Cardinal Directions Issue 1

Issue #1, Winter 2020

Department of Services for the Blind - Orientation Training Center Newsletter
Managing Editor, Kim Massey 

This Newsletter is a production of the staff and students of the Orientation and Training Center (OTC) to inform the community of what is happening at the OTC, and to challenge our students to put into practice the skills they are learning. 

In This Issue

New Beginnings with New OTC Director Deja Powell 

By Kim Massey 

October thirty first was the last day of Julie Brannon’s tenure as director of the Orientation and Training Center and like every departure of someone you have worked and struggled with, admired, laughed with, cried with, and yes been frustrated with, and respected; for those of us who were a part of Julie’s team, had mixed emotions about her leaving. On one hand, we were sad to see her go, but glad that she was genuinely excited about the next chapter of her life. At the same time we were also nervous about what the future held, about who would take over the reins and lead our team into the future. 

Well I am happy to report that after an exhaustive, nationwide search, a very capable and qualified replacement was found, Deja Powell! The panel that interviewed Ms. Powell felt her values aligned perfectly with their vision for the new OTC director. They felt her deep student-focus, her energy, her creativity, her problem solving, combined with her open communication style and emphasis on collaboration would represent the OTC well among a wide range of stakeholders. 

I asked Deja if she would be willing to answer a few hardball questions so we could get to know her a little better, and she enthusiastically agreed. 

What was your previous position and employer? 

I started at the OTC in October of 2019. I moved to Seattle from Salt Lake City, Utah where I was a National Orientation and Mobility Certified teacher, and worked with a transition program called Project STRIVE. I also worked for the State of Utah at their Division of Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired (DSBVI) for six years.

Everyone’s favorite interview question – Tell me about yourself: 

OTC Program Manager Deja Powell helps a student learn braille in a classroom. The student is wearing sleep shades while reading a braille book.
OTC Program Manager Deja Powell helps a student wearing sleep shades learn braille.

I have always been a teacher at heart. I used to lay my dolls out on the floor and teach them dance classes before I could walk (my mom is a dance teacher and studio owner in SLC). I did not however, think I would end up a teacher and actually go a bachelor’s degree in Public Relations from Utah State University. 

It was not until I moved to north-central Louisiana, to receive my own blindness training at the Louisiana Center for the Blind, that I realized (with the guidance of one of my teachers and mentors) that I wanted to teach. I then got my Master’s Degree from Louisiana Tech University in orientation and mobility. In graduate school I met my now husband of nine years on our first day of classes. For him it was love at first sight; it took me a bit longer to “get it”. 

Outside of blindness work and advocacy, I love doing crafts, watching football, traveling, trying new foods, and learning about fashion trends. My favorite color is glitter and I love anything sparkly and shiny!

How would you describe your management style? 

My management style is very much hands-on, in the trenches, wanting to be part of it all. Each member of the team is equally important and I need to put in as much work as anyone else does. I try to be dependable, loyal, and helpful to my team and want to play off their strengths. I also hope to offer my team security, consistency and cohesion. I believe that teamwork creates the best work. I am a dreamer, a planner, an organizer, I have lofty goals, and I am determined to accomplish them. I am very much a steward leader, which means I crave loyalty, teamwork, stability, rules and cooperation.
Now that you have been here for a couple of months, what changes/goals do you envision for the OTC?

I am really proud of the OTC and where we are, but I always have a long list of goals, as I always believe we can improve and grow. My hope for the OTC is that students and staff alike feel proud to attend/work at the training center and are not afraid to share that. I want us to be a place of empowerment for students that come into the program, a place where expectations are set high and adjustment to blindness can happen. I believe we are an empowerment program, where blind people can come and learn that they are capable of greatness and adjustment to society and the world around them is totally and completely possible. My ultimate goal for the OTC is to be a place of growth and change for all that come through the program, and that through quality blindness education, adjustment to blindness, and imparting of hope, greatness and success are the outcomes. 
How are you feeling about your new position? 

It has been a wild ride so far. I am learning a lot and – hopefully – growing as a leader through it all. I’m finding my niche as a manager and am working on myself every day to be the best one I can be. I am excited about things to come for the OTC and cannot wait to see what we can do next.

What is one thing you see that the OTC is currently doing that needs to change? 

Again, I am very proud of what we do here at the OTC; we have a good program that I am pleased with. We are, for the first time in a while, full to capacity and have a waitlist to get into the program. While I wish we could serve everyone, this is a good problem to have as people clearly see value in the OTC program. One change I would like us to make at the OTC is to continually increase the expectations for our students, by providing them with more opportunities for real-world experiences and even more hands-on training.

Expectations are a part of every relationship, what are your expectations for OTC students? And what do you expect from your staff? 

