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Christina Holtzclaw Uses Her Career to Empower People with Disabilities

For the last 14 years, Christina Holtzclaw has worked tirelessly at the Northwest Georgia Center for Independent Living in Rome, Georgia. This nonprofit organization assists individuals of all ages who have all types of disabilities and helps them reach their goals of living independently. They serve 15 counties, and the majority of the staff are people with disabilities. In her role as assistant director, Holtzclaw meets one-on-one with consumers in the community, collaborates with the office nursing home coordinator and other staff, works on the budget and finances, meets with the board of directors, and whatever else needs to be done. The core services of the Center are independent living skills training, information & referral, peer mentoring, self-advocacy, and transition services. "Peer support is the most unique service that we offer," Holtzclaw said. "I would have given up if I didn’t have others with disabilities in my life as I pursued my career."

Growing Up and Going to School with a Visual Impairment

Holtzclaw developed congenital cataracts from infancy. She was born premature and stayed in an incubator that caused damage to her eyes, particularly her retina. She is the oldest of three children and grew up like most children. "I didn’t realize until I was in school that I had a vision problem because my parents treated me like everyone else," she remembered. "I appreciate that now more than I did back then."

Holtzclaw attended regular public school, even though she wanted to go to the Macon Academy for the Blind, which is the residential school for blind and visually impaired children in the state of Georgia. Her parents wanted her close to home, and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 had just passed. This act allowed for disabled children to attend federally funded public schools. But staying close to home presented some new and interesting challenges for Holtzclaw. First, her teacher had just been hired. Second, there was little to no assistive technology to her in class or at home to get assignments done; all she had was a typewriter.

It was not until the third grade that things began to improve. She got a CCTV to read printed materials, a tape recorder, and black magic markers. She also began to learn braille. But in order to learn braille, she had to attend two schools. The vision teacher was located at another school that had more visually impaired students whereas she was the only one at her school. So, she was bused across town for class. "We were some of the first blind students at that time," Holtzclaw said. "Everyone was just kind of scrambling to figure it out and make it work."

College Life and Accommodations

Holtzclaw persevered, graduated high school, and headed to college at Shorter University. She had learned white cane mobility skills but thought it best to get a guide dog to travel around campus. Once on campus, her accommodations were much better. "Computers were making their way in, and I had readers to record my lessons onto tape recorders," Holtzclaw explained. "I also used a Kurzweil reader because there was a blind professor on campus, and he allowed me to use some of his equipment."

Finding a Job

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1996, she began to job search. But like most blind people, it was very difficult. "I was feeling very discouraged," she said. She eventually found a job working at a sheltered workshop and worked there almost one year. But during that period, her self-esteem took a hit. "This was not what I wanted, but it was work," she recalled. Holtzclaw shared that at the time she felt "ashamed and embarrassed" about working at the sheltered workshop; however, she feels differently now. "I am glad that I had that experience because I know what it is like, and it helps to do the job I do today," she said. "I can see why people give up and get discouraged."

In 1998, a new company came into the Rome area hiring customer service representatives. Even though this was not in her field of study, Holtzclaw worked with her vocational rehabilitation counselor and was hired. She worked at Sitel Corporation for five years until the company closed. This job was a much better experience. "I had better pay and benefits," Holtzclaw said. "I also met my husband there and purchased a home, too." She also got accommodations with assistive technology which was especially critical because glaucoma was starting to develop around this time. But on a sad note, her guide dog passed away, and she decided not to get another one.

Holtzclaw found herself job searching again but only for a short time. She heard about an organization opening called Disability Link-NW that served the disabled population in her area. Later the name was changed to the Northwest Georgia Center for Independent Living. It was in its infancy and just getting off the ground. In 2004, she applied for their independent living coordinator position and was hired.

"When I went in for the interview I couldn’t find the building because it was so new, there was one fax machine that was not even hooked up yet and one desk," she explained. "I helped build the organization from the ground up. I even was involved in the design of the current building, making sure it was accessible and accommodating." It was only three staff members in the beginning, and now, there are eight today. Holtzclaw was upfront about her abilities and limitations during her interview because she knew that this agency would be serving people in rural parts of the community with little to no transportation. "I said in the interview that I couldn’t drive, and the director said that she couldn’t either," Holtzclaw chuckled. They were able to work things out, and she even went back and got a guide dog again to assist her better in commuting for work.

That was 14 years ago, and Holtzclaw is still there but now works as assistant director. "This job has been the biggest blessing of my whole life," Holtzclaw said cheerfully. "This was what I always wanted." Holtzclaw credits her happiness at work with the fact that she can relate to her consumers. She is able to assist because she remembers what it is like on the other side of that desk. "I think it is hard to take advice from someone who has not faced the same issues," she said. "I think relatability is highly underestimated."

Other Stories from Employees with Vision Loss

Our Stories: People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired Succeeding at Work and Life

About the World of Business and Job Seekers Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired

About Blind or Visually Impaired Workers and the Corporate World

About Careers in Rehabilitation and Persons with Vision Loss


Topics:
Employment
Low Vision
Personal Reflections

Traveling an Unfamiliar Route and Taking a Risk as a Person Who Is Blind or Visually Impaired

Suppose you’ve graduated your orientation and mobility lessons and you’ve successfully mastered a handful of routes. You can get from home to work and back, to Starbucks and back (because let’s face it, this route is perhaps the most vital), to the gym and back, and to the grocery store and back. You and the cane have found your rhythm; shorelining, well, it’s practically a breeze; and bus travel now only gives you a smidge of anxiety. You’ve made great strides. But now the guys at the office invite you to a new restaurant in town. You’re determined to get there independently. Are you up for the challenge?

