Q&A: Employment and Vocational Rehabilitation for the Visually Impaired, Part 1
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Q&A: Employment and Vocational Rehabilitation for the Visually Impaired, Part 1

The Department of Blindness and Low Vision Studies (BLVS) at Salus University recently hosted a panel discussion, in partnership with Penn State Abington Rehabilitation and Human Services (RHS) Program, called “Employment and Vocational Rehabilitation of Individuals Who are Visually Impaired” to educate current students and practitioners who are employed or seeking employment.

Screenshots of panelists Jamie Marks, Luis Fontanez, Lisa Andrews and Karen WolffeThis is part one of a three-part Q and A series featuring:

Kerry S. Lueders, MS, COMS, TVI, CLVT

Director, Low Vision Rehabilitation Program, Programs for Teachers and Children with Visual and Multiple Disabilities, and Assistant Professor, College of Health Sciences, Education and Rehabilitation (CHER), Salus University

Abby Akande, PhD, CRC

Assistant Professor of Rehabilitation and Human Services, Penn State Abington

Jamie Marks, CVRT

Certified Vision Rehabilitation Therapist, Assistive Technology Specialist, Educational Consultant and independent contractor through the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), iCanConnect and the Visually Impaired Foundation of Georgia; Certificate program in Vision Rehabilitation Therapy (VRT) ’14, Salus University

Lisa Andrews

Customer, The Pennsylvania Office of Vocational Rehabilitation (OVR)

Luis Fontanez, MEd

Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor, Altoona Bureau of Blindness and Visual Services (BBVS)

Karen Wolffe, PhD

Owner, Career Counseling and Consultation, LLC, of Austin, Texas

Kerry Lueders:

To give you a little background, this event is funded in part by the U.S. Department of Education Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA) through a long-term training grant awarded to the University. The grant offers scholarships to prospective low vision therapists and vision rehabilitation therapists.

Our audience includes participants who are very familiar with the field of blindness and low vision, as well as participants who are not in the field but are interested in learning more. When we refer to phrases such as visually impaired, low vision or blind, we are referring to the entire spectrum of visual impairment, inclusive of mild vision loss through total blindness.

Jamie Marks:

I am a certified vision rehabilitation therapist and former special education teacher. I work as an assistive technology instructor to the VA right now, and with a couple other nonprofits. I used to teach job readiness classes in a transition academy, so job readiness and getting ready to go to work is very near and dear to my heart, both personally and professionally.

I have a condition called retinitis pigmentosa, so for me that means that I see best when I am looking directly at the speaker, and I have lighting that I can control, and I have good contrast. Basically, if you want to see what I see, you can make little circles with your hands like little binoculars, and that gives you an idea of how I see best. I use a lot of assistive technology in my work, which has been very helpful, especially nowadays. I get around using a long white cane, and I have a Seeing Eye Dog.

Lisa Andrews:

I am legally blind, and my condition is exactly the opposite of Jamie's. I have central vision loss. I see around the binoculars Jamie just described. I guess I have some good and not so great experiences to share in terms of employment, some things that worked or didn't work. I'm here to share my experiences being on the frontlines of this journey, and also not being born with this condition. This is something that happened much, much later in life. In fact, 2011 was when my life really changed in terms of things I used to do like driving for instance.

Luis Fontanez:

I am currently a vocational rehabilitation counselor with the Altoona Bureau of Blindness and Visual Services (BBVS). I'm a living, breathing example, a product of the Pennsylvania Office of Vocational Rehabilitation (OVR). I was born with congenital glaucoma that pretty much took my left eye by the time I was five, along with complications from retinal detachments that left me with no light perception by the time I was 19.

I received my first long white cane in 2003. From that point on, it was an uphill climb toward where I am today. I earned three degrees, including my associate and bachelor’s degrees and then eventually my master's degree in rehab counseling and clinical mental health counseling from Penn State University. All while I was working on getting to where I am today, I was learning how to do the blind business, so to speak. All of my vocational rehabilitation came directly from OVR, working over many years with vision rehab therapists, orientation and mobility instructors and assistant technology specialists. I eventually was able to adapt well enough to get where I am today. Now, I’m the vocational rehabilitation counselor delivering those services.

Karen Wolffe:

I am currently in private practice in Austin, Texas. I'm a counselor, educator with considerable experience working with individuals who are blind, have low vision, including those with additional disabilities. I actually began my work in this field with deaf blind students and adults, and I have worked across disability in rehabilitation and education. But most of my work as a professional has been with blind and low vision children or adults and their families. Currently, I'm working almost exclusively internationally. I have projects in Canada, Denmark, New Zealand and Australia.

Most of these projects include efforts to establish preemployment skills training programs with youth or adults, and I also present to parents, significant others and professionals around the world, including teachers, counselors, orientation and mobility (O&M) specialists, occupational therapists (OTs), physical therapists (PTs) and speech therapists. I am a certified rehabilitation counselor and a special educator, and have written extensively.

Q: What skills do you feel are necessary for competitive employment of individuals who are visually impaired from transition age, about age 14 through adulthood?