I am a leader all about high expectations, setting high expectations sets everyone up for success in the real world. For our students, I expect them to reach out of their comfort zones to try new and challenging things. Nothing great happens inside your comfort zone. Secondly, I expect our students to take full advantage of all the program has to offer. We are unique in some of the classes and courses we offer here at the OTC, and there is so much that can be taken away from this program if you are fully invested. I expect our students to take full advantage of the non-visual (sleep shade) training we offer here at the OTC, which will best prepare them for success once they leave the OTC. 

As for my staff, my expectations are also high, and they know that. We have to be a beacon of hope for our students, who come into the program, and we have to be mentors and role models all the way through. This means that I expect my team to be passionate about their jobs, exercise their creativity, while continuing to learn new things along the way. My expectations for my team are lofty and include us becoming the best state training center in the country, a beacon of hope and success for all who attend and work at the OTC.

For those of us who are now in partnership with Deja to fulfill our mission for the OTC we have found that all the above is true. In the short time she has been our director she has demonstrated a caring, inclusive, decisive, honest and goal driven style of leadership that has encouraged and inspired not only her team but the students as well. Yes the winds of change are blowing in the OTC, and like the warm spring winds that signals the end of winter, they are blowing new life into the Orientation and Training Center! 

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Flying High and Safe with Alaska Airlines 

By Emily Haapala

A lot of people are scared of flying in planes. Sometimes it’s the fear of heights that drives the fear; for others, it could be the claustrophobic atmosphere, or it may be the feeling of having no control over situation if an emergency were to occur. 

However, it’s a safe bet that the majority of people that are afraid to get on an airplane, unthinkingly climb into an automobile every day, which carries a much higher probability of being injured or killed than climbing onto an airplane. Car crashes happen every day (the National Safety Council statistics state that the odds of dying in an airplane are one in 9,821 while odds for cars come out at one in 114). Airplane crashes, on the other hand, do not, but we certainly hear about them on the news when they do happen. The media distorts our perceptions of the safety of air travel. However, what’s important is knowing what to do in the unlikely occurrence of an emergency on a plane. 

On October 21, 2019, the Department of Services for the Blind had an event with Alaska Airlines. Using the training center where they train all pilots and flight attendants, they took us through airplane safety measures, and what to do if an emergency happened on a plane. They broke down the process into four different steps, which allowed people ample time to experience equipment such as life vests, lifeboats, emergency windows and door exits, and the interior of a plane. 

Our group was divided into four smaller groups and we cycled through the four stations. There was a station with a life raft already inflated and we were instructed on how to get on board. They also had everyone put on a life vest and showed us the two ways to inflate them. Airline life vests can either be inflated with two drawstrings at the bottom of the vest that trigger a small carbon dioxide cartridge; or they can be manually inflated by blowing air through tubes located on the chest. For me it was great to feel what a fully inflated life vest felt like when it was on. 

The third station was the inflatable slide, my personal favorite. All commercial airplanes have escape slides on their main doors used to get people off the plane quickly. Apparently, if an emergency happens, they have about a minute and a half to get everyone off the plane, even with multiple emergency exits. 

They also had sections of an airplane that mimicked the doors and window exits you’d see on a plane. I was able to open the aircraft door, which is something I thought I’d never actually be able to do since I don’t have any plans to be a pilot or flight attendant. The door’s actually fairly heavy, but due to the way it opens, some of the weight is shifted, making it easier to open. 

I was surprised at how prepared airplanes are for emergencies and how well they train and prepare their staff to handle emergencies. In one of the partial airplanes they have, they are able to light up the plane for different types of emergencies. They are also able to fill the cabin with smoke to simulate what to do in case there’s a fire. Thankfully they didn’t do the smoke thing while we were there, but it’s nice to know that they prepare their employees as if there was actually an emergency rather than simply telling them what to do in case there is one! 

Also, if someone is in need of urgent medical care, they are able to connect with a doctor somewhere on the surface to ensure that an injured or unconscious person is able to receive basic medical attention before landing. I didn’t know that they could do this. It’s nice to see that airplanes are using technological advancements to their advantage. 

Shortly after attending this event with Alaska Airlines, I had the opportunity to put my new knowledge to the test. I flew to Michigan at the end of October, although it wasn’t on Alaska Airlines, but thankfully safety procedures on airplanes is fairly universal, so on three out of four of the planes I was on for this trip, the interiors looked identical to the demo plane at the training center. Each time, I felt underneath my seat to make sure I could find the life vest. 
On the newer planes, there’s a screen where they show a safety video. The audio for the video can be heard throughout the plane. On the older plane I was on, the flight attendants were in the aisles and went through the same contents as the safety video. Having the safety video digitally is more effective. 

For the Sighted, you are able to see what is going on. If the flight attendants are the ones demonstrating the procedures in the aisles, then only the aisle seat passengers have the advantage of being fully aware of the safety protocols. As someone who is visually impaired, attending this safety event with Alaska Airlines pairs well with the general safety procedures you encounter on your flight. 

