Just Jump the Hurdle: Randy's Path to Self-Determination

[Randy] Hi, my name is Randy. Although I have a visual disability I do not let the jolts of life get me down. I see the positive in people and the potential in tough situations. Blind since birth, I view obstacles as healthy challenges that provide opportunities to be creative. I see prejudice and stereotyping as opportunities to educate. Life may be a hassle at times - frustrating, annoying, even frightening - but to me, it is nothing less than a grand experience.

I was born in the Grand Coulee Dam area of Washington State and raised in Alaska and Seattle. I went to a public preschool where, at age three, I began to learn Braille. I attended general education classes throughout my schooling. In high school I became a DO-IT Scholar. DO-IT provided me with a laptop computer with speech output software, a speech synthesizer, Braille translation software, a Braille embosser (to produce Braille output), a regular printer for producing printed output for sighted people, and access to the Internet. Using this technology I read a newspaper independently for the first time in my life. My computer system allowed me to access information and compose papers without the assistance of a sighted person. I attended Evergreen State College and graduated in a computer field. My biggest challenge today is dealing with the ever-growing amount of graphics presented on the World Wide Web and software applications. When software designers use text alternatives to information presented in graphics, I work independently; otherwise, I need a sighted person to help me.

Although I struggled socially at times in school, my greatest challenges came from teachers, not peers. I had to prove that I could do the same stuff as the others, show the teachers that I was able to work in their class successfully. This was my biggest challenge, not from the students but teachers. To students, you're just another kid. I felt that I had to constantly "prove" my worth-not in relation to performing a specific task, but simply because I couldn't see. I realized I was going to have to work very hard to find the right kind of job for myself and, even then, likely have to fight to get beyond the stereotypes. I still have to prove to employers that I can do the job. Out of necessity I've had to look at what is available and make things work so I did some research, found out what was available, and I went for it. With my degree in computer science and networking, I work as a help-desk analyst, handling technical computer questions from customers around the United States.

I credit my parents as the primary motivators in my life. If I came home with a grade that was lower than expected, I would hear about it. I was expected to get that grade up. And if it didn't go up, well, there were consequences. I was treated like everybody else. That instilled in me a drive to succeed. They also encouraged me to be independent, to make my own choices, and to live with and learn from the outcomes of my choices. My parents' main goal was to make me as much like any other kid that was out there as possible. I did social things with other kids. When I was in high school, I had a lot of the same problems with my parents that a lot of kids have, like, 'I want to go out'. 'Well, you can't go out.' Not because we don't want you to go out because you have this disability, but because you're supposed to do this work. But at other times, they would say 'Hey, go out with your friends. Do stuff socially.' They were very open to that. And because I was mainstreamed all through school, I was used to having that social interaction with other people.

I think I have a knack for not allowing the "unknowns" to get in my way. When I encounter a difficult situation I ask questions. I try to use creative thinking to circumvent challenges without allowing the challenges to become overwhelming or discouraging. I see every challenge as an opportunity to be inventive. When I was seventeen years old I went by myself to California to get my guide dog, Mogul. I had been away from my parents before; like any normal kid I had gone to camp and things like that. But this was my first flight on my own, and I was going to meet people I had never met before. I would be staying at this place for a month that I'd had no idea where it was or what it was. So it was fairly daunting. I had never done plane travel myself before on my own. So, I had to say to myself, 'Well, eventually things are going to work out.' A lot of the time that's how I work. I say, 'We may not be able to plan this out completely, but it'll work out somehow.' There's always something that will come up. Some sort of gift of fortune that will make things work. And it always has. Luckily.

Whenever I travel to a new location, I have to study the layout of the community to figure out the best routes to the places where I need to go. Some of it I just leave up to fate. I always figure, after all your planning is done, something's going to go wrong. If something happens and you fail, if you ask for something and somebody says "no," if you try to do something and somebody puts you down, the only thing that you can do is say, 'ok, fine, that's not going to work, try it a different way, or go at it again.' There are always times that you're going to break down and say 'hey, I can't go on, I can't go on like this.' But you go to sleep that night, you wake up the next morning, and you kind of have a different outlook on life. Maybe it's hard, but you do it anyway, and you just keep going at life.

I met my wife Denise in high school and we were married at age 21. My disability was not an issue in our dating or in our decision to get married. Although Denise and I went to the same middle school too, we didn't meet until later. Denise was really shy and didn't talk much, but during our junior year, half our classes were together so we started talking and ended up dating.

I have a full-time job, but am continually looking for new opportunities. I let a prospective employer know about my disability before coming for an interview. I don't like to surprise the interviewer. I call the person on the phone ahead of time to prepare him or her. But instead of focusing on the potentially negative or stereotypical aspects of my disability, I say, "Hey, I have a disability but I can make it work for you. I've made it work in the past and these are my experiences." Knowing I have this disability I can go into the interview and they ask me the usual stuff they would ask any other person at that interview.

Sometimes I am still faced with awkward situations For example, although I was a regular customer at a particular restaurant, there was a new employee at the counter who did not know me and told me he could not come in with his guide dog. There were three ways I could have handled it. I could have walked out, which I didn't want to do because I really like the food. I could have blown up at her and then maybe get kicked out for disturbing the peace. Or I could do what I did, which was to be calm and explain that Mogul is a guide dog and by law allowed to come in. I usually carry cards that have information and a phone number for people who want to know more. But I find staying calm usually works with most people.

I think it's important not to use your disability as a crutch. Don't walk through life and expect people to take care of you because of the disability. Don't make excuses for yourself because of the disability. I've done it before, and it's a one-man pity-party. Go out; drive for what you want; don't let the disability get in the way. But if it does, then just jump the hurdle, find a way to get around it. Definitely drive for what you want. If it's strong enough in your mind and if you want it badly enough, then go get it. Don't go into a shell. A lot of people with disabilities will stand back and let life flow by them. They don't interact with people. A lot of them have fairly poor social skills because of it, and that's really sad to see. If these people could actually go out and interact with other people, that might make their life better.

If you are a parent of a child with disabilities, let your kid with a disability be a kid. Don't shelter him or her too much, and don't keep anything back. Let them live their life. Treat them like you would your non-disabled child. And don't let them look at the disability as a crutch. It works. Trust me.

There are a lot of people with disabilities out there who get fanatical about not letting anybody help them. I look at that as detrimental because all people with or without disabilities need help sometimes. Ask for the help that you need, don't be afraid to try new things and advocate for yourself - it can get you a long way.

[This success story has been modified and reproduced with the permission from the following publication: Burgstahler, S. (2006). Creating an e-mentoring community for teens with disabilities: How DO-IT does it and how you can do it, too. Seattle, WA: DO-IT, University of Washington, pp. 48-52]