With the collection of orientation and mobility tools and skills under your belt—but please, if you haven’t received proper training in travel skills for those who are blind or visually impaired, start there and this time hire an uber—it’s time to create a plan (and just as important, a backup plan) and take a measured risk.

Don’t let fear rob you of an independent life.

I know this can be overwhelming. It’s why I want to share former CareerConnect program manager, Joe Strechay’s words as he reflected on tackling an unfamiliar route despite the uncertainties.

Read "Push Your Limits and Take Measured Risks." Know that all travelers who are blind or significantly visually impaired have to make a decision as to whether they will push themselves past their comfort levels…time and again.

Additional Resources

Why Should Blind or Visually Impaired Individuals Practice Orientation and Mobility Skills?

Community Travel Skills—a Predictor of Workplace Success for Individuals Who Are Blind

Find a Local Orientation and Mobility Service Provider


Topics:
Employment
Getting Around
Low Vision
Planning for the Future

Job Applications Inquiring About a Driver’s License? Discriminatory—Here’s Why

"Hello ma’am, are you hiring," one can ask relentlessly around town; 'Job opening in _______ field' one can type in the search bar and scour the web with more intensity than a private detective. When determined to find a position, the hunt is on for an assortment of job applications in hard copy and electronic format. As we then fill out form after form after form, it’s easy to spot similarities—one of which is, "Do you have reliable transportation," or worse, "Do you have a valid driver’s license," even when driving is not an essential job function. While the former is arguably tolerable, the latter is arguably discriminatory. It’s a lose-lose for individuals who are blind or visually impaired.

If yes is checked—well, that’s not completely honest, and you’ll have to backtrack, likely leaving the employer uneasy.

If no is checked—well, the application is likely to be dismissed before an explanation is read.

On the apparent grounds of searching for a reliable employee, the employer has discounted a (let’s assume) reliable, fully qualified candidate who doesn’t have a driver’s license because of a visual impairment. (Yes, the definition of employment discrimination.)

This is truly frustrating and very often impeding.

Learn former CareerConnect program manager, Joe Strechay’s, thoughts on the matter and hear how he addressed the issue with the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission in the blog post "Attention, Employers—This Is Employment Discrimination: Do you have a driver's license?"

So, what are your thoughts on the matter and how do you address the issue? We’d love to know.

Additional Resources

Equal Employment Opportunity Is the Law

Coverage of Age Discrimination and Disability Discrimination Laws

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) from Job Seekers and Employees Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired Regarding the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)


Topics:
Employment
Low Vision
Planning for the Future

When Your Visual Impairment Is Confusing to Your Coworkers

Perhaps you have retinitis pigmentosa (RP), and you are finding it increasingly difficult to use your vision in low light and, much to your frustration, you are aware of your gradual loss of peripheral vision. Let’s say you are currently reading fine print with ease, yet you are using a cane as you leave work in the evening, and you’ve been told you consistently fail to notice a coworker waving hello from the corner of the room. You’re overwhelmed, and your coworkers, well, they’re puzzled.

Whether or not your eye condition is recent or progressive, your coworkers are likely just as confused. They don’t understand the functional implications of vision loss. They don’t know those with different eye conditions see differently; they don’t know vision can fluctuate, and to make matters worse, they don’t know what you can see and if the topic is off limits. Should you address their concerns?

Yes, your visual impairment is yours—coworkers aren’t owed an explanation. Yet perhaps, it is in your best interest to address the unspoken questions.

Perhaps addressing your visual impairment subsides fears.

Perhaps addressing your visual impairment gets their minds off of it.

Perhaps addressing your visual impairment educates employers and future employers, and a few minutes of your time leads to their hiring other folks with visual impairments.

If you’re feeling up to quickly educating the team, read our tips for how to do so here: "The Frustration of Being Visually Impaired Without Looking Visually Impaired and How to Handle it On the Job."

Let us know your experience addressing coworkers’ concerns and any additional suggestions for others in this situation.

Additional Resources

Thoughts from the Road: Dealing with the General Public and Always Being "On"

The Fear of the Foreign: Addressing Unspoken Concerns of Hiring Individuals Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired

Deteriorating Eyesight and an Increasingly Difficult Workload to Manage

Learning About Blindness: Interacting with a Person Who Is Blind or Visually Impaired in the Workforce


Self-Awareness as the Spine of a Solid Career as a Person Who Is Blind or Visually Impaired

Hi job seeker,

  • What careers will utilize your aptitudes?
  • What career are you motivated to pursue?
  • What accommodations will you utilize in order to excel in the job?

What skills need to be honed in order to thrive and promote in the field?

Accurately answering these questions requires keen self-awareness skills.

So, what do we know about the benefits of self-awareness?

Joe Strechay, Director of the Bureau of Blindness and Visual Services for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, discusses in the blog post, "Self Awareness: Knowledge of Your Own Strengths and Weaknesses Offers an Employment Edge," how self-awareness is beneficial as we navigate the employment process, including finding a suitable job, building relationships at work, and developing career goals.

To learn more about developing self-awareness and utilizing it to acquire a job and excel in your career field, read the following:

As is evidenced in the above blog posts and articles, your journey to a solid career as an individual who is blind or visually impaired begins with a journey to self-awareness.

Related Posts

Unclog Your Filter! Constructive Criticism and the Importance of Seeking It As an Individual Who Is Blind or Visually Impaired

Components of Emotional Intelligence (EI): Information to Increase Social Skills for Individuals Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired

National Photography Month and Captured Memories: The Moment One Chooses a Career


Topics:
Employment
Personal Reflections
Planning for the Future
Transition