Tag Archives: writing

Empish Working in Home Office

Working and Writing in the Disability Non-Profit World

If someone told me in college while pursuing a journalism degree that 6 months after graduation, I would be visually impaired and later have a career in the disability non-profit world I would have said they were crazy. But that is exactly what happened! During that time, I was laser focused and incredibly ambitious; obtaining a public relations internship each semester. I was determined to work in Corporate America, make lots of money, own a home and a fancy car. However only one of those things happened! I got the home but the rest went out the window. Obviously, God had other plans for my life. I ended up working and writing in the disability non-profit world as a direct result of my disability.  It has been about 20 years and I have no regrets. So, why am I sharing all of this? Well, today is National Nonprofit Day.  This day recognizes the goals and positive impacts nonprofits have on communities and the world. Through nonprofits, awareness, research, and aid reach the people who need it most.

Working at Disabled Non-Profits

This above statement holds true because after losing my vision I needed to understand how to advocate for myself as a disabled person. My career plans for Corporate America didn’t pan out. Plus, I wanted to find a way to use the well-earned journalism degree I had just recently obtained. So, for 7 years I worked at disABILITY LINK, an independent living center that focused on advocacy, peer support and self-determination for people with disabilities. There I learned about ways to speak for myself, advocate for others and the self-confidence to start writing.  My next job was at the vision rehab center that provided the training I needed to be more independent as a blind person. At the Center for the Visually Impaired I worked as their public education and outreach person. I gave speeches, conducted tours, managed volunteer speakers, wrote for the community bulletin and started their blog, SightSeeing. Also, I was side hustling working for two other nonprofits. At Disability Resource Group I was contracted to do public education and community outreach on their breast cancer project. I reached out to disabled women encouraging them to get annual mammograms and supporting them in self-advocacy.

Writing at Disabled Non-Profits

The other nonprofit was Blind Skills, Inc who published Dialogue Magazine. For 17 years I wrote a career column where I interviewed blind and visually impaired people about the types of jobs and careers they pursued. Over the years I met chefs, small business owners, travel agents, property owners, musicians, artists, app developers, school teachers and more. Using my blogging experience and interest in web coding landed me a contract position with VisionAware where I coded and edited blog posts from our visually impaired peer group. Today, I  work from home  as a freelance writer. I have a contract assignment with Outlook Business Solutions, another agency that focuses on helping those with vision loss. There I write and edit blog posts and have written stories for their annual report.

Volunteering at Disabled Non-Profits

Empish with Guest Roderick Parker at GaRRS Studio

While working and writing at nonprofits I developed a sincere passion for the nonprofit world and the mission they have to help those in need. I used my journalism skills in a new meaningful way through a volunteer opportunity at the Georgia Radio Reading Service. Instead of writing I was on the radio in the broadcast world. I hosted and produced a show called Eye on Blindness for about 3 years. I interviewed guest in the blind community on a variety of topics. I no longer volunteer at the radio station but write Occasional blog post for VisionAware and recently wrote a post for one of my favorite libraries and another non-profit, Bookshare about the ADA.

Who would have ever known this would be the direction my life and career would take me? But I have embraced it and am grateful for this wonderful journey; that is still not over. I encourage you to learn about non-profits, support them either as a volunteer or by monetary donation. We need them in our community, society and the world.

Display of NLS Player Cartridges and Earbuds

Every Day is Book Lover’s Day for Me

Today is National Book Lover’s Day but every day is book lover’s day in my world. If you have been reading my blog or know me personally you know full well how much I enjoy reading and I couldn’t let this day pass without saying something, right? Of course not. And it being the weekend makes it even sweeter because I can truly relax and get into a good book or two. Honestly, I usually am reading at least one or two at the same time. One on my NLS talking book player and the other on my iPhone.

I have loved reading books since I was a child. My enjoyment began with my parents reading to me bedtime stories from the Golden Book series, which were short stories printed in a hard-bound book with gold trim on the binding. During my middle school years, it was Classics by Charles Dickens and contemporary fiction by Judy Blume. Once in high school and college I was introduced to African-American novels by Alice Walker, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison and Richard Wright. Even after losing my vision I didn’t quit reading. I did try reading braille for a while but found the process stressful and laborious. So, I stopped with just the rudimentary skills learning my numbers and letters. Today I dig into a good read in audio format.

The ability to escape to another place or time, learn something new or improve my life comes from reading books. Another benefit is the soothing effect and stress relief I gain from reading. Life can get busy and there is lots to do and many things to distract but sitting still and reading a good book slows me down, gives me some peace and helps me to be calm. I encourage you reading this blog to take time today and every day to read a book.

