Vision · Opportunities · Innovation · Choices · Expertise.
Oregon Commission for the Blind, September 2020
Photo of OCB Director Dacia Johnson

All Oregonians deserve the opportunity to have a job they enjoy that allows them to support themselves and their families. Through our Vocational Rehabilitation Program, Oregonians who experience vision loss are able to obtain new skills that allow them to return to work and continue their career journey.

This edition of the Voice features transition youth who participated in the annual Summer Work Experience Program (SWEP), a program that takes place each year through a partnership with our Education Partners in School Districts and Regional Programs for the Visually Impaired. This year’s offerings were entirely virtual, however that did not stop students from engaging in valuable career readiness activities.

As we prepare to celebrate October as National Disability Employment Awareness Month, we are also featuring a success story. Carl Belnap is an Oregonian who has retired after a 43-year career in manufacturing. His journey began as a participant in OCB's summer programs in 1973.

I hope you enjoy learning more about Oregonians who are blind at work!
“This year was awesome!”
A Highly Unusual but Successful Summer Work Experience Program Concludes
We are proud to say that Summer Work Experience Program (SWEP) 2020 successfully wrapped up in August despite great odds. As one student put it, “This year was awesome!”

In its 46th year, SWEP is a 5-6 week long program for young people aged 16-20 who experience vision loss or blindness (check out the interview in this newsletter with Carl Belnap, a participant in the first iteration of SWEP in the 1970s!).

SWEP’s goal is to empower students, teach them life skills, and prepare them to successfully join the working world someday as confident, employed adults.

< At left, Billie smilingly holds a big plate of steaming hot chicken fried rice she cooked in SWEP cooking class
At right, Anna chops potatoes at her kitchen counter >

Typically our students refine these skills while working 20-30 hours in a community work experience and living on campus at a university in Portland or Salem.

However, as we all know, nothing about this year has been typical.

COVID-19 presented us with a conundrum. Could we somehow safely do the program in person? Should we cancel it altogether? Would we try to do it virtually? 
SWEP student KC standing at kitchen counter smiling. Cooking ingredients and a laptop displaying the face of a smiling cooking teacher on a Zoom meeting are seen next to him.
< At left, KC smiles at the camera as he stands before his kitchen work station. The laptop beside him displays a picture of his cooking instructor, who also smiles at the camera.

The virtual question was particularly interesting. Vision challenges, isolation, and a sometimes lifelong sense of “outsider-ness” means that our students often need help building their confidence and social skills.

Their huge personal growth we see every year in SWEP is linked to students’ successes going to their work placements and interacting with coworkers, and by living together in a dorm and working as a team.

And virtual platforms, of course, rely heavily on the visual aspect. Would too much be lost in translation to be useful?

But after 46 years, cancelling SWEP would have been heartbreaking to OCB and a huge disappointment to families and students who may look forward to it all year.
SWEP student Eric stands proudly in front of his house door in a splendid new interview suit, his head held high.
> At right, Eric stands tall and proud outside his front door wearing his handsome new interview suit

So our transition staff rolled up their sleeves, tapped into their creativity, and designed our first-ever Virtual SWEP.

Thirteen students participated in Virtual SWEP via Zoom this summer across our three tracks, each one tailored to students’ needs: Salem (First Track), Portland (Second Track), and a newer Third Track program for students with more complex assistive needs. 

Virtual SWEP sessions included career exploration, workplace readiness, post-secondary education, and self-advocacy. Students brainstormed their dream job and researched the steps needed to get there, practiced elevator pitches and interviews, and connected virtually with industry professionals.

Interview clothes were provided (if needed) to get students in the right head space, and students were mailed care packages with adaptive equipment and fun little things to cheer them on and maintain group connection and morale.
SWEP student proudly holding out plate of berry pastries she cooked.
< At right, Billie holds out a scrumptious plate of berry tarts

Sessions also featured daily living skills activities like cooking, exercise, and self-care, designed to be fun as well as useful. The pictures captured from the cooking sessions really speak for themselves.

