By Amy Lynn Smith
For people who are blind or visually impaired, nearly anything is possible – provided no one tells them it isn’t.
One high school student had always dreamed of being a ballerina. But because she is visually impaired and has cerebral palsy, being a dancer wasn’t truly realistic, but no one ever told her that. Instead, they said, “Let’s go visit the ballet and learn what it’s all about.” During a backstage tour, the young woman noticed there were costumes strewn everywhere. In the middle of a performance, dancers often have to change costumes quickly, tossing them aside to put on the next. Without anyone asking, the young woman began hanging up costumes – which ultimately landed her a job working for the ballet company’s costume team.
“She found a job within the discipline of her dream,” says Neva Fairchild. “It’s important to talk to kids early about the world of work, what they want to do and help them find their passion – we need more people on the planet with a passion.”
Fairchild is the National Aging & Vision Loss specialist at American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) and also the current president at the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired (AER), a two-year volunteer position.
The reason Fairchild shares the story of the aspiring ballerina is to underscore the importance of always encouraging children who are blind or visually impaired to pursue their dreams. Whether it’s a parent, sibling, teacher of the visually impaired (TVI) or other specialist, it’s vital to plant the seed early so that children can and should pursue a career, perhaps attending college in preparation.
“We hope that those are the two choices: going to school or going to work,” Fairchild says. “The choice we try to avoid is on the couch, which unfortunately is a trend with a lot of students, even if they’re getting good services.”
Teaching the teachers and counselors
AER is a professional development organization for professionals who provide services to people with vision loss, such as TVIs, orientation & mobility (O&M) specialists and vocational rehabilitation (VR) counselors. All of these professionals – and a student’s family – have a significant role to play in preparing K-12 students to transition to college or work after graduation. But until the passage of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) in 2014, all of these professionals and transition counselors were largely working in silos.
“Although that cooperation has always been encouraged, now VR agencies are required to set aside 15% of the budget they’re given by the federal government for pre-employment transition services,” Fairchild explains. “Part of that is providing this platform and space for collaboration across the field to prepare young people to go on and be successful.”
Although WIOA was passed in 2014, it took until 2017 before all of the regulations were sorted out, so professionals are still learning some of the ropes. Thanks to AER’s new eLearning Center, professionals can easily access a wide range of training programs that include specific sessions on helping students transition to college or work.
“There are lots and lots of aspects to being successful as a young person, and that’s what the AER training tries to address,” Fairchild says. “It’s not just academics or learning how to get around a college campus. It address recreation and leisure activities, sports and fitness – everything that goes into being a well-rounded person. College may not be for everyone, but students need to be exposed to all of the options available to them.”
She adds that one of the most important things transition counselors and TVIs should do is prepare students to be their own advocates. “They have to understand what their needs are, and what is being done for them at home that they’re going to have to do for themselves,” Fairchild says. “We want them to hold students to high standards and have high expectations for their success to prepare them for a life of independence.”
Inspiring dreams at an early age
According to Fairchild, transition services typically start at age 14 or 16 depending on each state’s choice. But she believes that’s not early enough – making it even more important for everyone in a young person’s life to start talking to them about the world of work as early as possible.
“Sighted kids see people performing jobs every day, but kids who are visually impaired don’t,” she says. “So someone needs to explain it to them. I’ve been shocked to learn some high school students don’t even know what their parents do for work. Parents and teachers need to figure out how they can start setting the expectation early that a child is going to work – and if they say they want to be a firefighter play firefighter with them, even if that really isn’t a realistic career choice.”
The aspiring ballerina is a perfect example of a young person finding a way to work in a field they’re passionate about, even if it isn’t the job they initially imagined.
“The point of all education and rehabilitation is to help people reach their highest potential,” Fairchild says. “We have to make sure it’s not their visual impairment holding them back. We have to work as a team to make sure everyone reaches their highest potential, whatever that potential is going to be.”