Cheryl Cumings has yearned her entire adult life to hear these words: “We’re going to give you a chance.” Despite the fact that she is a graduate of both Princeton University and Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Ms. Cumings has had to prove over and over again that she can do more than answer phones. Hers is a story of persistence, hard work, and self-advocacy – a story that is more about abilities than about disability.
A case of encephalitis during her freshman year in high school caused Ms. Cumings to lose her eyesight, but thanks to her inborn tenacity and the support of her mother and brother, she did not lose her drive to succeed in spite of challenges. A summer internship in the Chicago Attorney General’s Office sparked an interest in political science and international relations, which she went on to study at Princeton. During her junior year there, she received a recruitment letter from a prominent employer, only to find when she attended the recruitment event that “they didn’t mean blind kids.” From that point, Ms. Cumings understood that the journey to meaningful employment “was not going to go smoothly.”
After landing a job at the Department of Defense in Washington, DC, Ms. Cumings made frequent lunch-hour visits to the national Peace Corps office, hoping to find a placement that would launch her intended career as an international development worker. Once again, she came up against skepticism that she would be able to do the job without getting hurt or killed as a result of her disability. Her persistence eventually paid off, and she was sent to the Dominican Republic to work at an organization run by two men with vision impairments. Her employer, who was also blind, proved to be the perfect mentor as she learned to find her way around in a foreign environment. And, she points out wryly, “I didn’t die!”
“Don’t wait for people to ask you to do work — step up and make yourself known.”
Following her marriage in 1996, Ms. Cumings came to Boston, where she worked with a vocational counselor at the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind (MCB) to find a job that would fit her qualifications and interests. While that search proved elusive, an opportunity to work for MCB on outreach and diversity initiatives opened up, and she stayed on for eight years. Effective networking led Ms. Cumings to her next job as a project manager with the Boston Partnership for Older Adults; from there she came to her current position as a project associate in the University of Massachusetts Medical School’s Office of Disability and Community Services.
Ms. Cumings has benefited from her association with the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind, which provided her with the assistive technology she requires. A scanner that converts text to speech, and a Braille printer, make it possible for her to communicate effectively, participate in meetings, and give presentations offsite.
In addition to her employment responsibilities, Ms. Cumings finds the time to help others as well. Five years ago she founded a nonprofit organization that offers an afterschool career exploration program for kids who are blind, a pursuit to which she devotes a great deal of her time outside of work. And although she claims not to be a gourmet chef herself, she cohosts, with her husband, a radio program, ‘Cooking in the Dark’ for people who are blind.
Cheryl Cumings’ advice to jobseekers with disabilities is “don’t wait for people to ask you to do work – step up and make yourself known.” And her advice for potential employers? “Stop imagining what it is like to have a disability. If the person with a disability tells you they can do something, you really should believe them and let them prove they can do the job or task at hand.”