Marks:

I really think it's a combination of high tech and soft skills. It really comes back to all the skillsets that people bring to the table for being ready to work. One of the exercises we used to do right off the bat was to ask individuals with vision loss to sit down and write down or compute however they were going to do it or think about, what skills they possess. They don't have to be work skills. They can be things that they're good at, just skills that they possess. What environments are they comfortable and most happy in, and what are their passions, because anyone can get a job.

But if you're going to keep a job, you're going to commit to a job, a career, a place that you want to be, you're going to have to eventually like it. We also had to discuss being really flexible and being adaptable with where you start, and how you get there. The other thing we talked about in terms of skillset is what they refer to a lot of times as soft skills. That's a big deal in the workplace. Emotional intelligence, adaptability, flexibility, troubleshooting ability, getting along with others, those interpersonal relationship skills are hugely important, and not only getting, maintaining, enjoying your work, but also moving on and being promoted to higher level jobs.

So, I think the high-tech combo with the soft skills would be the thing that comes to my mind first. The second thing that I think is really important is being able to explain your visual condition to the general public or to somebody who's unfamiliar, because those are the people who you're going to be interacting with, and then doing it in such a way that they understand what you can do, not what you cannot do.

Andrews:

I think I would echo what Jamie said about high tech, really knowing how to use whatever it is well, is a confidence builder. Although I had a lot of training, I admit that I wasn't always practicing it at home, because I have so much vision that I can still work with. There was a reliance more on the magnification when I probably should have been using audio more.

Also, knowing your equipment and knowing how to use your equipment well, and knowing what you'll be doing. Then, I think also training someone, the training reentry. When I say reentry, I mean someone who has been out of the work world for a while, because of vision loss and is going back and realizing that the work world is very, very different. That's a shifting of sorts, too, and if I had a little more of a heads up before some of these jobs, that would have definitely helped.

Fontanez:

There seems to be the theme of technology. After working in the field for five years now, I think when we're specifically talking about individuals who are blind or visually impaired, and those individuals trying to get into a workforce, I think that first and foremost, having an intimate knowledge of assisted technology is key. That's part of it. Another part is being able to dig deep and find yourself, and finding the drive, the courage and the motivation to want to reenter the workforce or enter the workforce if you've never been there before. Learning technology while in school, so that you can perfect and be comfortable with technology when you leave school, just helps that much more.

What will set you ahead of the rest is what you know as opposed to what you can see. If an employer sees that you know a lot, they may not necessarily pay a lot of attention or give a lot of consideration to the fact that you're coming into their organization with blindness or vision impairment.

Of course, having some braille literacy also helps, and above all is being able to self-advocate, being able to speak for yourself, and speak to an employer succinctly and concisely about your disability and how it doesn't affect your ability to produce and perform.

Those are the key things that I've seen over the years that will set someone up for success, knowing your technology, knowing how to express yourself, having a drive, having the motivation, and having the post-secondary education and credentials to back you.

Wolffe:

When I looked at this question, I immediately thought about transition aged youth. I thought about the way that I try to evaluate young people when they come to me as a counselor with regard to their ability to move into work or postsecondary training successfully. I base everything on nine points and their skillsets that I'll just quickly review for you. Number one is an understanding of work based on real life experiences. For me, that means children have had chores when they were younger at home, they've been expected to do things, they've been expected to perform well, to perform in a timely manner, and that expectation has carried over into school and they've been expected to do their work. They've been expected to perform and perform comparably to their sighted peers.

The second thing I always think about is social skills. To be engaged with other people is critical to life success, and it is absolutely critical to moving successfully into work or postsecondary environments. For most kids most of the time, it means they have to be involved beyond school in activities, extracurricular activities and leisure skills activities. Even in these COVID days, I'm asking always, "What are you doing for socialization?" It's the hardest thing in this virtual world, but it is critical to life success.

The third skill I think all young people have to have to make that leap out of the dependency of family and public school, frankly, primary and secondary, is they have to have good problem-solving skills. Number four, they absolutely must have self-advocacy skills. I put as number five compensatory skills or what I like to call disability specific skills, those alternative techniques that people have to know if they are without vision or if they have impaired vision. My number six thing is an understanding of career options. Many children born blind or severely visually impaired don't know the range of jobs out there. We need to put time and energy into helping young people understand what the array of choices are, so that they can make informed decisions moving forward in life. My number seven is an understanding of ability levels. Not everyone is equal in terms of ability. I think understanding your ability and being able to compensate for what your ability level is or capitalize on your ability level is important.

Number eight is mastery of career counseling competencies. That would include self-awareness, it includes vocational or career exploration skills, job seeking skills, job maintenance skills, employment experience. Then, my last point that I will make here, number nine, is that I believe that young people and adults, frankly, with disabilities, must understand what employers' concerns are. They have to get in front of it. They can't wait for people to ask. They have to anticipate. What is the employer concerned about? And address those concerns. These competencies are all assessed in the tool I developed called the Transition Competencies Checklist. You can download it for free at www.projectaspiro.com. There are three iterations, a tool for the student, a tool for parents and a tool for professionals.

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