Empish Working in Home Office

Working from Home Has Been My New Normal

In the last few months many people have had to transition from working in an office to working from home because of the pandemic.  Folks have had to make major adjustments to home and work life. They Have had to share space with family, increase WIFI bandwidth, find ways to stay active and deal with boredom. These are some of the dilemmas I have been reading about. But for me working from home has been my new normal for the last couple of years. Well, actually to be honest, I worked from home before around 2005 or so when I first started freelance writing.

so, when the virus came and businesses had to shut down and we had to shelter in place, staying at home was not entirely new to me. It was not a major adjustment. But I did empathize with the challenges that people were dealing with because I remember when I made that same transition too. I remember the first couple of months of walking around in a fog trying to figure out my next plan of action. I had quit my job without a new position to immediately jump into. It was a little scary but I was determined to make my new life work and I have done so.

First thing I did was give myself time to breathe and get my Barings. I remembered that first month or two I was running around like a chicken with the head cut off. Before I knew it, I was exhausted. I quickly realized that this type of schedule was not going to work in the long term. I needed to pace myself. I used this time to rest, reflect and rejuvenate. For the last 10 years I had been working very hard, sometimes 2 jobs, and making long commutes to work, about 3-4 hours daily, and I was tired. I knew I needed time to just pause before starting my next venture.

Second thing I did was get on a schedule. So, each day I woke up at a set time, did my morning routine of shower, breakfast and exercise. then I hit the computer to do my daily work. I would stop at about 3 p.m. and do something fun that I enjoyed for the rest of the day. This became my new normal and it really started to work well for me.

Third thing I did was stop feeling guilty for making this change in the first place. I had felt a little torn when I resigned but ultimately knew it was the best decision for my life. As time passed, I began to feel happier, whole and more complete. My sleeping got a bit better and my outlook on life got brighter. Before I knew it, the writing work I desired flowed in.

Today, I am doing the work I love from my home office. I learn something new every day and do work that stretches my skills and abilities. I no longer have long commutes to a stuffy office. I no longer perform task that didn’t maximize all my talents and skills. Today working from home is my new normal and I have no plans to change it for anything.

My Blindness Doesn’t Determine My Happiness

Ever since I lost my vision in the late 1990s to Vogt–Koyanagi–Harada (VKH) syndrome, which is an autoimmune disease characterized by chronic, bilateral uveitis, I made a decision that I would strive to live a happy life. I was determined that my blindness would not control me and I would figure out how to live and make peace with my situation. Now, let me tell you this was not an easy decision! I still have struggles with it to this day. But it is something that I work at on a regular basis. On March 20th we will be celebrating the International Day of Happiness where the theme is Happiness Together; focusing on what we have in common rather than what divides us. This theme ties right into my own personal philosophy of life. One of the things that has kept me going and staying happy as a blind person is the positive community of friends I have cultivated over the years.  I have worked on being a part of groups that feed me and fill me up. It is important to be around positive people but also people that are honest and will tell you the truth along with allowing you to vent and release your frustrations. It has been especially uplifting with the epidemic of the coronavirus. I have been talking to friends daily as we have been checking on each other and having encouraging conversations.

Empish Working in Home Office
Empish Working in Home Office

But during those early years I would have never realized that my life would have taken such a drastic turn. When I went blind, I had no idea that I would be permanently disabled and also working in the disability community. Today I am a writer, blogger and consultant in this arena. It is like what Helen Keller said, “When one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has been opened for us.”  My plans after college were to work in the public relations field, make lots of money, purchase a nice car and a beautiful home. It was not to go blind. I could have focused all my attention on what I lost. That would have been very easy and expected. No one would have hardly blamed me. But I decided to shift my mindset because I had a long life ahead of me and I wanted to be happy in the life I was going to have blind or not. It was a decision I had to make. So, I took lemons and made lemonade. I used my journalism degree and worked in the disability industry. That is where I am today. I realized that I am responsible for my own happiness. I can’t blame my blindness or other people for that.

So, as we celebrate International Day of Happiness, I encourage you to not only make a personal decision to be happy but find ways to help others be happy too. Be intentional in your acts of kindness. It doesn’t take much. It is easy for us to focus on the things that divide us but true happiness comes from seeking out the common ground and seeing our humanity.

Haban Girma First Deafblind Black Woman to Graduate From Harvard

Haban Girma Book Cover
Haban Girma Book Cover

Black History Month is quickly coming to a close and as promised I wanted to share about one more black person with a visual impairment. This person is not a historical figure from the past like Blind Tom but rather made recent history by being the first black, deafblind woman to graduate from Harvard Law School.  Her name is Haban Girma and her first name means pride. She is from Eritrea and moved to the United States when she was a child.  She wrote a straight forward, no-nonsense  book about her life entitled Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law.  

