Vision · Opportunities · Innovation · Choices · Expertise.
Oregon Commission for the Blind, September 2021
Photo of Executive Director Dacia Johnson smiling at the camera.

October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month. Governor Brown signed a proclamation in observance of this important opportunity to raise awareness of the employment contributions of Oregonians with disabilities. This year’s theme is “America’s Recovery: Powered by inclusion,” reminding all of us that a workforce that is diverse and inclusive of people with disabilities is not only good public policy, it is good business to employ a workforce that reflects our communities in which we live and work.
Summer is always a little brighter at OCB thanks to the Summer Work Experience Program (SWEP) and the youth who participate in it. They learn key job and independent living skills they will apply in their preparation for life after high school.
Summer also brought a busy time for the Business Enterprise Program, which entered into a partnership with the State Parks to operate the Silver Falls Café. If you are taking in the scenery at Silver Falls State Park, stop in for a snack and support an entrepreneur who is blind! I hope you enjoy this edition of The Voice and learning more about OCB’s mission in action!
Photo: Izzy works with Char in the OCB teaching kitchen surrounded by adapted cooking equipment
Photo at left: Izzy works with Char in the OCB teaching kitchen

In July we wrapped up our 47th annual Summer Work Experience Program (SWEP) 2021, a 5-6 weeklong program for young people aged 16-20 who experience vision loss or blindness. We were excited this year because over half of the 2021 students were able to do their work experiences in person!

Photo below: Eric wears a special smartphone harness while he stirs a pot during cooking class over Zoom.
Eric stirs a pot on the stove as he prepares a meal to share with his family with the help of his cooking instructor, who speaks to him from a cell phone on a special harness on his chest.
SWEP aims to empower students, teach them life skills, and prepare them to successfully join the working world someday as confident, employed adults. Students refine these skills while working 20-30 hours a week in a community work experience and typically reside in campus dorms.

Students joined us from Lebanon, Hood River, McMinnville, Portland, Newberg, Hillsboro, and points in between. Though we lamented that the pandemic eliminated the residential component of SWEP again this year, Zoom allowed us to provide the majority of regular SWEP programming and activities. After spending the last one-and-a-half years doing high school online, students “knew the drill.”
SWEP students taking self-defense class remotely.
Photo at left, self-defense class over Zoom with Portland Jujitsu

Self-Awareness and Life Skills

The first week of SWEP featured a robust Orientation week focused on strengthening interviewing skills and developing a positive affirmation growth mindset. Students responded well to this year’s heavy focus on self-awareness and how inner dialogue can impact one's outer presentation and ability to step outside their comfort zone and try new things…like work!
Students take yoga class via Zoom
Photo at right, students take yoga class via Zoom

Weekly Zoom group instruction taught students diverse skills and knowledge that will help them as they enter into adulthood, including: budgeting, using phone apps and cardinal directions to navigate, fitness, self-defense, laundry, and organization and calendaring. Additionally, students worked one-on-one with our staff on orientation & mobility, independent living skills, meal preparation and technology.

College-Bound Cohort

SWEP students are divided into Salem and Portland groups. This year, the Portland cohort was unique in that all participants had graduated high school only weeks before SWEP. That meant we were able to tailor the Portland program to address this milestone moment and rite of passage as the students transitioned into their post-high school plans, including three college-bound students and one student directly entering the workforce. 
Kevin works in-person at MOD Pizza
Photo at left, Kevin works in-person at MOD Pizza

Work Experiences Are a Crucial Component

Study after study shows that transition-age is a crucial period for youth to enter into the workforce, and doing so is the single biggest predictor of working throughout life.

By providing students with paid work experiences, SWEP not only gives students a chance to build real-world employment skills, but also helps them carve out their own career path and become independent and self-sufficient throughout their lifetime.
Erick works remotely on his computer
Photo at right, Eric works remotely on his computer.

Great effort was made to match students with employers that were the best fit for their career path. This year’s business and organization partners prided themselves on providing meaningful and realistic work experiences to SWEP students, as they do every year. We are especially grateful to employers for being open to taking on students during a time when there were a lot of unknowns due to the pandemic. Seven students worked in-person, four worked remotely, and one did a combo.

