by Suzanne Turner
From the Editor: Suzanne is the president of the National Federation of the Blind of Ohio and so much more. She is the diversity officer for the Ohio Democratic Party Disability Caucus; serves on the executive board for Services for Independent Living; is a member of the Cuyahoga County Advisory Board for Persons with Disabilities, which is comprised of persons with disabilities and community partners; is a member of the Diversity for Success Toastmasters Club, where members connect from around the world; and she is the only member with a disability. We will hold some of her other titles for a future article, but we must note that she adopted two daughters and now is a grandparent of three students who will be learning Braille. Here is her article:
During the 2020 Ohio State Convention, I was asked to give a speech on finding a job in the pandemic. I pondered over and over about what I could offer the audience. So I came up with a story that I have not shared publicly. Also, as a member of the National Federation of the Blind Employment Committee, I am always looking to elevate individuals by providing open communication. Therefore, I was honored to tell my story with the hope it was inspiring.
The theme of my speech was “From Chicken Coop to the Pandemic.” Yes, that’s correct: I am familiar with both. Here is my story!
We all have encountered indelible events in our lives that have left a mark and have shaped who we are. Just take a moment and think back about how many jobs, how many volunteer efforts, and how many barriers you’ve overcome. It doesn’t matter how big or small; they have developed you into a success, be it as the cleaner of your house or as a well renowned scientist. Your purpose, talent, and skills are your own, which gives you a unique edge.
Enjoying this success is that golden moment that sets you apart from others. I will talk about the golden moment a little later.
Born in Brooklyn, New York, the oldest of four siblings, I was the only one with a disability. As I understand, Abraham Lincoln and I have the same hereditary disorder. Both of us were destined to be tall—lanky as physicians say—meaning long limbs. In addition, dislocated lenses that have affected our vision is also a factor. I heard this almost every year at my annual physicals.
I was raised by my Native-American and Black paternal grandmother, who stood all of four feet nine when barefoot. She was quite spunky and a wonderful influence on life. She knew a little about everything. My grandmother also taught English in the Manhattan, Long Island, and Staten Island School Districts. We called her “Big Mama” until it was clear that she was going to be our primary parent. Then her title changed to Ma until she passed at the age of ninety-nine years and ten months. She educated me and my siblings on everything from grammar to reciting our grace in Spanish.
At the age of ten, Ma decided to move us back to her hometown in Mississippi to a small rural town called McClain. I would like to take a moment and paint you a picture of the contrast between Brooklyn and McClain.
Brooklyn had traffic lights on every corner. McClain had only one traffic light. Brooklyn had corner stores at the end of the streets. McClain had one grocery store in town. Brooklyn had all paved streets. McClain had a number of dirt roads where we lived.
But what was most shocking was that now we lived on a farm and no longer in the city. Most of you who understand the workings of a farm know a little about shucking corn, shelling peas, and slopping the hogs. Likely you also know about picking rows and rows of cucumbers, tomatoes, peas, and more in the wee hours of the morning. This had become a new daily event for us.
However, the coolest thing about that experience was our animals. We had horses, goats, and those whom I call relatives. Those were our chickens, and they became family. They walked beside, in front of, and behind us as we did our chores. We spent more time inside the chicken coop then they did.
Now that I look at it, it was the chicken coop that provided me my first skill set. Searching for eggs required an ability. You had to research where the chickens laid their eggs, handle those eggs with care, and finally transport them to a safe place. This was a delicate job. It required patience, tracking, and management. I do not know why my grandmother made that transition from schoolteacher to running a farm, but we all learned hard work and the value in it.
Most of you know that after I graduated from high school, I attended Jackson State University in Mississippi studying music. Because of the loss of more vision, I dropped out. During that time I had a rehabilitation counselor who did not believe in the white cane if you had some residual vision. So I struggled traveling and socially. This is when I became employed at Royal Maid Industry for the Blind packing flatware into boxes for less than minimum wage. Sound familiar?
But, as I performed that task, hard work was still at the forefront. I did not slack. I worked to produce with grace. As I worked harder to earn the minimum wage by packing more and more each day, it did not make a difference in the eyes of the bosses. Somehow I excelled at that. Then I was put on a high and powerful machine clamping metal plates on sponges for mops that were rolled out to area stores. I excelled at that as well. I do believe that it was partly because of that chicken coop that gave me the self-discipline to conquer that. Moreover, I had patience and endurance to make it through. Hard work propelled me and made me determined to earn that minimum wage. You see, I had hard work and determination in my DNA, though I did not learn this until later in life.
After working at Royal Maid for five years, I relocated to Cleveland, Ohio, with a goal to attend college. It was my grandmother’s whisper that was always at the forefront telling me and my siblings that achieving a higher education was what would make a way for us to be productive in our lives. When I set out to accomplish that dream, I hit a roadblock. Once more it was a rehabilitation counselor, this time in Ohio, who refused to assist me with my informed choice. He explained that I had a fourth grade education, and I did not have the ability to succeed. I enrolled anyway on my own. In 1996 I earned a BA in social work and later my master’s in public administration.
After a few months obtaining the BA, I was hired as a teleservice representative at the Social Security Administration. I now was a competitive employee working for the federal sector. It was the SSA that provided me an opportunity to develop, evolve, and rebrand myself into who I am today.
Why did I need to do this you may ask? First, I was passed over for a promotion because I was not among an office click. I only did my job and went home. Then, I did a lot of overtime, thinking that I would be considered for a bonus. However, I was passed over for that as well. It wasn’t until I attempted to teach a class on a subject that I knew forward and backwards or so I thought! It was a disaster to say the least. I was not prepared. There is something about preparation when it comes to conducting a thorough presentation or training. I certainly learned the hard way. Research coupled with talent is necessary and generally goes a long way. Winging anything is definitely not advised.
