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Young people who are deaf and blind plan careers at LI program

Student Ramon Ramales, center in stripes, and mentor

Student Ramon Ramales, center in stripes, and mentor Jeremy Best, right, speak with each other through interpreters Sandra Canas, left, and Jamie Forman, center, in a group discussion. Deaf and blind Long Islanders participated in the intensive Young Adult Summer Program in at the Helen Keller National Center in Sands Point on Aug. 4, 2015. Photo Credit: Jeremy Bales

Billy Pickens dreams of becoming a disc jockey. Brittany Winkleman aspires to own a design studio.

Despite being deaf and blind, both now have blueprints for a promising future -- one developed at the Helen Keller National Center in Sands Point.

Pickens and Winkleman, both 18, are attending the Young Adult Summer Program, a two-week course in life planning, self-advocacy and independent living that ends Friday.

"We want them to be independent and live their own lives and advocate for themselves," Divya Goel, a program facilitator who is also deaf and blind, said through an interpreter.

Seven students from across the country were introduced to new tools to help them navigate daily life, from guide dogs to kitchen gadgets.

During the course, they visited a hospital and a corporate office and met people like themselves who are living and working on Long Island. They also took trips, including to Manhattan and the waters of Long Island Sound.

On Tuesday, students broke into teams and worked with staff and mentors to talk about their futures.

Winkleman, of North Branch, Michigan, is quieter than some of her peers, preferring to express herself through art and design. She's applying to art school and hopes to one day open a graphic-design business.

"I can express my feelings on the paper," she said.

Questions during her session focused on the logistics of achieving her career goal. Where would she like to set up her business? How would she get to work?

For Winkleman, the answers were easy: She plans to live in a walkable urban area with mass transit options.

Pickens said he's long been interested in writing and broadcasting. People often tell him he has a good voice for radio.

"That's what everybody says, but I'm not going to get egotistic," he said, smiling.

Others in the program hadn't thought about their careers or living options before. Now they all are.

"The whole scope of jobs that a deaf-blind person could do, when deaf-blind teens see that in actual life, they realize that they can do that as well," said Christopher Woodfill, Helen Keller associate executive director. "That's huge for them."

The program also allows participants to meet other young adults facing similar challenges -- a first for Ramon Ramales, who is from Honolulu.

"I wanted to meet other deaf-blind people," Ramales, 21, said through an interpreter.The center was founded in 1967 to provide services for the deaf-blind population in the United States. Officials estimate that more than 1 million people in America have some level of both hearing and eyesight loss.

Some, like Pickens and Winkleman, rely on hearing aids. Pickens is blind, but Winkleman has limited vision.

Regardless of ability, many of the young men and women who attend the program haven't been aware of the support available to them or how to stand up for themselves, Goel said.

Pickens wanted to learn to live independently, but didn't know where the resources were in his hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina.

At the Helen Keller center, he learned to cook for himself with special tools made for deaf-blind people, such as an egg cracker.

Pickens, who plans to study communications at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte this fall, applauded the staff at the center.

"I appreciate all the help that they give me," he said.

Goel enjoys watching the students learn to support themselves and hearing their stories of triumph.

"Every time," she said, "I feel inspired by the students who come here."

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