Employers Report Wins

In a follow-up survey, employers unanimously reported that they learned more about the capabilities of people with disabilities by hosting a SWEP student-worker, and that they were interested in hosting more student workers in the future. They described true win-win scenarios with huge value added from students’ work, while students gained invaluable paid work experience.
Ram works in-person at YMCA childcare
Photo at left, Ram works in-person at YMCA childcare. Student's faces edited out for privacy purposes.

“Our SWEP intern was amazing!” one employer said. “We were so fortunate to have her. She is truly a bright light. She was able to transition smoothly when we made the decision to go from live to recorded classes, and she maintained a positive attitude throughout her entire work experience. We look forward to our continued partnership with SWEP.”

“I think the effort and care that went into this summer program is phenomenal,” another employer commented. “Your care of the student workers, and support of employers, shows how much thought and concern you have for everyone. I felt fully supported and I hope every student can proudly add this experience to his or her resume.”
CJ works at the Habitat for Humanity Restore
Photo at right, Cj works at the Habitat for Humanity Restore

This Year's Work Placements

  • A disability rights & housing advocacy position at Independent Living Resources for a college-bound student interested in a career in disability advocacy. This student also provided mentorship to a Salem SWEP student who worked in the City of Portland’s Office of Equity and Human Rights

  • An art-class instructor position at Self Enhancement Inc. for a student interested in art & teaching as she explores helping professions and prepares for university.

  • A meal preparation instructor’s assistant position at OCB for an aspiring chef working towards enrollment at a culinary school/program.

  • A classroom assistant position at the YMCA’s Child Development Center for a student hoping to enter directly into employment in the field of childcare.

  • An accessibility tester for the City of Portland Office of Equity and Human Rights, gaining work experience and mentorship that most would only get well into their college career.

  • A prep cook for Mod Pizza, which turned into an offer of extended employment.

  • A trail crew member for The Next Door; a stocker for Gresham ReStore; a stocker for New Seasons Market Progress Ridge; a stocker/assistant for Camelia’s Candles; an exhibit guide for OMSI; and an archivist for Boys and Girls Club of Portland.
Anna at home, teaching art remotely
Photo at left, Anna quizzically lifts one eyebrow as she arranges colored pieces of paper on the floor while teaching art remotely

Hard Work from Students and Job Coaches

When surveyed, all students strongly agreed that SWEP provided them with the opportunity to add both meaningful skills and experience to their resumes, and helped them explore the type of work they are considering for their careers.

“I really enjoyed my job this year,” said one student. “The company was amazing, and it was a perfect fit for me.”

It was a challenge to find job coaches this year due to the unique situation presented by the pandemic and the geographical challenges it created. Nevertheless, each of our job coaches worked tirelessly to help students and employers have a realistic work experience with high expectations, balanced with creative solutions and problem-solving partnership with each student and their worksite.

Job coaches' crucial work allowed students to implement appropriate accommodations so that they could complete their job tasks in the efficient and effective manner that employers need them done!
Students take a virtual tour of OMSI’s dinosaur exhibit
Photo at right, students take a virtual tour of OMSI’s dinosaur exhibit

OMSI STEM Panel and "So Extras"

OMSI continued their great partnership with SWEP by hosting two wonderfully interesting events this year:

1.A STEM Career Panel Discussion with five members of OMSI discussing their career paths and a Q&A session with the students.
2.A virtual and audio described “Dinotour” of OMSI’s current dinosaur exhibit where SWEP students learned all sorts of fun and interesting facts about dinosaurs and paleontology. We even mailed realistic plastic dinosaur replicas to students’ homes so they could explore the lizardy-goodness by touch!

Students also loved making their own fossils; joining SWEP Trivia Night and audio-described SWEP Movie Night; getting to know each other in Living With Blindness class; and many other bonding experiences.

Thank you to everyone who contributed to another great year of SWEP, and to each of our intrepid students!
NDEAM Webinar Series Co-hosted by OCB
State seal and Governor's signature on 2021 NDEAM proclamation
Picture at left: State seal and signature on Governor's NDEAM proclamation

October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM). Please join us each week in October for webinars on this year's NDEAM theme, "America's Recovery: Powered by Inclusion," which reflects the importance of ensuring that people with disabilities have full access to employment and community involvement as the nation recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Webinars are Tuesdays, October 5, 12, 19 and 26, from noon to 1 p.m. Topics include:

  • Employment Innovations in the time of COVID: Oct. 5
  • Youth Employment Journey During COVID: Oct.12
  • Maximizing Hours: How to Navigate Services: Oct. 19
  • Workforce Recovery: Powered by Inclusion: Oct. 26

Sessions will be accessible for people with disabilities. Captioning and American Sign Language interpretation will be provided. For questions about accessibility, or to request an accommodation, contact Please make requests at least 48 hours in advance.