As one student reported, “I really enjoyed the cooking classes best. They make me smile when it comes to food.”

Our team found new ways to adapt aspects of the program to each individual student’s career goals, curiosities and talents.

One way we did this was with “So Extras,” activities outside of group SWEP sessions, like virtual job tours, informational interviews with industry mentors, orientation and mobility lessons, and a SWEP jam session for our student music-lovers.
SWEP student Eric, seated, holding a work planner wearing a beautiful new job interview suit and shyly smiling.
> At right, Eric sits in his living room with his planner in hand and his interview suit on, prepared for a virtual informational interview

One of our new So Extras this year was a three-day College Boot Camp. Our five boot campers learned about time management, self-advocacy, accommodations, budgeting, note-taking, reading syllabi, networking, paying for college, campus safety, dorm life, clubs and activities, and more.

They also had the invaluable opportunity to hear advice from a panel of college students, recent graduates, and faculty. It was a great experience and we hope to offer it again in the future.

CJ stands at her front door in her interview clothes with her white-tipped cane, smiling
< At left, CJ stands inside her front door in her interview clothes, holding her white-tipped cane and smiling

All told, we’re proud to say that despite this year’s unique challenges, SWEP gave students a rewarding and engaging summer connecting with their peers and planning for their futures.

“I liked that I was able to learn a lot of new skills,” said one student. “I was also able to see my friends, despite the circumstances.” Another student reported, “I liked how this program, although virtual, was fun and engaging.”
While we’re looking forward to a return to in-person SWEP next year, we’re grateful to have learned valuable new skills and techniques for instructing our students virtually.
Pencil drawing by SWEP student Anna Reddick. In the foreground there is a brailler with a page of braille in the spool. In the background there is a white-tipped cane on its side and a computer monitor displaying the text VIRTUAL SWEP 2020.
> At right, pencil artwork by Anna Reddick, featuring a brailler with brailled paper in the roller, a white tipped cane beside it, and a computer monitor displaying the words "Virtual SWEP 2020"

Lastly, we couldn’t have made SWEP what it was without participation from many community partners who generously gave of their time and expertise:

Northwest Association for Blind Athletes
Community Vision
Portland Center Stage
PSU Disability Services
New Seasons Market
 ….and many more!

We’d like to say a huge thank you to them and to everyone who made Virtual SWEP 2020 happen!
Smiling SWEP student CJ in her bedroom on her laptop at her desk. She is wearing headphones and typing. In the background there is a neatly made bed and a calico cat curled up on the quilt.
> At right, SWEP student CJ sits at her desk in her room, wearing headphones and smiling as she types. In the background a little calico cat curls up snugly on the tidy bed quilt. >

Third Track was created to provide a highly individualized SWEP experience for students with the most complex barriers to employment.

This year marked the first year of Third Track as an official part of SWEP and for one student, it couldn’t have come at a better time.

CJ was new to OCB but dove in headfirst, working diligently for more than five weeks as a dedicated SWEP student. In exploring her many strengths and passions, CJ developed a “spectacular” elevator pitch, excelled in a mock interview, showcased her formidable culinary skills, and even performed an original song during the SWEP Talent Show.

CJ consistently pushed herself to achieve more than she thought possible and the amount of growth that occurred as a result astonished everyone around her.
CJ cooking in the kitchen for SWEP cooking class
< At left, CJ smiles as she prepares food in her kitchen

The boundless joy and determination that CJ exhibited throughout the program truly touched each and every person who had the opportunity to work with her.

CJ dreams of one day becoming a writer and as a capstone for her SWEP experience, CJ planned and conducted an informational interview with two senior staff at Street Roots, a nonprofit newspaper based in Portland. CJ researched the organization, watched TED Talks on how to conduct effective interviews, and delivered an insightful and inspired set of questions.