Because I was great at my job, which was affirmed to me by the manager of quality assurance, I could not figure out why I was being overlooked. Was it that I needed more than hard work and determination in my toolbox in order to standout? Sure it was. I needed to perform at a higher level. I needed to develop that golden moment.
I had technical ability, but I was not a very sociable coworker. I had to learn to interact beyond my easy and immediate scope. This is why I am a big proponent of socialization skills. I was an introvert and ashamed of my blindness. I had to learn to be more sociable, better at open communication, and comfortable when networking with others, which is called “integration.” The lack of this trait caused me to score low on my performance appraisals. The supervisor explained that it was important to interact with coworkers and that this could benefit the office. She went on to say that technical ability and the interpretation of policies were needed not only by fellow-coworkers but from me as well. Therefore I stepped out and studied how to express, converse, and articulate on various levels. Clarification is vital when providing the public with laws that affect their lives.
Although I was promoted twice in that agency, have been employed at an insurance company, and have worked at a nonprofit for the blind, I am still a work in progress today. Having an extensive work history does not preclude me from working hard to perform at a higher level. Hence, when you use a talent and skill, you share it, and it benefits others. You can find solutions, lead a team, problem-solve, and more, and all of these are a part of success.
Remember that earlier I mentioned the golden moment? Well, it has become my secret weapon. Essentially it is that element where you have something no one else has! It is that something that helps you to achieve and excel at a higher level. Typically you believe in yourself. You are noticed by others because you have that factor which others want; you are positive, energetic, effective, motivated, and inspiring. This comes from focusing on yourself.
When I was told that I had a fourth-grade education and was passed over for a promotion, experiencing something that was not right turned into a positive force for me to prove them wrong. I began rebranding myself. I began working on developing new skills and homing in on my talents. What does this mean? When you have a talent and a skill, it saves time, which helps you to narrow down your choices—like choosing a college course, a profession, and some activities. It gives you a boost in self-confidence. You feel positive, and there are no limits. It is that golden moment that helped me find a job in the pandemic.
So now I have a vast knowledge database with secured information that includes education and competence. My background fulfills exceptional needs. Consequently, I gravitate toward job positions and endeavors that are in my skill set. Because I have that database of information that I have amassed and acquired such as long-term service and life experiences as well as my scholastics and talent, I now have the golden moment; it is everything I have experienced rolled up and shaped into who I am and who you are.
In order to get to that golden moment, let me tell you what I had to do. I took countless courses in writing, sentence structure, and narration. I read articles on personality identity, leadership, public speaking, and networking. I became proficient in Microsoft systems, medical transcription, medical terminology, motivational interviewing, and more. I took notes, and I practiced and practiced. I learned to memorize, to negotiate, and I challenged myself. I came out of the corner, smiled and talked more, and listened attentively. And most of all, I changed my mindset by accepting my blindness and understanding that it is respectable to be blind. This is a little of what I had to do to become marketable.
My conclusion and advice to you is this: you have to decide what will make you unique and help you move closer and closer to that golden moment. These skills that I worked on were in my field and were ones that employers look for when hiring. Maybe you want more than a job; maybe you would like to sit on a community board. Well, they measure you by the same standards. They look at your strengths, weaknesses, educational background, and community involvement. They want to know about your talent, skills, hard work, ethics, and more. Therefore, rebranding takes time.
Leadership is important in the Federation. It is easy to want to be president, but are you ready for the work? If not, prepare yourself. Find out what you are good at, develop your talent, and find new skills. Take a course; learn more about technology. That skillset is needed more than ever during the pandemic. When my resumé hits a desk, it speaks for itself. But then it is my job to mirror what the employer is reading and make them believe it. Furthermore, networking is highly important as well. Of course, a friend can refer you, but they cannot get that job for you.
As a former and retired federal employee who has entered back into the private sector, I did so because it was familiar. I got three job offers in the same month. I researched them all and narrowed them down to the one that would most benefit my lifestyle. You have to put in the effort and stay ahead at all times. Of course, there are barriers that we face. We must dust ourselves off and get back up. Find a circle of friends who are positive and can empathize. Mentors can provide you with access to a wealth of knowledge and resources. They may even become a lifelong friend. Nevertheless, if you want to be the best, you have to examine and rebrand according to time, occupation, interviewing styles, the job market, and even the pandemic. Work on yourself by being current, ready, and open to change. Do not worry if you are limited in knowledge. We all were at one time. Step out, and by next year, today will be in your past, and you will be further along.
While you pursue your dream job, be patient and persistent. Don’t sweat it! It will come in time as you prepare yourself. Use your experience to shape yourself into exactly who you want to be and what you are looking for. But targets move and things change. That job may not exist, so continue doing your research. Determine what you can live with by combining your passion, interest, values, strength, and turning that weakness into an ally. Everyone should have an action plan. Fifteen years might be too far in advance. But one year from now is more predictable, and your goals will be more attainable.
In conclusion, from the woman who has experience with chicken coops and finding a job during the pandemic, I encourage you to start by considering taking a personality test to see where you are, not just for employment opportunities but for your community involvement as well. There is a test called a SWOT analysis. It is a way for you to find out what your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats are in relationship to beginning the rebranding process.Thank you for reading my story. I am a cross section of the broader society, and I am not a broken sighted person. Blindness is not the characteristic that defines me or my future. I will continue to live the life I want. This is my testimony: to tell you and the world that blindness has not held me back, and I am leaving a legacy of golden moments that are transferable to anyone that I come in contact with both now and in the future. I aspire to be the change that I want to see! I gladly share this opportunity with you!