Dr. Friedman's Plain Dealer article about 'Growing Up Fisher'

Prime-time TV viewers have been introduced to Mel Fisher, the character who is blind in an NBC series, “Growing Up Fisher.” Mel, played by actor J.K. Simmons, is a lawyer and all-around good dad who never let his disability stop him from achieving a full life.

There are many real people like Mel. Their success stories don’t happen in a vacuum. Much has been accomplished since the days when a person who was blind was treated like a second-class citizen. We should all be proud that one of the first agencies in the country dedicated to serving people who are blind – The Cleveland Society for the Blind, as we were called then - happened here in the early 1900s.

Much progress has been made. But barriers still exist.

By all appearances, Mel’s TV family is supportive. Not all families are.

One of our former clients, Sally (not her real name), for example, went from normal vision to total vision loss over the course of just three months when she was in her twenties. As a young mother newly blind and with young children to take care of, her husband at the time opposed her learning mobility skills like walking with a cane or riding public transportation on her own and even prevented her socializing with other people who are blind.

Today, Sally’s children are grown. She has overcome these challenges. She is a leader of our consumer counsel, a board member at Cleveland Sight Center and an advocate for the empowerment of all young women who are blind. She has taken the lead in creating a domestic violence initiative at our agency.

Full or part-time employment can be very difficult to achieve for people with no or low vision or who have other disabilities. A competitive job makes a big difference in the lives of people who have “work disabling” conditions. For most adults, work is a place to put their skills to use, is central to their identity and generates a sense of integration into the community. Many people who are blind long to work but find it much more difficult to obtain jobs than people with sight, despite their competitive and valuable skills. Sen. Tom Harkin describes the current state of employment for persons with a disability as “dismal.” The unemployment rate for persons with disabilities is almost double the national average. “Prevent Blindness America” estimates that the impact of lost productivity due to visual impairment was a staggering $48 billion in 2013.

Loss of vision can lead to loss of work. Another former client who is now one of our staff, Ray’s (not his real name) vision loss was first diagnosed when he was in his twenties. He gave up driving when he was 30. He worked as a lab technician for 25 years, but as his vision got worse it became increasingly difficult to provide the appropriate accommodations for his disability. When he was in his fifties and coping with the challenge of a disease that resulted in almost total vision loss, Ray lost his job. “Losing your job is one thing,” he says, “it happens to many people. Losing your sight and your job at the same time is something else.” After being unemployed for 14 months, Ray came to our agency to learn what was for him a completely new line of business – customer service. Today, Ray is an agent at a call center run by Cleveland Sight Center.

The call center handles customer service for three state agencies. It has created 20 jobs over the past 18 months for people with no or low vision, tapping into a workforce of very capable and motivated people. It handles about 300,000 phone calls annually.

Our employment initiatives owe their success to employers – public and private – who commit to create work opportunities and support persons who are blind after they are hired. It is heartening to see a TV series featuring an accomplished, witty, blind character who succeeds so well in his professional life. This portrayal can be a big step in overcoming the stigma attached to persons who are blind. Let’s help that happen for people whose diverse talents and strengths can be an asset to any workforce.

Steven Friedman is president and executive director of Cleveland Sight Center.

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