Advocate for blind seeks to clear misconceptions
Published 10:23 am Friday, June 19, 2015
After losing her sight because of a head injury in December 2011, Jeanette McAllister has devoted her career to being an advocate for people without vision.
“I’m the voice of the blind, especially through the NFB, the National Federation of the Blind. I do a lot of work trying to help blind people to find employment,” McAllister said.
She is the founder of A Heart Staffing, a company that specializes in direct-hire staffing.
“I call around to different companies letting them know that there is a whole different hidden talent pool that a lot employers don’t know about of blind individuals who are very well educated, looking for employment. And that’s what I do is market their backgrounds and try to help them find employment,” she said. “There are so many misconceptions as to what people with a disability can or can’t do.”
For the first six months after losing her vision, McAllister grieved for her vision like a lost family member. It took the urging of the director of the Virginia Department of the Blind for McAllister to begin the process of readjusting to her new reality.
“He was blind, and had been his entire life, and I asked him, ‘How do you do it? Because I can’t.’ And he said to me, ‘First you take it one day at a time. And you only let yourself have one bad day a week. So if today is a bad day, you do everything in your power to make tomorrow a good day.’
“That is the motto that I have lived my life by since losing my vision,” she said emphatically.
McAllister enrolled in the Hadley School for the Blind based in Winneka, Illinois, a correspondence program that teaches its lessons entirely online or through the mail. The school offers classes in adult continuing education, family education, professional studies and high school diplomas. All programs are free of charge to students.
Through the school, McAllister learned Braille. Her husband also took a course designed for the family members of those suffering vision loss.
“As a blind person, I didn’t ever stop to think about how my blindness was affecting my husband or other family members. I was busy having my own pity party for myself. [My husband] took a course through Hadley, and it helped him tremendously,” McAllister said.
“He really has been wonderful,” she added. “He does not coddle me just because I’m blind. The blind services were really good with that. They said, ‘She’s not going to learn how to do it if you do it for her.’”
The Virginia Department of the Blind provided McAllister with mobility and orientation training, teaching her how to use a cane, and even how to cook.
“My husband says that I cook better now than I did when I could see,” she said with a laugh.
Now, with her 2-year-old guide dog, Hannah, in tow, McAllister feels that she has completely regained her independence.
“Other than not being able to drive a car, I go anywhere I want to go,” she said. McAllister said that she walks to Belk, Rite-Aid and the local library quite often.
In March 2015, she was appointed to the Virginia Department of the Blind State Rehabilitation Council.
“Hannah and I went to the first meeting last week, so I’m excited. We were in the meeting, Hannah had curled up under the table and gone to sleep and all we could hear was Hannah snoring. I kept reaching down and shaking her. One of the guys there, he said, ‘I make a motion to get Hannah to quit snoring,’” McAllister said with a smile.
McAllister’s main focus on the council is getting assistive technology, such as screen-reading technology for computers and what McAllister calls her “blind man’s computer,” a piece of technology resembling a computer with no screen and a Braille keyboard that allows her to type up documents that can be printed or emailed to other computers.
“I was flabbergasted to find out last week that the government only allocates $280 per child with vision loss for the school year to furnish their school with assistive technology,” she said. “The Virginia Library and Resource Center will lend children technology such as this, but they don’t have the funding to provide it to every child and say, ‘Hey, you can have this.’”
McAllister’s position on the board will give her new leverage in her quest to further education about the issues that affect people who are blind.
“This is what it comes down to,” she said. “It took going through it myself and talking to other people who had gone through it for me to lose the misconception that I would lose my independence. I just wish people could understand that we are just like you, except we can’t see. I’ve only been blind for four years and personally I feel like I’ve learned more in the past four years than I’ve ever learned.”