Employment as a Visually Impaired Person
INTRODUCTION

There is a very high unemployment rate for legally blind and totally blind people in the United States. i was probably legally blind for a number of years before I was certified as such in the early 1970's. Since I was already employed, after rehab and with the help of many fellow employees, I was able to continue on the job for many years.


BACKGROUND AND BEGINNING

I wore eyeglasses for myopia and astigmatism from the time I began elementary school. Throughout my youth, I had trouble seeing things at a distance even with glasses. My best corrected acuity was about 20/40, with a restricted central field of vision. Reading was difficult without good lighting, and even then, rapid reading was not possible since only a few words of a sentence were in the field. I often would lose sight of quick hand movement, and could lose sight of moving objects such as a baseball, especially against the poor contrast background of the sky. My night vision was poor, and my adjustment between dim and bright lighting conditions was much slower than for most people. When I was a senior in high school, my ophthalmologist told me that I had retinitis pigmentosa, that there was no treatment or cure, and I would very likely become blind at some point in my life. When I was old enough to apply for a driving permit, I couldn't pass the eye test, and I have never been able to drive.

My high school years were in the early period of the space race, and there was much emphasis on science. My curriculum was college prep with majors in science and math. When I graduated from high school I had made no plans to attend college, and had no specific direction for a career. Near the end of that summer, the father of one of my friends, who was Director of Public Works, hired me for a seasonal job with an engineering field crew. When that position ran out, he arranged for an interview at the Sewage Disposal Plant, and I was immediately hired as a laborer to work as an aide on an operations shift. A driver's license was not required for the position.

Most of my work was menial building or grounds work, but I did get some exposure to the laboratory and general operations. While in this position I passed a basic wastewater course, and then passed the beginning level Ohio Class I Wastewater Plant Operations exam. Many of the employees were a generation older (I started just after my eighteenth birthday in 1964), and from them I learned many things about applied knowledge in an industrial setting and about interactions and various dynamics in a work group.

In 1966 I was selected to be a Plant Operator after passing a Civil Service exam. Over the next several years I worked relief shifts, some maintenance, and a good portion of my time in the laboratory. I had enough eyesight to read meter faces, burettes and pipettes, perform color titrations and use color comparison wheels, and various other routine laboratory tasks. I had the opportunity to perform metals analysis with an atomic absorption spectrophotometer, collect stream samples, run bacterial analysis, and study a number of standard laboratory procedures. There were times when my weak eyesight added some challenge, but my continual goal was for a thorough and accurate work product. On shift operations and on maintenance, I learned about the processes and equipment throughout the plant, and a little about plumbing, medium voltage electricity, pumps and drives, control systems, prints and specifications, and general construction. I continued with training courses and independent textbook study, and passed the Ohio Class II Wastewater Plant Operator exam in 1967 and the Class III Wastewater Plant Operator exam in 1968. For several years I was the division steward in the AFSCME local union. Over these initial years of employment I used public transportation, or rides with friends/family to and from work, and all of my reading was without low vision aids.


FIRST LEVEL SUPERVISION AND FIRST LEVEL REHABILITATION

In 1971 I was selected as the assistant head of the Wastewater Treatment Plant from a field of three applicants, and I enjoyed the work before me. About two weeks after that appointment, construction began on a two million dollar, year-long treatment process upgrade. I learned about the new equipment and processes and prepared operations procedures for the operating staff to follow. Through those years however, my eyesight continued to deteriorate from the retinitis pigmentosa (RP), and at the same time my drive and desire deteriorated. It became increasingly more difficult for me to do my work to the standard the position deserved. I was medically certified as legally blind in 1973 and began counseling with a state agency. In January 1974 I began an eleven week rehabilitation program designed specifically for the adventitiously blind, sponsored by the Ohio Bureau of Services for the Blind. I had been encouraged not to give up my career through disability retirement, by my boss and by the Assistant Personnel Director. These two men especially, and other friends at the plant, helped me make the right decision when my life seemed to be falling apart. We should never under estimate how crucial our genuine encouragement to another might be, during major trials in their lives. My position was held open while I attended rehab on paid sick leave. How could I have guessed that I would work for another thirty years!