I’ve flown several times in the past and do not have any fears of flying, but I do feel more secure knowing the safety procedures and how well the flight attendants and pilots are prepared for emergencies. In the future, one of the first things I know I’ll be doing when I am seated on a plane is checking under the seat for the life vest should I ever need it.

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Our Expedition to the 2019 WCB Convention  

By Christi Sobieski and Victoria Hatch 

As OTC students attending our first Washington Council of the Blind (WCB) Convention, Victoria and I were looking forward to going to, and attending this year’s convention. The 2019 WCB Convention was a three-day event held at the Hilton Doubletree in SeaTac. 

It was a gorgeous fall day in Seattle, against the backdrop of the Emerald City a blur of brilliant red, bursts of orange, drops of lemon yellow and shadows of rusty gold leaves whizzed and shimmered by the window of the access van as Victoria made her way to meet me at the Orientation and Training Center. 

OTC student Christi smiles from the top of an indoor rock climbing wall.
OTC student Christi smiles from the top of an indoor rock climbing wall.

We met at the OTC and walked to the light rail station dragging our luggage behind like well-seasoned travelers. We felt confident going to the convention using public transportation. We have been working on our skills in our mobility classes, and we felt like we had this. 

We caught the light rail like champs, and headed to the airport. We arrived at the airport and took the escalator to the mezzanine. We scooted past the courtesy shuttle, and went to the terminal on foot. No silly electric cart for us - did we mention we are well-seasoned travelers? 

We were originally motivated to go to the conference after listening to Kevin Daniel at one of our OTC seminars. He’s the one that got us fired up about going to the conference in the first place. He was so excited about the convention, and he got us excited about going too. We were on our way to meet our community. 

The 2019 WCB Convention was a full weekend of workshops, meeting new people, and seeing how the organization operates as a whole. The WCB is a nonprofit volunteer organization dedicated to promoting, opportunity, equality, and independence in the blind community through education, public awareness, and advocacy. It was definitely a weekend that showed both of us opportunity, equality, and independence. 

We had opportunity after opportunity to meet people who are active in their chapters, and were able to see how the individual chapters make up the WCB, which is part of the American Council of the Blind. 

The organization fights hard for equality, and for programs in their communities. It was interesting to see how involved each chapter is in the WCB, as well as how their members keep up with all the concerns of the blind community in Washington state, across the nation, and globally. We thoroughly enjoyed the fun and competitiveness of the different chapters and members during the various presentations. 

As far as promoting independence goes, we witnessed people living very full happy lives despite their disability. WCB advocates hard for the rights of blind and visually impaired people. We certainly felt like we saw people getting out there and living their best lives. 

We demonstrated our independence by going to and from the convention via the light rail/airport hotel shuttle. We challenged and pushed ourselves out of our comfort zones, and practiced cane travel the entire weekend. We pushed others to get out and meet new people and to try to be an active participant in the conference. We figured it was just like being at school, and we would get what we put into it, and we were determined to get something out of it. 

“We are Community” was the theme of this year’s conference and we really got a sense of what it’s like being part of the blind community, our community. Both of us live in Snohomish County. We were able to connect with, and talk directly with members of the Snohomish County Council of the Blind, Everett. President Jenny Anderson and other members gave us some background on their chapter. We came away with contact information for the Snohomish chapter.

The convention was an excellent place to find out about many things happening in the blind community. It gave us chance to widen our circle of acquaintances, and experience firsthand what new technology and information is out there. 

We attended three breakout sessions on a variety of subjects. We especially enjoyed the “Essential Oils” session, and the “10 Essential Wardrobe Pieces” session. It was a fun time that fed our bodies and our spirits in a positive way. 

We were really looking forward to the Assistive Technology session, but we were disappointed when it started late, and was overbooked. We are not sure what happened, but we never got a chance to find out about any assistive technology. We plan to provide the organizers with the appropriate feedback to improve the experience and exposure to new technology in future conventions. 

We attended the business meetings, which included the election of officers and various other activities.  We were amazed that we knew so many people who gave presentations, and who were at the convention: 

  • We especially enjoyed hearing from LouOma Durand the director of DSB and her presentation on what is happening with DSB
  • Our retiring OTC Manager, Julie Brannon, also was very involved with many presentations. Christel Hustad, a former OTC student, gave a presentation on her journey to employment
  • Deja Powell the incoming OTC Manager gave an inspiring speech on her vision for the OTC
  • Our former classmate, Anisa Proda received a scholarship
  • Roberto Cordero, DSB Technology Specialist, gave a presentation on his journey to employment, which is emblematic of someone who overcame difficulties, and who is now sharing his story to advocate and inspire others
Victoria working on a laptop in the OTC computer classroom.
Victoria working on a laptop in the OTC computer classroom.

There were many more people we recognized, and we knew from our time here at the OTC. We had an eventful weekend where we made new friends, we networked, and we got a better understanding of the blind community in our area. 

