman he’d married. After her time at the Carroll Center, Jeannie went back to school to become a therapist. Working in the cosmetics industry had always been lucrative, but it’d never been her passion. Mark also made the decision to go back to school, and both graduated with their master’s degrees at the same time.
After graduating in May of 2011, Jeannie set out to begin the supervision process, part of the requirements for licensure as a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) in Oklahoma. The requirement consists of working for a minimum of three thousand hours under a counselor who is already licensed. Jeannie encountered discrimination when seeking a job to complete the supervision required for her to pursue licensure. “Although I was equally qualified and had a high GPA, many people saw my cane and assumed that I wouldn’t be able to do the job,” she said. After going on lots of interviews, Jeannie finally found a job in October of 2011. She began counseling children, adolescents, and their families, who deal with ADHD, depression and anxiety disorders. Jeannie completed the state and national exams in November of 2013 after having had issues gaining her appropriate and desired accommodations. She passed both examinations and will soon receive her Oklahoma state license as a licensed professional counselor.
Jeannie’s first association with an organization of the blind came when she joined the Oklahoma Council of the Blind, the state affiliate of the American Council of the Blind. Although she liked some of the people in the organization, she became concerned with how much time they spent complaining about this radical and militant organization known as the National Federation of the Blind. She did just enough research to realize that the NFB gave state and national scholarships, decided that she was as competent and capable as anyone else, and even decided that crazy, militant money was still spendable. She did not win a national scholarship but was invited to attend the 2008 state convention in Oklahoma. There were fourteen people at that convention and, to her surprise, Steve Shelton nominated her for a board position. During the luncheon speech presented by the national representative from the Federation, Jeannie was touched by the idea of finding something larger than oneself and reaching out to help others.
Although the Oklahoma affiliate did not award her a scholarship in 2008, it did provide resources she could use to attend the national convention. “I was a bit overwhelmed by the three thousand blind people in the Hilton Anatole,” she said, “but once I heard the gavel drop, I knew we had to bring this kind of enthusiasm and the philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind home to Oklahoma. I felt a duty and an obligation to organize a chapter in Edmund, so Steve Shelton, Dick Morris, Selena Crawford, and Dan Frye worked to make the first meeting possible. We had four people attend, and I thought this was great! I told myself we would have an awesome chapter, but at our first regular meeting only the officers showed up. I was disappointed but resolved. The chapter kept growing and pretty soon it came to have twenty and then thirty people on average. We kept at it, and at the same time we worked on developing the affiliate.” Jeannie won a national scholarship in 2009, was invited by President Maurer to attend a leadership seminar, and at that time she told President Maurer that, when she graduated with her master’s degree, she would run to be the state president in Oklahoma.
A third chapter of the affiliate was organized in Ardmore, Oklahoma, in 2010. Two more chapters were chartered in 2012, one in Clinton, the West Central chapter, and the other in Tulsa, the Brady District Chapter. The affiliate has organized a student division and hopes to organize a Parents of Blind Children Division in 2014. In 2011 the Oklahoma affiliate had ten people at the national convention held in Orlando. In 2012 thirty-eight people sat in the affiliate’s delegation, since the convention was just across the Red River in Dallas, Texas. In 2013, once again in Orlando, the number of attendees from the state rose from ten to seventeen.
Jeannie says she has never had problems believing in the teachings of the National Federation of the Blind regarding the need to learn blindness skills. She says that, after her initial loss of vision, what she can see has varied so much that she has never been tempted to put down her cane. “My vision isn’t what I use to live—it is helpful and icing on the cake, but it cannot meet my daily needs for travel and other activities.”
Jeannie Massey was elected to the national board of directors in July 2013, and was elected to serve as treasurer of the National Federation of the Blind in 2015. “When I was growing up, and to this day, my mother used to ask me ‘What are you?’ She taught me to respond in the following way, 'I am intelligent, capable, beautiful, and lots of fun to be with.' This was our way of affirming who I wanted to be and who I could become, and blindness hasn’t changed any of it. This is the message I want to share with blind people: that our hopes, dreams, goals, and aspirations are no less real simply because we do not see.”