ADA 30th Anniversary 2020
Leon Woods, Shaw AFB, SC
Yes, I have a disability, but I don’t consider it a life stopper.
You see, I wasn’t born blind or vision impaired. It came about when I contracted bacterial meningitis in 2003. At the time, I was a manager with the waste disposal company in Shaw AFB, SC. When on a trip back home from Savannah, GA I started experiencing severe neck pain and headaches which were interfering with my ability to carry out daily job operations. Within a couple of days, I was hospitalized and stayed at Toumey Medical Center in Sumter, SC for several weeks before being moved to MUSC in Charleston, spending several months in two different hospitals. After 4 or 5 surgeries, I started to lose my vision. One night I was talking to my brother and everything just started getting dark, like someone was dimming the lights. I called for the nurse and explained what was going on. After running several tests over the next few days, the doctor came in and explained that my vision would return to normal after a short time.
A short time passed and my vision came back to what it is now, which is called low vision. Low vision is hazy, like being caught in a fog. This impacts my ability to see small writing, faces at a distance, my depth perception, all the fine details, and my ability to drive. I was an OTR (over the road) truck driver and my poor vision made it impossible for me to keep my CDL (Commercial Driver’s License). I had to surrender the license that I had worked so hard to get. This was a low point. It was like my independence had been taken away. I thought my life was over.
I was released from the hospital when the doctors determined the bacterial meningitis was cured. During my stay in the hospitals, my companion of 9 years (who later became my wife) stayed right at my side. She and our children were my biggest supporters along with my parents and siblings. But the sinking feeling that my life had changed forever remained. I sank into a severely deep depression. I sat at home for over a year wondering what I was going to do. When everyone else went to work I was home alone. Let me tell you – cabin fever is real!
One day I was talking to a social worker that visited me at home. I told her I was tired of sitting at home and I knew there had to be something I could do. She told me about a friend of hers that worked with the Disabilities for the Blind in Columbia, SC. When I got in touch with them, they connected me with a representative of a company that hired Blind and Visually Impaired people. Her name was Chris Silva. I called Chris at the Base Supply Center on Shaw AFB and she asked if I could get on the base. I told her yes. She gave me directions to the store, and we set up a time to meet face to face.
I met with Chris in early 2005 and she put me through a battery of test to determine my limitations and capabilities. She recommended me for hire by LCI. I’ve been here 15 years now all because of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the JWOD, and the Ability One Program. I feel strongly that this opportunity saved my life. Because of LCI’s commitment to provide meaningful employment to those who are blind or visually impaired, I feel I have purpose. Not everyone that works here is visually impaired. I have met lifelong friends who started out as coworkers but have turned into family. They don’t treat me differently, as a visually impaired person, but as their equal.
Some common misconceptions that I have to deal with are the shock people get when they hear I am blind. I have known a certain customer for over 15 years. Just a couple of months ago I was explaining to her that LCI hires people who are blind and most of our stores and other facilities all have members of the BVI community working there.
She asked me, “Who in this store is blind?”
I said, “Me!”
Because of her misconceptions or preconceived notions of what a disability looks like, she was in shock. Many say I don’t act blind and that I don’t look blind. Sometimes I wonder, how are blind people supposed to look and act? To others, I go through life just like them.
People often want to go over the top to do things for me when they find out I am blind. They want to pour my juice for me, and things like that. I have to tell them I can do it. It might take me a minute to figure out how to do something on my own. Sometimes people will try to take over because it takes me an extra minute or two. This is irritating because I know I can do everything a person with sight can do, just not as quickly. If I need help, I will ask. But I wish for the opportunity to at least try.
For example, my low vision has kept me from being able to drive. But I can ride the hell out of a bicycle.
This has helped me regain some of my independence. I love riding my bike. I have the ability to ride for miles. My wife would put my bike in the back of our truck when she picked me up from work and drop me off at the corner of our road. I would ride the rest of the way home. We don’t have our truck now, so I don’t get to do that anymore. Now I ride about 14 miles on the weekends when it is nice enough.
I do not allow the fact that I am visually impaired to stop me from doing the things I like. I know I have a disability. But I do not consider myself disabled.