We realized leaving the hotel with 200 other blind convention goers at the same time was another challenge, but we found comfort in knowing that when we go back to our daily challenges, we are reinvigorated and reminded that we do everything better when we work together as a community.

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What Am I Doing Here?

By Sara Haapala 

Why am I here at the OTC? The question is asked of every student at the beginning of their first term. It’s also a question I constantly asked myself. 
Most times, I didn’t have an answer beyond learning blind skills. Over my first term, I think that my answer to this question has expanded. I’m at the OTC to continue thinking about my future, to get re-motivated. Since graduating from college, I have been avoiding thinking about what’s next in terms of my future. 

Sara standing in front of an installation of tactile art at DSB.
Sara standing in front of an installation of tactile art at DSB.

Usually someone changes their career paths several times in college, I was just the opposite. I stuck with my career choice and major since starting college four years ago. It wasn’t until fall quarter of my senior year when I started doubting my career choice, which was Audiology, but by then it was too late to change my major and I started to think that I wasted my last two years of college. 

There are many factors that led me to that mindset. The beginnings of academic burnout, graduate school and stress were the main components. I also doubted my abilities; I thought and maybe convinced myself that my fellow classmates were better qualified for graduate school than I was. I’m happy for them though. Many of my friends are currently in graduate school. I wonder if they now wished they took a gap year instead. 

So, what now? Graduate school does not seem to be in my near future, so how do I make sure that I don’t lose some of those skills? While at the OTC, I took most of the classes seriously, with plenty of motivation. The only exception was Careers; I didn’t feel like I had a direction. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. It’s hard to know for example, if I want to work with kids or not when I don’t have experience working with them. I’m still passionate about things related to audiology, for instance, I’m always trying to recall information relevant to sound. And, recently, I was trying to remember if my alarm is a square or transverse wave. 

I found a starting place when I was at the Association of Programs for Rural Independent Living (APRIL) conference. I saw some people who are Deaf and American Sign Language interpreters. I didn’t interact with them because my skills were limited, but it made me remember that I took ASL classes in high school, and had a real interest in learning ASL. I had planned to take an ASL course at the community college in Bellingham, but that was before the regular classes in my major got busy and intense. 

Shortly after the APRIL conference, I attended the National Federation of the Blind conference, and their moto, “Live the way you want” really resonated with me. So many of the keynote speakers referenced it. So while I do not have a definite direction I want to go with my career, a tentative backup plan is solidifying as I start to think I can still do something related to my Communications Sciences & Disorders degree, combined with my interest in ASL I believe I will find my path! 

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My OTC Experience 

By Tyra Alston 

I am a person who is fairly new to blindness and how to navigate life as a blind person. I jumped at the opportunity to be a student at the Orientation and Training Center. 

While I was there, not only did I learn from the instructor’s class time, but I also learned a lot of blindness skills and awareness by watching the other students and staff outside of class time. In addition, I was offered the opportunity to apply for a job with the Youth Employment Solutions (YES) program, a summer work experience program Services for the Blind offers Blind/visually impaired high school students from across the state. After about two seconds of consideration, I filled out the application, got an interview, and was offered a position. 

As someone that lost their vision as an adult, I have never known what it is like to be a kid/teenager and being blind. When we are kids, we want to fit in, be like everyone else, be a part of societies norm if you will; but working with these kids for 6 weeks opened my mind up entirely. 

The YES kids had visual impairments of all types and to see them all working together and being there for each other was amazing. Parents naturally want to hover over their kids and protect them at all times, that doesn’t allow the kids to grow. But, these 6 weeks of supported independence that the YES program provided its participants really allows them the freedom to blossom. In my mind, being still sort of ignorant to blindness because I was sighted for most of my life, I assumed that these kids couldn’t do much. 

But, that first day of work saw that assumption was false, I saw kids wanting to venture out and try things they had never done. It was heartwarming for me because they would come home from a long day at work but be so proud of themselves for something they accomplished on their own. Which is something I went through while at the OTC, so I could relate. 

As blind people, we are constantly trying to grow and become more independent and it is great that programs like the OTC and YES exist to help us through the process.

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Hiking the Lake Tradition Loop Trail with the NWABA 

By Christianne Sobieski

I love fall. I love any weather where you can put on a sweater and boots, and sip a hot beverage by a fire. Fall brings back memories of growing up in Alaska, and some fall smells can bring me right back to being outside as a kid. I love summer and sunshine, but fall is my favorite season of all. It is just a cozy time of year. I like cozy.

Group photo of NWABA event participants.
Group photo of NWABA event participants.

Spending time outdoors and experiencing each season has always been big part of my life. When I lost more vision, I stopped doing things out of fear, and lack of motivation. I spent quite a few years playing it safe, and not challenging myself to do much.

I am in my third term at the OTC. My, how times have changed! I have participated in more outside activities in the last four months than I have in the last ten years. I go camping, but hiking, was never high on my list of things to do.