The major aspects of the program at the rehab center in Cincinnati were mobility with the Hoover long cane, the basics of Braille, other alternatives for learning, and organizational techniques for independent living skills. I also interacted with about half a dozen other partially sighted people in the residence program, both in training and in evening leisure time. Some of the training staff were either partially sighted or totally blind from birth, and my Braille instructor had a master's degree in education although totally blind. Eleven weeks of concentrated time with the clients and staff at this rehab center was probably more important than the formal training in itself. I gained a respect for sight-impaired people that I never had before, and this helped me overcome my personal fear of blindness, which I later learned is perhaps the most feared disability.

When I returned to work, some of the high level of confidence I had gained through rehab ebbed away, because the work environment I returned to was not as ideally suited to my needs as was the rehab environment in Cincinnati. Re-entry into "normal" conditions at work and at home was more difficult than I had anticipated. Again, cooperation and support from the plant employees and from management carried me through, and I gained an even more important resource, because that summer I became a Christian. My life was more significantly changed by my spiritual conversion than by the rehab experience, but it would be about another year before that would become clearer to me.

I now used a closed circuit TV system with reverse image to magnify and contrast print for easier reading, both at work and at home. I used some Braille for labeling and brief notes, and I used a pocket dictation recorder for notes and for memos later typed by the secretary. As a supervisor/manager my function was to collect information, evaluate and plan, and to direct the efforts of others. This was doable for someone with sight limitation. It was quite interesting to find a number of people who opened up to me to share their own personal experience with some physical problem, such as partial hearing loss, because my impairment had become very public. I also purchased and used a course from Xerox Learning Institute, called Effective Listening. Over the years, I found that I often came away from discussions or meetings with as much or more information than my sighted counterparts.


BLENDING VOCATION, AVOCATION, AND FAMILY, AND MAXIMIZING ALTERNATIVE TECHNIQUES

In August 1975 I was appointed as superintendent, and over the next twenty-eight years, until January 2004, I had excellent support from superiors, the employees of the Springfield Wastewater Treatment Plant, City departments, City consultants, manufacturer's representatives, and vendors. During the course of those years, I was a member of the Clark County Council of the Blind nine years, the National Federation of the Blind eight years, and a member of the Springfield Lions Club eight years, with one term as president. In 1976 I married Carolyn, the love of my life, who is the best change in my life, next to my surrender to Christ Jesus. Our son Tom was born in 1978, our son Shaun was born in 1981, and we brought Marci at the age of 16 into our family as a daughter in 1995. From the mid 1980-s to the mid 1990's I served two terms of three years each as deacon at our local church. While superintendent, there were a variety of family activities and avocations, worked into the time remaining after a management position which was not usually just forty hours per week. One of the continuing aspects of my rehabilitation for sight loss was learning to accept help from many sources, and this also taught me the value of reciprocation as I found increased opportunities to help others.

Photograph of Mike and Carolyn at home, October, 2004

Mike and Carolyn at home, October, 2004.

Carolyn read technical information onto cassette tape for me beginning in 1976, even though it was not nearly as interesting to her as it was to me. She also helped me by reading other print materials; and by providing "audio description" for scenery, video programs, live plays, etc. Two of my sisters did all of the typing and helped with assembly for my submittal to the Ohio EPA Board of Examiners in 1978 for my Class IV Wastewater certification which was issued in 1979. In the office, my secretary read most of the mail and inter-office communications to me, and gradually developed the knack of knowing those items which were truly trivial and not needing my review. My subordinate supervisors often read technical product or process information to me, and described blueprints or diagrams. Sometimes after meetings or interviews, I would even ask them for feedback on the body language that I missed. In 1988, a tactual model was made of the major processes and one critical routing structure when the plant was being converted from trickling filter, by construction of complete mix activated sludge in series, because by this time I was no longer able to see to use the closed circuit TV viewing device. Often maintenance personnel would bring various mechanical items to my office so I could examine them tactually as we had discussion, and occasionally I would go to various parts of the plant for "hands-on" examination. The plant grounds covers about twenty acres, has over a dozen buildings with a total floor space of over 40,000 square feet. The total footprint for all the major treatment structures is about five acres, and the system is designed to treat an average of 25 million gallons per day. We prepared a brief description of Wastewater Plant Purposes and Facilities, and an aerial photograph for the City of Springfield, Ohio website before my retirement.


