by Beverly Fortune
From the Editor: Cheryl Echevarria demonstrates every day that blind people can and do live full and satisfying lives. On February 15, 2012, the Long Island Press published a story about Cheryl and her life and business. Here it is:
Cheryl Echevarria is blind and might not be able to sightsee like everyone else, yet this intrepid Brentwood woman loves to travel. She relies on her service dog Maxx; her heightened sense of smell, touch, and sound; and the confidence that comes from traveling often.
Born with Type 1 diabetes, Cheryl was twenty-two years old when she was diagnosed with diabetic retinopathy, a common diabetic eye disease that is the leading cause of blindness in American adults. Her life changed forever one night in 2001 when she was driving home from her job as an administrative assistant and suddenly her vision became completely blurry. “I had to pull over. I couldn’t see.”
Cheryl’s doctor told her that, if her diabetes was affecting her eyes, it would also affect other organs in her body. Subsequently her kidneys began to fail as well. In 2002 she began kidney dialysis four hours a day three times a week. Her treatments continued for three years until she went through another life-altering experience when her friend Steve Carroll donated a kidney to her.
Once Cheryl recuperated from the organ transplant, she was determined to go back to work. During her dialysis treatments, she lost her sight completely in one eye. She says her remaining sight is “like looking through a telescope hole covered in thick plastic.” She enrolled in a training program provided by the New York State Commission for the Blind and Visually Handicapped (CBVH), where she learned new job skills, including how to use computer software for the blind. After completing the program, she was ready for the next step in her recovery, which was to go back to school. She began taking classes at Branford Hall Career Institute in Bohemia and became the school’s first blind student to graduate. She found an administrative job in the healthcare field, where she worked for two years.
Cheryl felt that she had lost ten years of her life being sick and was ready to transition into a new career. She began scouring the Internet for new connections. “I found the National Federation of the Blind online and joined the Greater Long Island Chapter,” she says. The NFB is the largest nonprofit organization in the world for the blind that is operated by the blind. Cheryl now serves as the treasurer of the chapter, adding that all officers must be blind. “We are advocates for education, employment, and accessibility,” Cheryl says proudly. “We advocate for ourselves; we don’t hire anyone.”
After searching through the Federation’s resources, she decided that becoming a travel agent would be a good career choice. She loved to travel, and she could work from home. “I have a background in customer service and sales, so this was a good fit,” she says. After completing her job training online, Cheryl started working through a host travel agency, confident that becoming a travel agent was the right career move.
In 2009 Cheryl and her husband Nelson founded Echevarria Travel. Cheryl says Nelson is an integral part of the agency and is the photographer and videographer for the travel images used on its website. “As far as I know, I’m the only blind travel agent in the tri-state area,” she says. She was recently elected president of the NFB’s Travel and Tourism Division.
Cheryl’s blindness has given her insight into the planning required to ensure a pleasurable trip for her clients. Her agency offers services to everyone, but her specialty is the traveler who is blind or on dialysis or in a wheelchair or has had an organ transplant. As a survivor of all of these illnesses, Cheryl is uniquely qualified to help them plan a trip. “I know what disabled travelers need and the questions to ask them,” she says. “What’s your degree of blindness? Do you use a cane?” If travel plans include a cruise, she wants to know if the client can read Braille. “I ask because not everyone does,” she explains. “If they don’t [read Braille], I contact the cruise line and make sure they get a meet-and-greet and tour of the ship so they can familiarize themselves with their surroundings,” she says. If they plan on traveling with a service animal, Cheryl explains that they will need to go to their vet to get a health certificate and they need to secure a permit to bring the animal into another country.
The cruise industry has taken notice of this newly mobile customer base and is making vessels more accessible so sight-impaired travelers can acclimate themselves quickly. Cheryl has been working closely with Norwegian Cruise Lines and says she helped them introduce Braille menus on their ships.
No two visually impaired people have the same level of functional vision, so Cheryl helps her clients overcome some of the red tape they might encounter to ensure that they have a good experience. All of this pre-travel preparation includes additional paperwork that she helps her clients complete as part of her services. Understanding the requirements and information needed for traveling today is invaluable. As a travel advocate and advisor for the blind, Cheryl has opened up a world of new experiences for these sensory travelers that might have been out of reach before.