- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 23, 2006

Christmas is such a beautiful sight to behold: colorful lights, greenery, presents and smiling children. Imagine not being able to see any of that. Charles Dee doesn’t have to imagine. He knows.

“A lot of people consider blindness the worst disability,” says Mr. Dee, who completely lost his sight about four years ago. “And maybe it is. You lose so much.”

Not everything, however. Mr. Dee has a job — he’s in charge of career training at the Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind in Riverdale — and he’s married.

Mr. Dee is trying to teach and inspire other blind people that independent life, including a full-time job, isn’t out of reach. Far from it.

“I tell them that getting a job and being successful is about merits and personal qualities,” he says. “It’s not about seeing or not seeing.”

The unemployment rate among blind Americans, however, is about 70 percent, he says, and that number hasn’t budged much over the past couple of decades.

“I think it’s a combination of things,” he says. “Blind people become complacent, and employers are unwilling.”

So, he considers his mission to be twofold: educating employers and training blind people. The work-training program he runs at the Lighthouse takes six to eight weeks to complete. The goal is for participants to be in a new job or at least interviewing somewhere at the end of the course.

Constance Linzey of Hyattsville is one of Mr. Dee’s recent graduates. Mrs. Linzey, who became blind after a stroke and a case of meningitis five years ago, just landed an internship with a personal injury lawyer in Lanham. She’s doing secretarial work.

“If you had told me a few years ago that I would be working, I would have said, ‘That’s impossible,’ ” Mrs. Linzey says on the phone from her Lanham office.

She says employers shouldn’t shy away from hiring blind people, thinking it’s just too complicated.

“If they hire us, they will get a highly motivated worker — someone who really, really wants to work,” Mrs. Linzey says. A blind person probably is not there for the money, she explains, but rather the satisfaction and the sense of accomplishment.

But you might wonder: How does a blind person retrieve and distribute faxes, check e-mails and sort mail?

“There are some great technologies now that help us,” Mrs. Linzey says. The Columbia Lighthouse includes training on these technologies during job-training courses.

A software program called Jaws reads printed text — e-mails, for example — out loud. To read the addresses on correspondence, Mrs. Linzey uses Zoom, a technology that magnifies text for people like her who have just a slight bit of sight remaining (in Mrs. Linzey’s, case in one eye).

With the help of the assistive technologies and an increasing (albeit slowly) number of enlightened employers, Mr. Dee encourages participants not to be afraid to think big and long term.

“I tell them to open it up,” he says. “They might not realize it, but they can be anything from lawyers to counselors.”

During a recent class, several participants said they wanted to do customer-service work, but others reached further.

Artemus Smith, 30, who as a young boy had a brain tumor that caused blindness, says he wants to start out doing office work, delivering mail and faxes. He recently was offered a job to be a switchboard operator at Andrews Air Force Base, but he said the hours — 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. — made it impossible for him to take the job. His medications make him too drowsy at night.

He dreams big, though. He wants to have his own business one day.

“I would like to own barbershops,” says Mr. Smith, joking that he plans to get his hair braided later in the day. Thing is, his head is near-shaved.

Mr. Smith, who lives with his mother but dreams of living independently one day, says part of what keeps his spirits up is his sense of humor, which he showers on fellow Lighthouse participants.

“How many seconds are there in a year?” he asks during class. Nobody knows. “Twelve,” he says. “January 2, February 2, March 2 and so on.” Laughter erupts.

Another positive constant in his life, which often has been invaded by brain and eye surgeries, is his deep faith. He goes to Hunter Memorial AME Church in Suitland several times a week. It’s a faith community, he says, that doesn’t care or comment on the fact that he’s blind.

“I like playing with the kids. They don’t care. They don’t treat me any differently,” he says. “We run and wrestle in the halls.”

A positive outlook, however, is not gained overnight by most blind people, at least not those who become blind as adults, Mr. Dee says.

“There is this phase — three, sometimes four years — when you first lose your sight that you’re down and isolated,” he says. “I went through it, too. For one or two years, I stayed at home, watched TV, had very little social interaction.”

However, he says, it’s important not to get stuck in that phase because losing one’s sight — if you put in work and determination — just means doing in a different way the same things you did while you were still seeing.

“I like to think of what Stevie Wonder once said when asked about being blind. He said something like, “It’s no big deal. I can see 20-20 in the dark.”

That’s one of the main points that Mr. Dee tries to drive home to his classes: A positive attitude makes all the difference.

“What I have come to realize [is] that the formula for life is 10 percent circumstance and 90 percent attitude,” Mr. Dee says. “If you have a positive attitude, you can overcome so much.”

This doesn’t mean he minimizes depression or sadness. He has been there and done that and provides as much support to others in those circumstances as he can, he says.

“We listen to them cry — it happens a lot — and we listen to their concerns. And we can empathize and support them,” he says. “We know what it’s like.”

Mrs. Linzey says Mr. Dee is her role model in many ways. He’s strong, and he’s competent, she says, adding that many of her Lighthouse teachers have been great and instrumental in her success. Her main teacher did mock interviews, talked about the importance of dressing for success and helped her with her resume.

Her former classmates from the Lighthouse job-training course also are important in her life.

“We call each other all the time. We support each other. It’s a great community,” she says. The classmates and visually impaired staff at the Lighthouse can relate in a way a seeing person can’t, she says, and that means a lot.

Though Mrs. Linzey is happy with her current job — she’s even writing a job manual for law office clerical work for the Lighthouse — she has set long-term goals, and she is reaching high. She wants to be a lawyer and says about her current employer:

“In 10 years, I want to be side by side with him in the courtroom. Dreams do come true.”

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