As the use of computers became more common by the mid 1980's, my speech access software was a fantastic tool. I placed operations instructions and other information across our eight-node LAN directly onto the computer in the Operations Center from my office desktop computer. All laboratory analysis and operations data was hand-entered and stored on computer, and I could transfer files and then review content with my speech access software. We operated in the DOS environment for several years after most of the City was converting to Windows, because my speech access was DOS only, and our custom designed batch files and Lotus macros provided menu screens and automated file transfer to meet our specific needs. We even designed a custom program to transfer Lotus data directly into the Ohio EPA MOR Menu program, so we would not need to make hand entry before making the electronic transfer to Columbus for our NPDES monthly reports. After several years, OEPA distributed a new SWIMS program for improved reporting.

We gradually transitioned to Windows NT, and expanded our plant LAN to ten computers, with WAN connection to all City computers, T1 Internet access, and terminal access for a few of our computers to the AS400 in City Hall for payroll, purchasing, and personnel records. Use of Email became very common intra-City, and this augmented the extensive voice mail system which had been in use since the early 1990's. I converted from the Flipper software which I had used with DOS, and began using JAWS for Windows. As with most businesses, the City of Springfield had developed an Information Technology Department, and they were excellent to work with in getting equipment and access methods compatible with speech output. I had a text-to-speech page scanner, but during my last few years in my office, most of my contacts were sending me material in electronic file format as Email attachments, and this saved the time required for scanning and proofing. The last major plant improvements project before my retirement was for repair/replacement of infrastructure, and implementation of a SCADA system for the treatment processes. We worked very closely with the software consultant in 2000-01 to design our Wonderware data base for best advantage of speech access features for my needs. The built-in graphics features of Wonderware were great for my sighted staff, but not for me. However, our software consultants left me with excellent flexibility so I could continue to modify how we accessed and contoured the data into an accessible format for me, and for the sighted staff. I could even select from numerous tag names and place hot links in Excel spreadsheets to track real-time data such as plant flow, rainfall, chemical feed rate, motor run times, boiler temperatures, pH, dissolved oxygen, etc.


THE LORD WAS GUIDING MY PATH

From the beginning of my work in municipal government, opportunities were opened to me all along the way, and for the first ten years, I had no idea that the blessings were from the Lord. I did not even apply for the seasonal job that gave me my first work experience, nor for the first position at the wastewater treatment plant, which began my career in full time public service. And at each step after that, the gifts of aptitudes and inclinations from the Lord were fashioned by Him to prepare me for each next step. "O Jehovah, I know that the way of man is not in himself: it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps." (Jeremiah 10:23 ASV)

With my eyesight limitation, I was exempted from military service during the Vietnam War, and was free from the related expenses and activities of having a car. I spent more time on learning about the wastewater field, some general educational pursuit, and various correspondence courses for management. I became superintendent in August of 1975 and met Carolyn in November of that year, which was to be an important complement to my functioning as a manager and service club participant. Since Carolyn was a Christian, I began attending church with her and began a personal study of the Bible which continues to this day. The Lord enriched my life with career and family. Now that I have crossed the threshold of the next passage of my life by retiring from my first career, I want to be open to the Lord's leading. "A man's heart deviseth his way; But Jehovah directeth his steps." (Proverbs 16:9 ASV) This last passage is quite true of what the Lord has done for me in opening my spiritual eyes to Him, and just a little fun considering my physical blindness. "And I will bring the blind by a way that they know not; in paths that they know not will I lead them; I will make darkness light before them, and crooked places straight. These things will I do, and I will not forsake them." (Isaiah 42:16 ASV)

For more detail about my journey as a blind computer user use this embedded link.


DISPLAY ITEMS

The following certificates or plaques represent just some of The blessing of the Lord in my professional career. All of these came to me after my eyesight had been classified as legally blind, as I served as Wastewater Treatment Plant Superintendent for my final 28 years in municipal employment. The actual displays are on a separate page for optional viewing, especially if a dial-up modem is being used. Item #1 is the Hatfield Award for outstanding performance, #2 is a USEPA Region V Award for Excellence in Operations, #3 is the Registry of Distinguished Operators from the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission, and #4 is the Ohio Water Pollution Control Conference "Five S" certificate.

Published 28 March 2006