Kathleen Dwyer-Blair had always been told she was a good listener, someone her friends could confide in. It’s a skill that has helped her become a successful psychotherapist in North Bellmore, not to mention a prominent businesswoman. But it was a pivotal episode in her teens that ultimately laid the foundation for her career.
In 1971, Dwyer-Blair had just graduated from Uniondale High School. She had been diagnosed at age 5 with retinitis pigmentosa, a rare and incurable genetic disorder that, according to the National Eye Institute, involves a breakdown and loss of cells in the retina. Her sight deteriorated gradually over the course of a decade.
At that point, she realized that she needed to learn how to use a cane. As part of her training at a local, not-for-profit institute, she met with a rehabilitation counselor who reacted with frosty indifference and a “get-over-it” attitude to Dwyer-Blair’s concerns about being thrust into a world of shadows.
“She was so stern and firm and she was lecturing me,” Dwyer-Blair recalls. “It was so invalidating. So not what I wanted to hear at that moment. This light bulb went on in my head. ‘I could do this.’ ”
She added: “I remember thinking that I could be a counselor and do it a lot better than her.”
And so she set out to do just that. Her company, Nassau Guidance & Counseling, today is a thriving psychotherapy practice that encompasses 43 therapists working in separate locations throughout Nassau and Suffolk. Her determination comes through at all times.
“The moment I met her, I could see she was a person who didn’t believe in limiting herself,” says her friend and colleague Lorraine Stidd, who moved from Long Beach to Alexandria, Virginia, last year. “I think anybody meeting Kathleen would be inspired by her,” adds Still who has known her since 2006.
Dwyer-Blair, who describes herself as legally blind, greets visitors with a smile and a handshake. She says her eyes can discern little more than light and dark. “I can tell if it’s a cloudy or sunny day,” she says. “I can tell that the rug in my office is dark and the wall is light. But that’s about it.”
She walks around her office only occasionally and subtly brushing her hand against a wall to help guide her. Her mobility and independence are aided by a Braille writer used to compile her daily to-do list and her service dog — an 8-year-old black Labrador retriever named Keegan.
As a youngster in Uniondale, Dwyer-Blair had some vision and refers to her gradual sight loss as “a blessing and a curse. A blessing because I got to see colors. I know what a sunset looks like.”
The curse, of course, was that by the time she was 17 she realized she would never see a sunset, never discern those colors again. “I struggled emotionally with not being able to see,” she recalls. “I remember refusing to bring my Braille book into algebra class. I wanted to be like everybody else.”
One of the few encouraging voices was her mother’s. “She wanted me to be independent, and she was very clear about that,” says Dwyer-Blair. “I’m so grateful for that.”
When she realized she wanted to become a counselor, Dwyer-Blair knew she would need college, something that she had been discouraged from even attempting. “I had never thought of college as a pathway to a dream,” she said. She earned her undergraduate degree in psychology at Hofstra, and went on to earn a master’s in social work at Adelphi. After completing her graduate studies in 1981, Dwyer-Blair, who became a licensed clinical social worker, began working as a therapist for the Nassau County Department of Corrections, counseling inmates who had drug and alcohol issues. Eventually, she transferred to the county’s Department of Drug and Alcohol Addiction, where she was a senior supervisor for 11 years.
A THRIVING BUSINESS
In 1996, she was ready for something new; something that would involve less administrative work and more of what she really enjoyed doing — working with patients. “I loved the clinical work, loved my clients,” Dwyer-Blair says. “I decided to take a leap of faith.”
With the help of a reader, she searched the yellow pages (“That’s how people found things back then,” she says jokingly) and discovered a small therapy practice called Nassau Guidance & Counseling. Seeing patients full-time, she thrived. Two years later, the owner of Nassau Guidance, seeking to retire, asked her if she wanted to buy the business.
“My first inclination was ‘No,’ ” she said. But her then friend and now husband Michael Blair encouraged her to reconsider. (They got married in 2005.)
Blair, who met Kathleen through mutual friends, says his confidence that she could run a business stems from an essential part of her makeup.
“She has such an innate positive attitude, and everything flows from that,” he says. “You go ‘How could that be? To go through life and not see and be so challenged in so many ways and maintain that positivity?’ But she does. She’s an amazing person.”
Two decades later, Dwyer-Blair says that Nassau Guidance & Counseling serves the mental health needs of about 600 people at any given time. The therapists affiliated with her organization help patients; the North Bellmore office handles insurance, billing and scheduling.
“It is rare for a therapist to be well-equipped as a business person,” says Stidd, who worked for Nassau Guidance from 2008 to 2017. “She doesn’t miss the smallest detail about how to run a business. And she does that in a way that is really respectful and compassionate. That’s one reason I stayed with her network so long.”
She cites as an example, meetings she had with Dwyer-Blair to discuss retention of clients. “Kathleen was aware of every client I worked with and the length of time they stayed in therapy,” Stidd says. “She took a personal interest in what occurred for the client as well as providing me with insight and ideas for ways to support and retain those who may leave therapy before they complete their goals.”
In the end, of course, her business is therapy: helping people sort out their emotional issues. Therapists are, by nature and training, good listeners; but Dwyer-Blair dismisses the assumption that people without sight have superior auditory abilities. “I get that all the time,” she says with a smile. “ ‘You must hear better, because you can’t see.’ My hearing is no better than anyone else’s. But I’m using it more.”