I have gone kayaking, tandem biking, and attended my second outdoor event with the Northwest Association of Blind Athletes (NWABA) in October. They took a group of us out on their first official hike since expanding to the Seattle area. 

We hiked the Lake Tradition Loop Trail at the base of Tiger Mountain in Issaquah, WA. It was about a thirty-minute drive from Columbia City to the trail head.

It was a crisp fall day, and the leaves were changing in the Pacific Northwest. The trees were lit up in brilliant colors, and the hiking trail was great for beginners. We took a few wrong turns along the way, but the entire hike was loads of fun. They always say "Find Joy in the Journey", and it was no trouble finding joy on this gorgeous hike. 

I had two volunteers who walked with me, and they were delightful young women. Megan and Regan were volunteering from the Delta Gamma Sorority at University of Washington. Reagan is studying public health, and Megan is studying urban development. I was very impressed by these two young people. It was refreshing to hear such positive attitudes, and exciting to hear where they are going with their lives. 

My day was filled with appreciating the great outdoors, making new friends, and sharing good conversation. I’d say that’s a win in anyone’s book and it was certainly a win-win for me. I am looking forward to going to more outdoor events with the NWABA and Outdoors for All any time they offer new outdoor experiences. 

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My National Federation of the Blind of Washington Conference Experience 

“Positive thinking leads to a positive attitude which leads to positive actions which lead to positive outcomes.”

By Humberto Avila 

I had the opportunity to attend the National Federation of the Blind of Washington (NFBW) State convention, and I would like to thank my Vocational Rehab Counselor, Karla Jessen for providing the funding for me to attend. It was a fantastic learning experience for me and for many among us who were attending for the first time. 

This convention was so great, because for me it reiterated that I have many opportunities as a Blind person – opportunities that become available through the power of networking. It was very exciting to share information and resources, and to learn from other Blind people. Hopefully, I was not too excited and didn’t scare anyone! 

Besides networking, there were a lot of opportunities to learn – from practical skills like mobility and technology to empowering motivational speakers – this convention did a great job and really helped boost for my confidence.

Structured Discovery & Mobility Learning 

Humberto holding his certificate of graduation and a trophy.
Humberto holding his certificate of graduation and a trophy.

The first learning experience was learning to navigate the Red Lion Hotel that was hosting the convention. The Olympia Red Lion seemed huge and confusing to me at first and definitely put me out of my comfort zone, and it was definitely much bigger than the places that I am used to navigating. Fortunately for me, though, I got some help through my networking efforts that helped me make sense of the space and helped me get some basic routes down. 

The man I met that was a huge help to me was from Louisiana, his name is Roland Allen and he is an O&M instructor at the Louisiana Training Center for the Blind. He introduced me to a technique called “structured discovery”, this technique involves learning about different types of landmarks as well as scenarios within the environment that can help a Blind person problem solve navigational challenges. I was able to successfully employ some of Mr. Allen’s tips, tricks, and advice to navigate the hotel, which allowed me to take advantage of meetings, and, of special importance, the meals! 

To get from the Lobby to my room Mr. Allen helped me work out some structural discoveries to help me navigate independently back to my room. The first anchor was the front desk, first step was to put my back to the front desk and walk to the hallway on the right side of lobby. Then, I must listen for the vending machine and make sure it was on my left-hand side (was a great landmark and a distracting temptation at the same time). The next step was to continue on my left, locate the benches along the hallway and my room was next, the first door on the left! Quite easy, right? 

It was more challenging going from the front desk to the restaurant/bar area since the bar and the restaurant were in the same vicinity, and I kept “accidentally” ending up in the bar. It was hard with all the noise generated by people eating and chit chatting, but the hotel staff were very helpful and did a great job of dragging me out the bar so I could eat my meals! I was worried that I might be the only person getting lost in the bar, but soon learned there were others that had the same trouble. And, a few that seemed to be permanently “lost” in the bar… 

Technology Experiences 

So, going back to that vending machine I listened for and was dependent upon to find my way to my comfortable King size bed every night, Saturday afternoon was a rather thirsty day so I decided to make use of the vending machine and get myself a tasty beverage. I was able to successfully get my soda using the App called AIRA (Artificial Intelligence Remote Assistance) which helps Blind people perform daily tasks more efficiently and independently instead of waiting around for a random untrained by passerby to try and help! 

AIRA utilizes video-conference calling with their highly trained and qualified agents to provide real time visual information to the user. In my case, the agent helped me by describing the choices available and their prices; which button on the panel to use for my choice; and even confirming that it was the right drink, after pulling it out of the slot underneath. This experience was very empowering for me, and, since the Red Lion Hotel provided free AIRA access, it felt great to take advantage of the service. 

