How Specialized Services Impacted My Life and Why They Need to Be Strengthened

Joe Strechay poses in front of a Helen Keller painting in AFB's New York Office.

Recently, AFB has spent a lot of time creating a series of handouts and webpages specific to the strengthening of specialized services. I am a huge supporter for specialized services, as I wouldn’t be where I am today without those services. I get a bit emotional because getting connected to vocational rehabilitation services and specialized training opened huge doors for me and allowed me to transform into a confident, independent, and skilled person.

I think back to the days prior to connecting with specialized services, during periods when I was losing large portions of my vision (I was legally blind at 19 or 20 years of age). I had not yet been referred to vocational rehabilitation (or any rehabilitation). I think back to my undergraduate years at East Carolina University. I took some night classes, and I had to memorize my path and use my feet to find curbs and such. I used to stress about traveling back after class as I was night blind. My vision degenerated pretty quickly after I turned 18. I was living my life in a state of denial and lack of understanding about my vision loss.

I finally connected with services after getting my undergraduate degree, and received training in orientation and mobility, systems and strategies in labeling, and braille. I can’t express what orientation and mobility training meant to me. The independence the use of the long white cane and other basics skills provided me is immeasurable. The skills I learned from these services provided me the confidence to push to learn more skills. I became a more confident and comfortable traveler.

Specialized services are more than orientation and mobility, and I received guidance from an experienced vocational rehabilitation counselor in New Jersey. I had been working in a job not related to my education and was underemployed. I was living just above the poverty line, no exaggeration. I learned of my passion for special education during that time, though, and I owe that to those two years working for a lower wage. I know of many who have similar stories. The guidance from that vocational rehabilitation counselor and the support of my coworkers, friends, and family helped me to move forward in my life to a new beginning.

I was speaking at the Florida AER Conference in Tallahassee about a month ago. I saw former professors and friends (many are both). One in particular made a comment during my presentation, that I am so different today from the person who arrived at Florida State University in 2003. I would totally agree. I have thought about that a lot. The specialized services that I received from the State of New Jersey and while in Florida set a base for my success in life. I get a bit teary eyed thinking that people might not receive that same training due to the loss of these specialized services from trained professionals. The professionals I worked with were trained and experienced with working with people who are blind or visually impaired. My strength and confidence as a person who is blind or visually impaired started with these initial lessons. My transformation continued as those services allowed me to receive the training I needed to be successfully employed in our field.

I will never stop telling people how important these services were to my own independence and to others in the future. The American Foundation for the Blind has created a series of webpages and handouts that provide a backbone to help defend these services. If you want to make sure that you have the tools to defend specialized services, please visit this section and explore.

I tend to mention how thankful I am to the State of New Jersey, Florida State University, and the State of Florida for allowing me to grow into the person that I am today. The initial services from the State of New Jersey opened my eyes to an independent world as a person with vision loss. I don’t even think I could picture that world prior or would have been able to grasp it.

That professor who commented was so right about my transformation. I will continue to push to become as competent and independent as possible. My journey is not over, but we have to make sure the future gets the right start with appropriate specialized services for persons who are blind or visually impaired.