'The deaf/blind population is under-identified," said Susan Ruzenski, noting that by 2020, considering the aging baby boomer population, it is estimated 1.5 million people in the United States will be deaf and blind.
After working at the Helen Keller National Center for Deaf-Blind Youths and Adults for 35 years, Ruzenski, 58, became its executive director in October and has been working to get people who are deaf and blind into positions of active leadership. "We want this organization to be the model employer for people who are deaf/blind," she said.
The Sands Point center is federally funded to provide vocational rehabilitation, to help individuals go on to a wide range of careers. Dorms and apartments allow clients to transition to independence. A senior living specialist helps older people adapt to new challenges. The center and regional offices serve about 800 people a year.
What leadership positions have you given to deaf/blind people?
Our associate executive director is deaf/blind. I am mentoring him, and he will learn every aspect of this organization and become involved with how we grow and where our priorities will be. We have a national advocacy specialist, and regional representatives who are deaf/blind, and instructors. We are really trying to increase the ability for this community to be a strong voice in how this national program is implemented and how it's developed.
How do your internships work?
We have a grant where we're bringing in people who are deaf/blind from around the country to participate in internships, who are interested in working in vocational rehabilitation. They'll learn how to conduct training in technology, independent living and vocational training. They can then return to their communities and be a part of the workforce, in vocational rehab, working with peers, working with other learners who are deaf/blind.
At what careers can deaf/ blind individuals excel?
There are over 75 [employer] partners in the community we work with. The array of options is quite vast. Some individuals might have an interest in something as specific as GIS, which is geographic information systems. We've had folks interested in politics. Folks interested in woodworking built cabinetry with a kitchen craft company.
I'm trying to imagine a deaf/ blind person making a cabinet without seeing it.
You're imagining every deaf/ blind person is without any vision or hearing, but we work with a very diverse group of people. For example, there might be someone who is legally or totally blind and now they're losing their hearing.
What technologies can help?
A program, funded through the Federal Communications Commission, is providing free telecommunications equipment to people who are deaf/blind. You can connect a portable Braille display to an iPhone to send emails using Braille. They can take a picture of something written in print, and then a program or app will read the document to them, and they can receive it through voice output or they can receive it in Braille. There's another program that can identify money. You could take a picture of your bills, and apps will tell you in Braille or by vibration the denominations. There are a lot of different things that make life more accessible and allow people to receive information, to access the Internet and to communicate with others.
Each person has a team that helps?
If I have a goal of returning to work, not only do I have a vocational instructor working with me on the job, but I have my mobility instructor helping me to be able to travel safely to get to the job, to maneuver and really be able to get around in that work environment. The low-vision person goes out to see how we can make this environment optimal for you when you're working. You'll have someone in communications to see how we can use technology or communications at the workplace so you have the ability to interact and work with your co-workers and employer. It's a team of people that work collaboratively. The individual is the leader and calls the shots.
NAME: Susan Ruzenski, executive director, Helen Keller National Center for Deaf-Blind Youths and Adults in Sands Point
WHAT IT DOES:
Provides vocational rehabilitation services to youths and adults who are deaf/blind, offers professional development and supports family members.
EMPLOYEES: 129 full time (87 on Long Island); 38 part time (23 on Long Island)
REVENUE: $13.5 million