What do you do when you’ve had your 50th birthday, you've devoted your career to executive management and sales, and you're going blind? What do you do when your daughter has to tell you whether the traffic light is red or green, you are tripping over objects, and bright light creates a total vision whiteout?
Well, if you are Kelly Egan, here’s what you do.
You stop driving. You get yourself into a six-month training course to learn blindness skills. Oh, and you start a company or two. And you get a new job!
All of the above was Kelly Egan’s story about ten years ago. While some might see vision loss as a reason to drop out of the workforce, Kelly Egan says it simply never occurred to her that she would not have a job. Today, she is a customer relations manager for Sprint, responsible for expanding the company’s accessibility efforts to include customers who are blind or visually impaired. She says that, like so many challenges, blindness has simply presented her with interesting opportunities to learn.
Before and After Blindness
For some people with disabilities, there is a clear line in memory, a milestone of sorts, when they crossed from the land of abled to disabled, or, in this case, from sighted to blind. Kelly Egan’s memory doesn’t seem to work that way. Losing her sight was a process, and she remembers many of the signposts involved in learning to be blind, but it doesn’t seem to be a yardstick she uses for measuring other events in her life. She was always near-sighted. Cone rod dystrophy meant a gradual decline in vision over several years – loss of central vision and color identification mostly, and an extremely high sensitivity to light. To use what remaining vision she has, she wears sunglasses most of the time.
In 1999, before identifying herself yet as a person with a disability, she helped launch a company called Hire Potential and served for a time as its CEO. The purpose was to tap the disability community, which she and her business partners perceived as a rich and under-utilized resource, for staffing solutions. Later, she started another small company, Wine Veil, as a creative and decorative solution to enjoying wine outdoors without inviting insects to the party. (She and a friend designed these whimsical accessories for wine glasses and bottles which are, essentially, colorful fabrics that breathe with silver charms at all four corners to prevent them from blowing away.)
In fact, she says that the only time in her adult life when she was not fully employed was the six months in Colorado when she was learning to use a white cane and other techniques that blind and visually impaired people master in order to lead independent lives.
Every day, she took the bus to the training center, worked hard to learn those blindness skills, and took the bus home again. Shortly after completing her blindness training, she was accepted into training by Guide Dogs for the Blind of San Rafael, California, and, somewhat metaphorically, received a sweet black Labrador named Hope.
Through a blind friend, she learned of a possible job opportunity at Sprint, and Kelly Egan was once again using her talent and creativity to explore new territory.
Back at Work
Initially, Egan’s job with Sprint was a contract position where she went to trade shows and introduced potential customers to Sprint. After a year, the company hired her into a permanent position. Today, she is full-time customer relations manager with five contract employees (all of whom are blind or visually impaired) on her team. One of the largest mobile networks in the country, Sprint has a long history of providing services to deaf customers and wanted to expand its accessibility efforts to extend the same courtesy to customers with visual impairments. Who better to spread the word about a company’s accessibility than a team of individuals who are themselves blind or low vision?
Now living in San Diego, Egan and her guide dog travel to conferences and shows around the country to tell people about Sprint Accessibility. This past year, she or one of her team attended some 40 events throughout the country where large numbers of attendees were people with visual impairments.
In addition to making presentations and developing marketing materials for blind customers, she hosts “Lunch and Learns” at various retail locations, providing opportunities for other Sprint employees to learn about blindness. When presenting at an event where there will be a large number of blind attendees (such as events for the American Council of the Blind, National Federation of the Blind, Blind Veterans, and the like), she always invites staff from a local Sprint store to join her at the conference table. Inevitably, she says, those Sprint representatives encountering blind people for the first time are impressed and amazed. They come away enthusiastic and energized to learn more.
Recalling those days a decade ago when it had become clear to her that she needed to learn some new ways of doing things because of vision loss, she says it never occurred to her that she would stop working.
“I can’t imagine why I wouldn’t get another job,” she says. “In my mind, going blind never made me think I wasn’t smart or couldn’t work.” From her days at HirePotential, she was “already brainwashed” as she playfully expresses it. She had come to know and believe in the capabilities of people with disabilities. “So what if a person needed this or that,” she says, “a wheelchair or a scooter or a white cane? … They could still get the job done.” If others could, then she could, too.
Egan uses an inverted screen with magnification along with VoiceOver to use her computer. She wears sunglasses and keeps the office fairly dark. She uses her Guide Dog, Hope, for safe and independent travel, and she has a part-time assistant to help with some administrative tasks.
Asked to name three things that have enabled her to remain in that 30 percent of blind people who are gainfully employed, she cited a positive attitude, persistence, and creativity. “I love creating programs,” she said, “and I’m good at building relationships and strategic planning.”
Growing the 30 Percent
I also asked Egan if she had any advice for those who are blind or losing vision and who are not yet among the 30 percent of blind and low vision people who are working, or who are worried about losing the work they have.
“For many,” she said, “the fear of losing benefits is a definite deterrent, and I understand that. … But I would ask them, ‘Are you content living a life by default, or would you prefer to design a life that is suitable to you, a life you love? … Be brave. Employers will hire people with disabilities; I know—because I am hired and I am blind!”
To learn more about Sprint’s accessibility efforts for blind and low vision customers, visit the Sprint Vision site or find Kelly Egan or one of her team members at the next blindness-related conference in your area.
This article is made possible in part by generous funding from the James H. and Alice Teubert Charitable Trust, Huntington, West Virginia.
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