As we celebrate Black History month, it is important that we acknowledge the many connections between the civil rights movement and the disability rights movement. Similar to African-Americans, persons with disabilities have fought for full participation and inclusion in society. Though great leaders have charted the course of both movements, it was the collective impact of ordinary people deciding to get involved that contributed to making life better for everyone.
It was 12 years ago during a conversation with friends about the persistent high unemployment rate among minorities who are blind that I was inspired to found Our Space Our Place, Inc. (OSOP), an after school and career exploration program for middle and high school youth who are blind. Two-thirds of people who are blind and want to work are unemployed. Our goal is to change this reality for future generations.
By offering a year-round program, we provide a place where being blind or having low vision is not a student’s defining characteristic, and we allow students to explore and develop important and valued aspects of their personalities, talents, and skills. In doing so, we fulfill our mission to prepare students who are blind to be involved in activities in their local community, develop friendships, lead activities, gain self-confidence, and explore career and educational options.
Because blindness is a low incidence disability, individuals who are blind are often socially isolated and must regularly deal with the negative perceptions of their blindness on their own. We purposely house our program at a community center in order to facilitate social integration and demonstrate that blind people can and do pursue activities similar to those without disabilities.
We develop partnerships with organizations in the community, which enables us to create allies and expand our students’ involvement in the community. For example, we developed a partnership with Create-A-Cook to hold cooking classes for our students. When we began the relationship, Create-A- Cook had never worked with people who were blind and were unsure whether the classes would proceed successfully. Today, Create-A-Cook’s chefs are confident in their ability to teach people who are blind to cook, and in turn, our students have learned and have grown in their confidence to prepare meals.
We have found internships for our students at the Braille and Talking Book Library. Working at the library gave one of our students his first job experience and taught his family that he could use paratransit by himself to get to and from work. At the outset, this student and his family were unsure about his future, but are now able to envision a successful path. OSOP facilitates opportunities that will allow our students to live full and active lives in their communities.