I read the book through my membership with the National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled, (NLS).  Unlike Bookshare, NLS provided this book in a commercial audio format so I got to actually hear Girma’s voice as she read her book. NLS books are not text to speech files; each book is read and recorded by a human being. The collection has about 65% fiction and 35% nonfiction. Bestsellers, biographies, fiction, and how-to books are the most popular. There are also books in Spanish and a limited number in other languages. NLS is a free library service enacted by Congress that provides printed materials in audio and braille. NLS has regional network libraries that patrons contact to access books, magazines and other materials that are mailed to them via Free Matter for the Blind.  The books are sent as an audio digital cartridge and play on a specialized NLS player. This player is loaned to patrons from the library. But I usually  don’t want to wait for books to come in the mail so I download them via Braille Audio and Reading Download, more commonly known as BARD.  

Listening to Girma tell her story was very interesting and relatable. She shared about her childhood and the challenges of being deafblind especially the moments of isolation she experienced. There were times throughout the book were trying to reach out and engage with others was hard because people don’t get disability. But I appreciated her positive attitude and perseverance. She is not totally blind or totally deaf. She described her hearing loss by saying that when people spoke it sounded like “mumble, mumble.” She also said that traditional hearing aids didn’t work for the type of hearing loss that she had. She has residual vision and she described it as seeing “a parent on a couch as one blob atop another.”

As the years progress, her hearing and vision decreased and she learned how to use a white cane later moving to a guide dog. She also enrolled in a vision rehabilitation center to learn daily living skills and how to be more independent as a blind person. To better communicate with others, she started using a braille note device and Bluetooth keyboard. These pieces of adaptive technology allow Girma to communicate face-to-face with virtually anyone. The person can type on the keyboard, while she reads on the braille device and response verbally. This has helped her to not only communicate, but complete her education, practice law, maintain employment, travel around the world and meet and introduce former President Obama at a disability presentation at the Capitol.,

After reading Girma’s story I felt what an amazing woman! I felt especially proud because she is black and disabled and it is not very often that positive stories of people like myself are written. I left feeling very encouraged by her life and all that she has accomplished so far. Her desire to aim high and reach farther push me to do more of the same. If you want to read her book, and I encourage it, try listening to it in audio. You can check it out at NLS if you are disabled but if not try Audible.com.

Blind Tom a Georgia Slave Never Emancipated

Empish holding book on Blind Tom
Empish holding book on Blind Tom

This month is Black History Month.  To start things off I am posting a story that I previously published at the Center for the Visually Impaired and VisionAware. Later in the month I will share about another interesting blind African American. So stay tuned!

Martin Luther King, Jr., Harriett Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Washington Carver, Rosa Parks, Malcolm X,  and Fredrick Douglas – these are names of famous African-Americans that are well known and observed during this month. But this year I wanted to bring to your attention a famous blind man whose story is not typically in the history books or spoken about in daily conversation. Thomas Wiggins who was born a slave in Columbus Georgia in 1849 was an incredible musical performer and entertainer. From a very small age he traveled all over the US and Europe playing classical music and performing on stage to massive audiences. He was also known for having what we know today as autism and was a musical savant.

What makes his story so incredibly compelling and sad is that he was never fully emancipated. After the Civil War was over his parents signed an agreement with General James Neil Bethune, a lawyer and newspaper editor, to a five year contract of indentured servitude. During this time in history African-Americans who were newly freed and uneducated were not able to exercise their full rights, especially a former slave that was disabled. His parents felt that it would be better for him to be under the care and protection of someone they knew than to run the risk of him being abused or even stolen by strangers. This unfortunately began his life of permanent servitude; never being completely free until his death in 1908.

From the time he could walk, Tom developed a deep fascination with nature and sound. Once his master purchased a piano it was virtually impossible to keep Tom from being close to it and wanting to play.  His desire was so great that he became quite emotional and would literally throw temper tantrums if his wishes were not met. His master soon discovered that Tom had an incredible talent for music and could play very difficult pieces with little to no practice time. His master started to place Tom in minstrel and side shows around the country. He was known for being an obsessive and demanding child with a healthy appetite that continued into his adult life.

Tom was known for playing the piano for hours on end.  He would play Beethoven, Mozart, and other classical musicians. He even composed several pieces of his own. During his lifetime he was one of the most well-known pianists and made thousands of dollars for his owners which in today’s terms would be millions.