Empowering Presentations 

Speaking about empowerment, I listened to a presentation given by Deja Powell, the new manager at the DSB Orientation and Training Center. She talked about her goals for the center, in which she will try to empower her staff, and all of us students. She actually used the word “Empower” to form her words for her goals that she presented to the Convention. The first letter of this word was each goal. This was so awesome to hear, and I hope that she is able to accomplishing her goals of educating, motivating, providing partnerships and opportunities, weaving hope, giving high expectations, and rehabilitating her staff, her students and everybody in between, at the OTC. 

Besides Deja, there were many empowering and motivational speakers during our General Convention sessions. There were talks about getting involved in the NFBW, how to become a member of the Federation, and how to teach and volunteer for the NFBW Braille Enrichment and Literacy for Learning (BELL) program. There were presentations covering the successful use of social networks like Facebook, and a self-defense workshop, which I enjoyed. Services for the Blind talked about the current budget challenges we are facing and how to contact your legislator to advocate for our needs.
The conference culminated with a talent show (hosted for and by the Blind Student Association), in which my student advisor, Jim Portillo, sang a beautiful song; and a truly awesome banquet address and presentation was given by the NFB’s National Representative, Pam Allen, whose husband just happens to be the fellow from Louisiana that was so helpful to me! 

Overall, I have had an awesome experience at the NFBW Annual Conference. I engaged in many learning opportunities, and met a lot of new people and grew my network. Who knows, one of those people may be the key to finding a job, hopefully very soon. It was a tremendous boost for my confidence just being there, learning to navigate the hotel, and, yes, breaking a wooden board with my bare hands during the self-defense course. 

I give a heartfelt and warm thank you to DSB for allowing me to attend the NFBW Annual Convention; and for their dedication to the growth and learning of their clients. It was a wonderful chance to learn more and network with others professionally. It is my plan to become a member of the National Federation of the Blind within the next few months, and contribute positively to the advocacy and efforts of this blindness group. What a great weekend! 

Editor’s Note: 

Upon graduating from the OTC, Mr. Avila interviewed for a job and is now working with the Tacoma School District as a Teacher for the Visually Impaired (TVI), and has settled into a new apartment. Congratulations, Humberto! 

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My Road to the OTC 

By Robert Warden

Editor's Note: 

Every student comes to the OTC from different living situations, with different physical challenges, with different needs, and with different goals for their future. Every student has a unique story to tell and a unique journey that has led them here. There is, however, one thing that unites them all: and that is courage. Each student has made the courageous decision to leave their comfort zone and come to our training facility with the goal of changing their lives. Here is one profile in courage. 

Robbie driving his wheelchair down the hall at the OTC.
Robbie driving his wheelchair down the hall at the OTC.

Hello, my name is Robert Warden and like the Talking Heads song “Once in a Lifetime” lyric I often ask myself “well… How did I get here?” 

My journey to the OTC started at an early age. In fact it started when my mother gave birth to me. There were complications. The umbilical cord had wrapped itself around my neck, depriving me of oxygen causing nerve damage to my eyes. 

This damage along with decreased vision caused my eyes to shake side to side and up and down. There was no corrective surgery for my dancing eyes, so coupled with the low vision, I learned to function, even though I would never be able to get a Driver’s License or join the military. 

Life was not easy, and at the age of 33, I was presented with the next challenge I would have to face. On June 3, 2014, I had gotten up in the middle of the night to use the restroom, when suddenly I was hit with a stroke. Unable to support my own body weight I fell between the toilet and the bathtub, trapped and pinned atop my right foot for five hours before being discovered and then rescued by paramedics. The pressure of my body weight developed what is known as “Compartment Syndrome” in my foot. The pressure caused loss of blood flow, along with lack of oxygen and nutrients to the muscles in my lower leg, brought on an infection, the doctors performed surgery to try to save my leg, but it did not work. So, they tried a second time, but it, too, was unsuccessful. 

With infection spreading swiftly up my leg, I was left with two choices: do nothing keep the leg and eventually lose my life; or lose the leg and save my life. I decided that I was not ready to give up on life yet and so now I am an above knee amputee. 

A short two months later, the reason for my stroke was discovered. I began to hallucinate and in the process of exploring why I was hallucinating, a tumor the size of a grapefruit was discovered in my brain. This unwanted – but thankfully, not cancerous – guest was putting massive pressure on my brain. A two and a half hour operation was scheduled that turned into a nine-hour surgery. When I woke up, I had lost my vision and sense of smell. 

Since then I have had to endure more surgeries for complications. And, yes, what you have heard about phantom pain is real. However, in a lot of ways, I am in a much better frame of mind then I was before the stroke. I am more determined and focused on what I want to do with my life. After graduating from the OTC, my plan is to attend college and get a degree in psychology, with the goal of becoming a counselor and helping others in circumstances similar to mine overcome the fear of the unknown, and succeed in life. 

I am grateful to all that have helped me on this journey: from the doctors, physical therapists, home aid workers, the list is huge. I have received a lot of help. This list also includes my partners at DSB, my VRC Kelly Franklin, the OTC instructors and it especially includes my fellow students at the OTC who help me every day, with things both large and small. And, it’s really nice to feel like I belong to a community. 

