Sharon Fridley sitting in a chair, smiling.
Sharon Fridley

Intro: Good I&R specialists are a critical part of the equation when someone is looking for help, researching options and putting together a plan to get back on their feet after vision loss. With careful attention to detail and highly-refined listening skills this job puts you on the front lines where you can steer people in the right direction and help them to avoid common pitfalls.

The Story: Greetings! My name is Sharon Fridley and for many years I was employed by the West Virginia Division of Rehabilitation Services as a Program Consultant for the Information and Referral Service for the Blind.

Several years before, I was teaching Braille at an Adjustment center when a colleague brought a job announcement to my attention. I decided to apply, and, before long, I was notified by my supervisor that I had been chosen as the coordinator for this new program, an Information and Referral service (I&R) geared specifically for the blind and visually impaired.

For those of you who are very young you may chuckle at the old type of technology I first used on my job. My employer had purchased one of the first talking computers, which was a desktop unit that ran on proprietary software which was loaded on a tape cartridge, and the information which I laboriously typed into that prototype database was stored on an eight-inch floppy diskette. Although primitive by today’s standards, the speech was great and I enjoyed the freedom of being able to look up information while callers waited on hold.

Since the first phone call more than 20 something years ago, I have fielded many questions on Social Security, Braille literacy, rehabilitation services, special education, and adaptive technology. That first computer system was long ago replaced by DOS and then by the latest version of Windows. When I obtained my first Braille notetaker, I began to utilize it to maintain a comprehensive database where I could conveniently store and retrieve information to help answer the queries and keep track of the calls that came in.

By the time I retired I was using a computer equipped with screen access software to write referrals, compose correspondence and access the internet but, I still take notes with my beloved old reliable Perkins Brailler. Although most of the questions came in by phone, as the internet quickly expanded and caught on a continually increasing number arrived via email.

At the end of the day, I took a lot of pride in knowing that I had done my best to help each caller. Anytime I could solve a challenging problem to everyone’s satisfaction it brought me immense gratification. It still does.

Once a prospective employer called to discuss a job applicant. He was reluctant to hire a blind computer programmer because, as he said, “What if it doesn’t work out?” “Treat him as if he were sighted, I advised. If a person who is blind or visually impaired is job ready and provided with the right accommodations they should be fine. The job placement must have “worked out” well because that programmer is still employed by the caller.

When I spoke with consumers, I usually told them that I was blind, especially if I thought that I could encourage a newly-blinded person by discussing coping strategies or adjustment issues related to impaired vision.

During the course of a month I fielded about 300 to 400 calls. Some inquiries were simple, while others were much more complex and, consequently, time-intensive. But, one of the best aspects of my job was that I could often advocate on behalf of individuals who found themselves confronted by very difficult circumstances. Of course, the down side of that equation is that callers could sometimes become irate if I was unable to meet an unrealistic expectation.

I think that good I&R specialists are a critical part of the equation when looking for help, researching options and putting together a plan to get back on one’s feet. We are like the front line defense and work to steer people in the right direction. Things to keep in mind if you decide to go into this line of work are that careful attention to detail and highly-refined listening skills are a requirement, while good receptive and expressive communication ability is also a prerequisite. In addition, it is imperative that you have a thorough working knowledge of adaptive technology. But my best tip is creating and keeping a reliable network of professional contacts with whom you may exchange information and ideas. This will be as valuable as money in the bank!

The Contributor: Sharon Fridley