Interview with Richard Archuleta, Medically-Retired Veteran Working at the Environmental Protection Agency
by Shannon Carollo
Editor’s Note: An injury causing blindness might have ended Richard Archuleta’s military career, but it did not stop his perseverance to find a new successful path working for the EPA.
In support of National Hire a Veteran Day, July 25th, APH CareerConnect connected with Richard Archuleta to ask about his employment journey. Mr. Archuleta shares about his adjustment to blindness and the perseverance needed to attain gainful employment. Mr. Archuleta also offers advice to career seekers who are blind or visually impaired.
APH CareerConnect: Can you tell us a little about yourself?
Richard Archuleta: I grew up in Colorado and graduated early, joining the United States Air Force (USAF) at seventeen and medically retiring at nineteen. I’m an extrovert. I’ve always decided to do anything I can try to do, whether it’s skiing, martial arts, hunting, kayaking, golfing. I’ve never tried to limit myself just because of my visual impairment.
APH CareerConnect: Is there anything you’d like the readers to know about your vision and how you lost your sight?
Richard Archuleta:I was an aircraft armament/ munitions specialist, a bomb loader, on a B-52 during Desert Storm. I was in a one-in-a-billion type of accident where I fell to the ground. I never hit my head, but the jarring of the fall started to atrophy my optic nerves. I was medically retired in March of ’91.
APH CareerConnect: How would you describe your journey to accepting blindness?
Richard Archuleta: Blindness was so new to me. It was difficult. Still, there’s times when it’s difficult. You get sad. I think that’s where your support system with friends, family, and a good counselor helps. Early on, the journey was especially difficult, but it was lessened with the ability to know that I needed a counselor or someone to talk to about this. It was a loss, one that comes with anger and grief. I think the other thing, which is good and bad: I was medically retired at nineteen and was married at twenty-one. It came with challenges; your brain isn’t finished developing until your mid-twenties. There was a lot of immaturity. Through the grace of God, I was able to make it this far.
It helped to have structure. I knew I wanted to work. I took the Myers-Briggs personality type indicator; I knew where I wanted to go with a loose understanding of what I wanted to do. All those things, and faith, really played a part in helping me accept blindness.
APH CareerConnect: Can you tell us about your career journey since medically separating from the USAF?
Richard Archuleta: After medically retiring at nineteen, I asked the Veterans Affairs (VA) what I should do and was told I didn’t have to do anything, I’m retired. That wasn’t an option for me.
While I was in college at the University of Colorado, I worked in HR at Six Flags. I was blessed to have people who were forward-thinking and accepting of people with disabilities. Whatever adaptations I needed they would help to make. I did that a couple of summers.
I was also a stay-at-home-dad for a couple years, and that was the toughest job I’ve had!
But I always wanted to work in Finance or HR. The VA assisted me in getting a position at a bank. I learned they weren’t very accommodating. I think they are more now.
I was very discouraged [while actively searching for the right job]. I kept getting told to work for the government. I didn’t want to do that! I didn’t want a handout. I fell into despair, meeting so many barriers. I told myself, “Maybe I should try this federal government thing.”
I had been told I could get a government job easily by walking in, but it took me nine months to get a summer position! Finally, at the ninth month I went to a career fair. I played the part right. I dressed in a suit. I had my resume in hand. I really didn’t want to be there; it hadn’t worked before. I met a woman who hired me for a summer hire. All I needed was that initial step in until I could show them the skills that I have. Not only communication, but analytical and all the things I learned in college.
That summer hire turned into a permanent position. I was the training officer for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in our region, then I became the Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) director for a couple years. I’ve worked in our tribal program, now in the enforcement program for 15 years. I think you just have to keep going forward no matter how discouraging it may be.
I’ve been on that other side. I’ve worked in HR, I’ve gone to career fairs for persons with disabilities. I know how difficult it is. Even as a veteran who has preference points, it’s still difficult to breakthrough. I kept going to informational interviews, motivating myself for those. I would go right to the president of the company and have an interview with him! I would try to network and do whatever I could to explore different possibilities in the different career paths I wanted.
APH CareerConnect: What does a normal day of work involve on the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) policy team of the Enforcement Compliance Assurance Division (ECAD) Immediate Office?
Richard Archuleta: I handle all the tips and complaints that come into our region, Region 8, which covers six western states. Any environmental complaint that comes in through our website or call center I get and distribute to the appropriate individual. I also am the federal facility coordinator for enforcement for the six states. Any type of enforcement actions or environmental issues that come up with federal facilities, I help to coordinate the inspections and any mitigation or remediation in those areas, whether a DOD facility, VA, campground, park and wildlife/ forest land, or post office.
