Braille Monitor                          February 2020

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From Struggle to Success: How Honesty, Skills, Philosophy, and Engagement Helped Me

by Rebecca Stevens

Rebecca StevensFrom the Editor: Rebecca tells a story that needs to be told more often. The story is about a child who sees so little that using her sight does not allow her to productively do what others do. At the same time, she sees well enough that she is not encouraged to learn and use the techniques blind people use, and when she makes moves in that direction, she is questioned, bullied, and suffers a direct attack on her self-esteem. The question is whether to try to fit in and accept that you will not do things well, or determine that you are blind and that you must master the techniques blind people use and then gladly take the additional rewards your limited vision will allow.

Rebecca now works as our director of social media at the NFB Jernigan Institute, but this article was written before her recent hiring. I appreciate her sharing her story with readers of the Braille Monitor, and I think many of us will come to appreciate what she does for us in bringing her skills to social media. Here is what she says:

I was born on December 27, 1994, with albinism, a condition frequently accompanied by low vision. I am the oldest of three girls, and after our parents divorced, we moved to Gothenburg, Nebraska, as my mom navigated becoming a single parent. Although she always encouraged me to follow my dreams by demonstrating what persistence and hard work could accomplish, she had few resources and no familiarity with blindness. Neither did she know or have help in learning how to raise a child growing up with it. She took me to the best ophthalmologist, involved me with the Lions Club, and encouraged my participation in different activities. These activities included sports (karate, track, baseball, volleyball), Destination Imagination (collaborative problem-solving challenges designed to teach twenty-first century skills and STEM principles), choir, plays, band, and Girl Scouts. All the advice she received from public schools, counselors, doctors, and family and friends encouraged her to push me to use the eyesight I have. In turn, it discouraged me when I couldn’t do the things that I wanted to accomplish. It also brought on a number of health problems, ranging from headaches and back pain to depression, anxiety, and eventually low self-esteem. They didn’t teach me to embrace my vision loss and learn different, nonvisual techniques to accomplish tasks. And worse, I struggled socially; it became harder to make friends.

I attended Gothenburg public schools from 2003 through 2006 and again from 2008 until I graduated in 2013. During my schooling I began using low-vision accommodations in the classroom. I had the choice among large print, magnification, and using skills designed for people with less usable vision. Living in Nebraska, I was very fortunate to be in a state that had one of the best vocational rehabilitation programs for blindness in the country. I was assigned a vision counselor from the Nebraska Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired (NCBVI), who worked with my mother and me to do the best that we could to advocate in IEP meetings and acquire the expensive access technology I needed. I was given the option to learn Braille, which I did. But quickly it became apparent that there weren’t many practical ways for me to use it, since it had to be transcribed and materials reformatted for me. Instead I used magnification aids such as ZoomText (a screen magnification program) and a closed-circuit TV (CCTV) to enlarge the white board, even if that meant making it harder in classes. I used to lug this heavy machine through the halls, up and down the stairs, and sit in the front of the class to read PowerPoints and handouts, but I still struggled to keep up. The CCTV encouraged me to depend on the unreliable vision that I had. Oftentimes these visual techniques wouldn’t bridge the gap that I needed, and I was placed in a special education class where I was helped by a special education paraprofessional (para) to read my work and explain materials. Sometimes it was given in an over-simplified manner in order to meet deadlines, resulting in my answers being too easy in order to pass classes. I wasn’t a slow learner; nor did I have trouble learning the material from an academic perspective. In fact, it was the opposite. Despite the best efforts of my paras, teachers, and my mom, I still struggled to get good grades in my classes and to meet the expectations that I had for myself. I wanted to take harder classes that would look good to colleges, but they were more visually challenging. People were setting lower standards and expectations for my future solely because of my blindness. I began to have difficulty with my peers, my self-esteem, and I started acting out. Still, I never completely gave up on my dreams.

I found myself in a strange kind of limbo—too sighted to fit in with blind peers, and too blind to fit in with sighted people. I was told by family and other sighted people that I was “not blind enough” to need a white cane, so for years I never used one. Very often people assumed I was either incapable or faking my lack of vision.

Socially, school was even more of a challenge. The bullying because of my albinism was horrendous. It had reached a point where I didn’t feel safe coming to class because I was being physically threatened by my peers for how I looked and because of the special aids I had to use in class. It led me to feel like I had to hide my blindness from people. So when I was older and was introduced to my first cane, I was afraid of how much it would make me stand out and emphasize that I was different. I didn’t see its value as a tool when I had gotten so good at hiding my struggles with blindness so that only my closest friends, the para, and my close family members could see the things I did to make it look like I was just another kid with vision.