After all was done, CJ admitted that she was glad to have a break after all her hard work but said that she wished she could do SWEP every summer!
Former OCB client Carl Belnap, pictured with his grandchildren.
Carl Belnap Retires after a 43-Year Career at A-dec

> At right, Carl Belnap pictured with his two grandchildren, all with big smiles

After 43 years, Carl Belnap retired in August, 2020, from his position at A-dec (Austin Dental Equipment Company,, a Newberg, Oregon, manufacturer of dental office equipment.

Carl began his job at A-dec in May of 1977. Blind since birth, Carl began as a client of Oregon Commission for the Blind (OCB) in 1973. As a high school Junior, Carl attended OCB’s Portland Training Center for the Blind, a summer job training program. After high school, he attended the Oregon Rehabilitation Center for Development (ORCD at the Oregon School for the Blind) for several months, receiving vocational counseling and training. Carl also attended Clackamas Community College for additional training in the machine shop.

Carl indicated that OCB identified the job opportunity at A-dec. He assisted with the development of “tester” equipment that read aloud messages such as “The valve is [good] bad,” along with an error code. Carl used JAWS (screen reader software) to operate a computer on which he recorded the results and wrote emails.

Carl worked in several departments during his tenure, first working in the DEL (Delivery Systems) Assembly Department, also working in the lighting (specialty lights used by dental offices) and electrical departments. Carl, now deaf, has been helped, through the years, by seven successive guide dogs. While he couldn’t take a dog into the machine shop, he has relied on them for both sight and, later, hearing, to navigate and avoid hazards in the workplace. His dog since 2017 is a golden lab named Amarillo.

Carl had some advice to share with young people who are blind embarking on career exploration: 1) Make use of education; and 2) Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Carl looks forward to retirement as a chance to spend more time with his wife. OCB wishes Carl the best as he embarks on this next phase of his life.
Photo of Valley Cafe in Salem new Plexiglas barrier at the order pickup table

COVID-19 pandemic building closures continue to affect the Business Enterprise program

< At left, the Valley Cafe in Salem with a new Plexiglas barrier installed at the order pickup table

The Oregon Commission for the Blind’s Business Enterprise Program (BEP) trains and licenses Oregonians who are blind to independently operate food service businesses that serve the public, state, federal and local government employees.
Employment Building cafe with new Plexiglas barrier installed at the checkout counter
> At right, photo of Employment Building cafe with a new Plexiglas barrier at the checkout counter

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to shutter businesses and encourage government employees to work from home, BEP’s licensed Vending Facility Managers (VFM) are adapting their cafeterias and snack bars to include online ordering and pickup.

BEP staff have been working with VFMs as they re-open their businesses to shift focus toward a more contactless, COVID-compliant business model. BEP staff researched and tested various online ordering website platforms for accessibility and ease of use, created marketing and COVID-19 related signage for customers, and sourced physical distancing floor stickers as well as Plexiglas barriers for live sites.
Two photos side by side. First is the Valley Cafe in Salem order pickup location with social distance footprints on the floor, and the second is a sign on Valley Cafe's window saying they are open and have online ordering and pickup
< At left, two photos side by side. First is the Valley Cafe in Salem with vinyl social distance "footprints" on the floor. The second is a sign on the cafe's window saying they are open and have online ordering and pickup

As of today, locations have opened and BEP staff are working with two additional VFMs on their contactless re-opening plans. 
Logo of Usher Syndrome Coalition
> At right, logo of the Usher Syndrome Coalition

This year Governor Kate Brown declared September 19 Oregon's first-ever Usher Awareness Day. On that day we paused to celebrate the effort to build understanding and connections for people living with significant hearing and vision loss due to Usher Syndrome, a little-understood and greatly under-diagnosed genetic-based disorder. 

Check out this new video created by the Usher Syndrome Coalition for an informative, authentic, warm and uplifting message, with great information and personal stories from those affected by Usher Syndrome:

The Coalition hopes it will help change how people look at combined sensory loss, make medical professionals more aware of Usher, and connect to those that may be affected but not yet aware of the disorder or the resources and growing community of support around it.

Thank you Usher Syndrome Coalition and Governor Kate Brown for raising Usher awareness!
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