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Walking the Line of Blindness 

By Emily Haapala 

What does Blindness mean to you? To the general public, blindness may mean having no, or very little, functional vision. However, if you are a member of the legally-blind community, blindness has a broader definition. 

This broad definition includes people like me – who are low vision and have some amount of usable sight – and ranges to those that are totally blind. While we all support the inclusiveness of this broad definition, in the real world this broadness can, and does, create a dividing line within our community. 

Those of our community that have no functional vision, often see those of us with some functional vision as being not quite blind enough. Those of us with functional vision, who struggle with accepting our membership in the Blind Community, often end up in the middle between the sighted and the blind communities, but not really a part of either. 

I’m very familiar with that metaphorical line; the desire to fit in as much as possible with the sighted community shaped my school aged life. I spent most of my time in school trying to fit in and ignoring my visual impairment. I really only acknowledged it when I was forced to by an Individual Education Programs (IEP) requirements and had to leave the “normal” classroom once a week to work on Orientation and Mobility or Independent Living skills with a Special Education teacher. My desire to fit in and be accepted kept me from being a proactive self-advocate unless forced to at the beginning of the year when I had to explain things to a new teacher. And, despite the fact that teachers and professors alike were usually very accommodating when I self-advocated, I still found it hard to separate myself from the crowd by asking for something different. 

Acceptance of my vision challenges, started after high school. With encouragement from my vocational rehab counselor, Johnathon Whitby, I attended DSB’s Bridge program at Eastern Washington University in Cheney Washington. There I met several attendees who not only faced some of the same challenges I do, but had different challenges to face as well. I started to realize that the definition of blindness was broader than what I had accepted as the truth from society. I had to accept that Blindness does affect me. Having to use assistive technology or large print can slow down the time it takes to complete a task. I accidentally ignore people I know when I come across them in public because I simply didn’t see them. These are all drawbacks to my Blindness; however, I have learned that many good things can come from accepting my reality. 

Emmy standing in front of a bulletin board at the OTC.
Emily standing in front of a bulletin board at the OTC.

Embracing my Blindness has proven to benefit me more than hinder me. For example, through connections with the blind community and those who work to assist them, I had the opportunity to gain meaningful employment experiences. Through my relationship with DSB, I had the opportunity to be a part of the Student Work and Academic Growth (SWAG) program during its pilot year. This program gives college students a taste of what going to college and having a part time job is like. This opportunity helped me enhance my time management and organizational skills, and gave me the basic idea of the ins and outs of being in a workplace. I must have made a good impression because the following year, I was offered to be the Bridge program Peer Mentor, which I did for two summers, and was able to advise high school graduates about college life and its many adventures. 

By far the best thing to come from embracing my reality and my deeper appreciation and association with the Blind community, has been the gift of a vocational goal. It has made me realize that I want to work with my fellow community members as an O&M Specialist. And, to that end, in one year I will be starting a Master’s program in Orientation and Mobility at Northern Illinois University! However, before then, I still have a lot to learn from the Blindness community and as an Orientation Training Center student. My fellow students and the OTC instructors are helping me to learn the skills I need, and to embrace my reality. I’m confident I am taking the necessary steps to achieve the goals I have set for myself and, even though I can stray across that line at times, my feet are pointed in the right direction. The direction that matches my reality. 

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Keys to Success 

By Jim Portillo

This OTC success story belongs to Susana Gomez, a woman who has always believed and known that the best way to overcome life’s hurdles, including sudden blindness, is with determination, tenacity, and hard work.

One could say that Susana’s life started as a typical one. She began working at a young age and developed quite a bit of work experience due to having several varied jobs. A particular job she was proud to have was for a marketing company, where she gained expertise with computers and technology. She was successful and developed longevity at that particular job. In addition, Susana was raising a family, and all-in-all, things were going her way. 
During her late twenties, Susana was diagnosed with glaucoma. Although there was history in her family, she never really expected it or saw it coming. Her vision loss was sudden, and by the time she was diagnosed, it was too late. “Nothing prepared me for going from what I thought was extraordinary vision to almost total blindness.” Her typical and enjoyable life took a turn, but Susana knew she somehow had to move forward.

The period after her diagnosis and vision loss was tough. Her eyes went through a transition after surgery, going from total blindness for several months to recovery of very little vision. She also went from having one or two jobs to being unemployed. Emotionally, she went through a period of depression. She couldn’t understand how someone like her, who was intelligent and had much work experience, didn’t seem to have much of a clue about anything in her new condition. 

She was also angry with herself, because having known about her family history with glaucoma and blindness, she didn’t prepare herself or learn about her options in advance. After a few years of trying several things – including medical procedures – to try to keep jobs, Susana began a plan to start over. Before she moved from California to Seattle, she did the necessary research to know what she needed to do. When she arrived in Seattle, she reached out to the Department of Services for the Blind.