I also plan and target inspections for our different media sections: Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and our Resource Conservation and Recovery Act which has to do with solid and hazardous waste, so anything that might contaminate the land. I also coordinate all the inspector’s credentialing.
My summer detail is to develop administration orders for public water systems which have violated the Safe Drinking Water Act. I’ll be remotely conducting sanitary survey audits and assisting in compliance assistance for their emergency response programs for the different states.
APH CareerConnect: What Assistive Technology and blindness-specific strategies do you utilize on the job?
Richard Archuleta: Technology is moving so fast now, but on a consistent basis I use ZoomText and ZoomText with speech. I was able to get an OrCam, and that’s good, but I have the first version with a bunch of wires and the battery doesn’t last too long. I use the CCTV, but I know the newer ones have the ability to scan a picture and it reads it back to you. That would be nice for larger documents.
Regular devices have come so far with assistive technology, especially Apple. I use an iPhone. I use VoiceOver and zoom. I have different apps that take pictures of a document if I’m in a meeting and read it back to me using my air pods. All of that wasn’t there when I became injured and lost my eyesight. Nowadays so much is electronic.
APH CareerConnect: What are the iPhone apps you utilize?
Richard Archuleta: I have the KNFB Reader, and I like it because it doesn’t use connectivity to the internet. You don’t have to have cell service, which is helpful if I’m in a government building. The downside is it is $100.
The other app I use quite often is Seeing AI, a Microsoft app; that one is pretty robust. It can read product barcodes. And let’s say I’m on the train and I want to know if there’s anyone around me, I can point it around and have my ear buds in and it will tell me what’s in the room. It works really well.
APH CareerConnect: How did you learn the blindness-specific skills necessary to succeed in the field?
Richard Archuleta: When I first became blind, I went to a VA blind rehabilitation school in Palo Alto and they taught me mobility skills and daily living skills. They also had a computer program; I was eligible to go to that in early ’92. You can imagine technology in ’92. Over the years I’ve learned about different software packages on my own and self-taught. Nowadays there is YouTube and tons of tutorials.
I also went to the Colorado Blind Rehabilitation program. I had somebody come to my house for follow-up care. I did receive quite a bit of rehab initially.
So, I went right from discharge [medical retirement] to the blind rehab program. There are advantages to that. You’re learning new skills. The disadvantages are you’re still trying to process things mentally, the loss and anger. It was tough. An administrator told me to wait six months and then come, and I didn’t understand why at the time; I was eager to learn. Looking back, I can see why he suggested it. I say, either way. Everybody has their own path, and there are pros and cons to both of those.
APH CareerConnect: How did you learn the job-specific skills?
Richard Archuleta: I went to college and started off with very basic classes; I remember math was very basic math. I remember somebody asking a question about multiplication. I thought, “I think I’m going to be okay.” I received a Bachelor’s Degree in Finance. I did have to take Calculus and higher-level mathematical courses. I did so with a tutor.
Everybody at the time was pushing me towards being a counselor, but my interests were in finance and accounting. I stuck with it.
The finance background set a good foundation for the analytical thinking that I utilize all over.
APH CareerConnect: What advice would you give to a veteran with recent vision loss?
Richard Archuleta: It’s awesome that you ask that. In 2019 I went to a Wounded Warrior program in Alabama. There was another person, he was 19 who lost his eyesight with a similar eye condition that I have. It brought up all these emotions. I found myself wanting to talk to him and tell him to be patient. Don’t slip into negativity—it’s going to be there.
And you are not alone. I know you feel isolated. You have to be aware there is a loss. What has gotten me through the accident and loss is counseling.
Keep going forward. I didn’t want to go to that career fair, but I still went. You will find a job, it just takes time.
APH CareerConnect: What has contributed to your career success?
Richard Archuleta: Having a good support network and perseverance has helped me, as well as having a good counselor. Also, it helped to find a career I was motivated to pursue, not a job someone else wanted me to have.
APH CareerConnect: Anything else you’d like to communicate to job seekers who are blind/ visually impaired?
Richard Archuleta: Not everybody is going to accept people with disabilities. Not everybody’s going to be nice. Keep going forward anyway.
You have to be okay with yourself first. Be confident and seek counseling. If you don’t have that piece, it’s hard for others to have confidence in you.
And be willing to teach people about having a disability. You have to be your own advocate, and with that comes educating others.
It’s also good to separate your career goals from your passions. Pursue something that you can be gainfully employed at.
Make sure you can be as professional as possible when having a first impression. Do a mock interview or phone call. You’re not going to get a pass because you’re disabled. Be prepared.
And follow the path you want to pursue. My path and my journey haven’t been easy, but I wouldn’t change it for anything.