When I finally entered the workforce, I used this same tactic to get jobs. But quickly I realized that the only person I was fooling was myself. I struggled with performing up to expectations when reliant on visual techniques. It wasn’t new to me to struggle in the sighted world; however, I was very frustrated with how low the expectations were set for me. I felt like I would never be able to do anything greater than take orders and bag fast food, and even then I tried to do my best. I wanted more than this. I wanted a good job, a career with benefits, advancement opportunities, and some day to have a family and raise children. I knew I deserved these things just like everyone else. My mom watched me struggle, and she never stopped encouraging me to be brave. But the truth was that we both felt powerless. We were problem-solvers, but we couldn’t see another solution.

After struggling for years in the workplace, losing my job, and having to pick up multiple part-time jobs to be able to pay the bills, I began my search again. After many resumés and applications, but very few interviews, I still couldn’t seem to find a job. No matter how professional I was, I couldn’t get hired, not even at local restaurants. Despite all of the challenges I had faced in employment and continuing education, I always believed I had more potential, and those obstacles challenged me to be determined, strong, and hard working. It gave me the determination and diligence to make my dreams a reality. But for years I believed in that idea that if something is broken, fix it, and to myself and everyone else, my vision was broken.

In 2014 my mother and I decided to start our business, Agape Medical Staffing LLC. My mom knew I could do it. I just needed the chance to prove to myself and to others how capable and able I was. Today, I love working at home with my mom and being my own boss. I help so many elderly people in nursing homes across the state and build relationships with nursing home administrators and other business owners. I finally feel like I am giving back to my state and my community! But as our business grew, so did the paperwork and the demand for more computer skills. I realized I needed better accommodations for my vision, and I began falling behind on deadlines once again. That was when I decided to go to the School for the Blind run by NCBVI. This is where my life began to follow a new path. This is where I learned, under the Structured Discovery method, to use alternative, nonvisual techniques of blindness. I also stopped seeing myself as broken, rather, just different. I attended training where I would wear learning shades (a dark mask over my eyes that didn’t let any light come through). From 8 a.m. until 5 p.m., I wore these learning shades to learn skills like Braille literacy, home management, home maintenance, traveling with a long white cane, and computer skills using JAWS (a screen reader which converts print on a computer screen to synthetic speech). It was there that I was first introduced to the National Federation of the Blind and its positive philosophy about my blindness. I came to accept my vision and myself with pride! I no longer fear using other accommodations to create a better quality of life for myself.

I wish that I had learned and used these skills years ago! As I learned them and started using them regularly, I realized that I had missed so many things trying to rely on vision alone. I was practically illiterate, and my traveling was very stressful and unsafe. Worst of all, I had acquired such an anxiety of talking to people and being independent that I was now the one holding myself back. I let others tell me what was best for me, many who thought they were helping, but they had never been exposed to the positive philosophy of what blindness was. For so long, I didn’t know all the opportunities and experiences that I had missed out on! I had finally found a family within the Federation, a community of support, and I didn’t have to pave my own way or try to be someone I wasn’t anymore. The skills I have learned from NCBVI and the National Federation of the Blind have given me the opportunity and the confidence to be a successful businesswoman, mom, mentor, and contributing member of my community. They have also given me the courage to share my new identity with my family and friends. My mother has seen me grow in ways she never imagined possible! Today I want to share this philosophy, to be a role model for others with vision loss, and to show them that they can be anything they dream. My story is far from unique in the blindness community, and I wouldn’t say it is sad, either. I had good friends and lots of love and support! Those around me did everything they knew to help me succeed, but they lacked the knowledge and resources to show me this different perspective of my blindness.

Meet the Blind Month is about bringing a positive perspective on blindness and sharing the techniques and tools we use to interact with the world. It’s about making connections and sharing support with others, both sighted and blind, as we navigate the world. When I talk about blindness, I am not referring to total blindness or pointing out the difference between legally blind and low vision. Rather, I am using the NFB’s definition, which is anyone whose vision is altered significantly enough that they must use alternative techniques to accomplish tasks of daily living. With this philosophy, the techniques used by people with low vision and those with total blindness are very similar. They can rely on nonvisual alternatives that create less stress on them and at the same time provide an efficient way to accomplish goals. Blindness can look like many things, and there are lots of ways we accommodate. Each person is unique, and therefore the techniques they use vary, but the philosophy should be the same. Live the life you want; these techniques can help you do exactly that.

I want to give special thanks to all those who did their best to help me along my journey:
Angela Piper, case manager; my mom, Lori Zimmerman; all of my friends in school who stood by me in the tough times; all the counselors and instructors from NCBVI, especially Erin Brandyberry; and finally the Federation family in Nebraska and within the Nebraska’s At-Large Chapter of the National Federation of the Blind.

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