Hosted by the Oregon Department of Human Services, Oregon Commission for the Blind, and Oregon Department of Education.
Success at the Orientation and Career Center
Photo of the planter and sign in front of the OCB Orientation and Career Center
By Jonathan Scrimenti, Director OCCB

Photo at right, planter and OCB signage in front of the Orientation and Career Center, housed in our Portland location

This summer several SWEP students had the chance to work with the Orientation and Career Center for the Blind (OCCB) instructors on skill development related to their academic and career goals. The OCCB program within the Commission is an intensive training center where Oregonians who are blind come to learn skills. The OCCB instructors are experts in their field with deep, practical knowledge such as assistive technology, orientation & mobility, Braille and career preparation.

We’d like to share two success stories from this summer.

One student going to college for the first time this fall needed to learn how to navigate her school email, join a Zoom class, and save files all while using a screen reader. The student was able to go even further and constructed a mock report using MLA, APA, and Chicago citation styles. All of these skills were brand new to her and will allow her to compete at the collegiate level.
Photo of OCCB cooking instructor demonstrating using a “Pen Friend” to read the label on a vinegar bottle in the OCCB teaching kitchen. Photo by Feral
Photo at left, OCCB cooking instructor demonstrates using a “Pen Friend” to read the label on a vinegar bottle in the OCCB teaching kitchen. Photo by Feral

Another student focused on cooking skills with the goal of going into the culinary industry after high school. His education with OCB went beyond cooking: he learned time management, communicating his needs/ expectations, and professionalism in the kitchen. As a final assignment the student compiled recipes in both Braille and print for beginner cooks and shared them with fellow SWEPees.

We were so pleased that the SWEP students demonstrated increased abilities over the summer, and look forward to working with them next year!
Photo of Char Hawkins, Café Manager. Char wears a leopard print shirt and a black apron with a blue South Falls Cafe logo. She stands in front of a rough-hewn stone call and richly polished wooden doorframe of the historic building that houses the cafe.
Photo at left, Char Hawkins, Café Manager. Cheerfully smiling under wisps of wavy white hair, Char wears a crisp black apron smartly printed with the brand-new South Falls Café logo. She stands in front of a rough-hewn stone wall and richly polished wooden doorframe of the historic building housing her Café. 

Memorial Day weekend 2021 brought crowds of lockdown-weary travelers to the newly reopened South Falls Café at Silver Falls State Park. Char Hawkins, Business Enterprise Program (BEP) Café Manager, was ready to serve them.
The soaring temperatures and renewed interest in outdoor activities created a demand for food and drink that came as a welcome surprise to Char, a 23-year food service veteran. Since re-opening, South Falls Café has been steadily breaking all previous BEP café sales records! 

While many of the travelers passing through the park are from out of state, locals are also making the Café a culinary destination.
Check out the August issue of Mount Angel's publication Our Town to read "Falls Café Opens Under New Management," a story about Char's new venture: either online on Page 5, or as a PDF.
A white haired senior woman holds a large magnifying glass to a book's page.
Photo at right: white-haired senior woman reads a book with the aid of a large magnifying glass.

Through the pandemic, many of our Independent Living clients chose to defer services until it was safe again for our staff to meet with them in their homes. We resumed in-person visits in June, and have now surpassed our pre-pandemic average, seeing 65 referrals each month!

Our Rehabilitation Instructors operate from five locations around the state, busily providing a range of services from Functional Low Vision Assessments to determine the most suitable magnifiers, to teaching OIB (older individuals who are blind) clients how to walk safely using a long white cane. In clients’ homes, instructors remediate lighting, glare, and fall-risk issues.

The pandemic brought about new practices that have increased platforms for service:
  • Video conferencing on clients' preferred platforms for those with the tech capability or access through friends and family.
  • Telephone.
  • Outdoors in patios, garages, or local parks.
  • Indoors in their homes when clients are comfortable.
Before each meeting we review COVID-19 symptoms and discuss the requirements for face coverings and physical distancing.
We are so happy to be back working with these Oregonians to assist them in remaining or regaining their independence!
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