Susana came to the OTC in 2014, determined to learn everything she could in order to live life as a competent blind person. It was not easy. She admitted that, for a while, she felt very out of place, and some things didn’t make sense about the training and what she was learning. She asked, “How will this help me achieve my goals?” She felt as if she’d taken several steps back, when all she wanted to do was move forward. She wondered when she would overcome her fears and feelings of uncertainty. When would the skills she was learning and confidence she was gaining bear fruit? 

Her answer came during one of her Home Economics classes, where she suddenly realized she was cooking and doing it quickly and efficiently. She realized that she didn’t need sight to do something she’d always been good at doing. That experience ignited her sense of freedom and confidence, and from there, she soared trying other things. The two classes on which she focused the most were Computers and Technology and Orientation and Mobility. She knew they would be paramount for employment.

After graduation, Susana needed to decide whether to go to school or find employment. She gave it much consideration and decided that her priority was to go back to work and provide for herself and her family. Although there was some fear and doubt on her part, she knew it was the right thing for her. Her first job after graduation was working for the YES Summer Program. She enjoyed working with the kids and found she learned as much from them as they did from her.

Currently, Susana is happily working in the field of health care as a home care aid. The people she works with are elderly with disabilities and a history of substance abuse. Although the job and clients are sometimes difficult, she loves the challenge and feels great when she can make a difference in someone’s life. As a matter of fact, one of her current clients happens to be blind, and Susana has been able to teach him a few basic blindness skills along the way. She was thrilled to have that opportunity. 

Five years after being at the OTC, Susana says she feels happy and fulfilled. She always wanted a job where she could work with people one on one along with providing learning opportunities. Susana is doing all of that and more in her current line of work. Going back to work was exactly what she needed in order to feel good about herself in all areas of her life. It gave her a chance to truly test and refine her acquired blindness skills. Now she sees mistakes as experiences and things on which she can improve. Her best advice to anyone facing drastic changes in life, such as blindness: be patient and kind with oneself; not give into fear; and work as hard as possible to achieve one’s goals.

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I hear what you are seeing 

By Sara Haapala 

A picture – it is said – can be worth a thousand words. And when you are talking about Audio Description, it literally could. Last weekend, my twin sister Emily and I went to the APRIL Annual Conference. APRIL is the acronym for the Association of Programs for Rural Independent Living and they held their annual conference in Michigan in October 2019. 

APRIL was founded in 1986. It is a national grass roots, consumer-controlled, nonprofit membership organization consisting of centers for independent living, their satellites and branch offices, statewide independent living councils, other organizations and individuals concerned with the independent living issues of people with disabilities living in rural America. 

There were many exhibits and workshops at the conference, but my favorite was a workshop that focused on auditory description, entitled “Do You See What I Hear? Effective Communication through Auditory Description”. Auditory description is describing something visual using descriptive words. It describes key elements of media, (i.e., pictures, movies, television shows, plays, etc.). It benefits the blind and visually impaired. 

Having something described is different from physically seeing it. In one activity during the workshop, we split into pairs and were given an object. One person described the object while the other listened. In this activity, I was listening to another person describing the object. She described it as green, plastic, woven, rectangular, and tube shaped with something clear and round sewn inside. Neither of us knew what the object was. I was surprised to learn that it was a fidget item. It made sense though, because I had a lot of fun twiddling with it for the rest of the hour. 

Audio description in media helps convey context to the listener. It can help describe an image or scene and add emotions. It helps the listener gain a richer experience. In movies and TV shows, audio description happens in the background, when there is no dialogue going on. Thankfully, it’s in the works to get more TV shows and channels audio described. 

As someone who mostly relies on the little bit of sight I have, it did not occur to me to have something described to me by auditory means. I can definitely think of times when this would have been helpful to me. Several years ago, my family and I went to “The Phantom of the Opera” and “Wicked”. I really struggled to follow the plot in both. In Phantom of the Opera, many of the words flew together into a jumbled mess, and I did not get what it was about until afterwards when I looked up the plot online. When we saw Wicked, there were just too many characters to follow. Who’s who? 

Context is important. Whether it’s a movie, play, or a conversation, when you have the context, it helps understand the flow of communications, the story being told, and why ideas or actions are chosen. The next time I go see a play, I'm requesting for audio description. Who knows… with a little context I might catch an important tidbit of information that would have been lost in all the noise and characters running around, and I may even enjoy the experience a whole lot more.

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For more information on Association of Programs for Rural Independent Living (APRIL) visit their website at 

The American Council of the Blind’s (ACB) Audio Description Project keeps a current schedule of shows that are audio described.

The North West Association for Blind Athletes provides life-changing opportunities through sports and physical activity to individuals who are blind and visually impaired.  For more information, visit 

For more information on the AIRA app, visit 

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