One of the most important things that contributed to Tom’s slavery and permanent servitude was the transfer of ownership. When he was a young musician and traveling across the United States he was owned by General Bethune. Then later ownership was transferred to his son, John Bethune. After John died in a train accident, he went back to General Bethune; but lost in a court battle to John’s wife, Eliza, who became Tom’s last and final owner. These transfers of ownership were all attempts to keep Tom and the money he made with little regard to his family. Tom’s mother made legal attempts in vain to free Tom but his owners were always able to elude the legal system. In 1904, Eliza, after 40 years of performing, took Tom off the road when he had a stroke and had difficulty playing the piano. Four years later Tom had another stroke that ended his life. Tom was buried in New York but the citizens of Columbus, Georgia raised a headstone in his honor in 1976. 

I first learned about Tom several years ago attending a performance of his life at a local community theater and I was captivated then and still am to this day. As a blind African-American woman, a descendant of slaves, and live in the South his story speaks to me in a very powerful way. Plays, films and books have all been written and performed to capture Tom’s incredible life story. There is also a websitedevoted to him and YouTube videos where you can hear his music. I found and read Two books from the National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled in digital format. They are listed below:.

1.  The Ballad of Blind Tom by Deirdr O’Connell

2.  Blind Tom, the black pianist-composer: continually enslaved  by Geneva Southall

My Reflections on Life After Deaf

Life After Deaf Book Cover
Life After Deaf Book Cover

I was intrigued when I read the announcement at the DeKalb County Library for the reading and discussion on the book Life After Deaf: My Misadventures in Hearing Loss and Recovery by Noel Holston. I am not deaf but do have a sensory disability and because of people’s lack of understanding sometimes get lumped into the deaf community. I won’t get into all of that right now but will save for another time. In the announcement Holston wrote a memoir about losing his hearing, at age 62. He describes that it was virtually overnight, how he battled with his medical insurance provider, how it impacted his marriage and how he ultimately regained his hearing with a cocular implant. I was quite fascinated and decided to not only attend but read the book.

I downloaded the book from Bookshare, a great resource for books for people with print impairments. As I read, I quickly began to see similarities in his story and mine.  Even though Holston is older than me, deaf, married and a man, we had a lot in common. I found myself nodding my head and saying “Hmm, Hmm, that’s right!” like someone in the amen corner at church. 

The way he lost his hearing was overnight. he thought it was a sinus cold but later realized it was his hearing. I too started losing my vision rather quickly. My eyes began to tear up all of a sudden and became very sensitive to light. Like Dracula I would shrink away in pain when coming in contact with any form of light. By the time I got to the right doctor for a proper diagnosis I had some permanent eye damage that was not reversable.

We also were prescribed the same exact medications for our condition. I was diagnosed with bilateral uveitis, an auto immune disease that causes inflammation and retinal detachment. At the beginning I had a lot of inflammation and was on prednisone. What was supposed to be about 6 months ended up being 3 years on this drug. and what a rollercoaster ride that was! My doctor also prescribed methotrexate as well which Holston took too. Neither medication worked as a long-term solution for my visual impairment.

Another similarity I could relate to was dealing with isolation. Even though he was married and had friends and family Holston had difficulties with connecting. He shared openly and honestly the challenges of communicating as a deaf person. He talked about the myriad ways of trying to understand what people were saying, carrying around a note pad and pen, and dealing with services that didn’t offer email or text message options. Blindness can also be isolating too. When I lost my vision, I also lost the ability to pick up facial expressions. No more getting those small nuances such as raised eyebrows, grins, smirks, or rolling eyes. I was not able to see body language either. No more seeing hands waving, fingers pointing or shoulders hunching. The only thing I could go by is inflections in a person’s voice and my intuition. Also, since I move my head toward sounds, have an expressive face and have natural-looking eyes people think I can see better than I can and so assumptions are made and things get miscommunicated a lot. Sometimes assumptions are made about the abilities of the blind. That we don’t have a life, work, have fun, date, go out, etc. So, then we don’t get invites to events or are included; which leads to isolation.

Holston approached his journey into deafness with a wry sense of humor titling his chapters with puns and sharing mishaps along the way. One example is how he locked his keys inside his car with the engine still running. No spoiler alert here! You will have to read the book to find out how he got out of that situation because I am not going to tell!

He shared how much he liked Marvel Comics’ Daredevil; a blind lawyer who turns into a super hero fighting crime at night. He copes by focusing on his other senses through sight, smell and touch. He uses them to go walking, exploring nature, going to museums and reading books. The goal is to concentrate on what you have, take pleasure in that and not on what you don’t.

Empish and Author Noel Holston
Empish and Author Noel Holston

At the end of the library’s reading event, I spoke to Holston to share my appreciation for him writing Life After Deaf and how much his words, life and experiences resonated with my own journey of vision loss. We both realized that even though our disabilities are different learning how to cope and making peace with our situations is where we all can find common ground. He told me it was his hope the book would provide that opportunity for everyone.