Mirrix Looms are made in a pretty magical place called Sunshine House that provides supported employment for people with physical or mental disabilities. Sunshine House’s goal is to help people become more integrated into their community and to give them a place where they can be successful.
We interviewed Everett, one of the amazing individuals who makes Mirrix Looms at Sunshine House, about his job, his disability, his service dog Sunny and how he ended up at Sunshine House.
Please give us a little background about yourself:
I grew up in Northwest Ohio, in the tiny crossroads town of Roselms, where nothing ever happened that didn’t get found out. It was back in the day of party lines, rotary dial telephones, when towels and wash cloths came free inside the laundry soap, when my Dad howled at the 50 cent gas price and I got to watch Neil Armstrong bounce across the lunar surface.
I graduated from High School in 1983 and attended a local college where I majored in Natural Systems (Science).
My first job out of college came in 1987, working in a Mushroom Lab for Campbell Soup Company, where I cultured various mushroom strains.
Then I went back to school for Nuclear Medicine around 1993. The funniest thing I remember about this time period was my job interview once graduating. We were expecting our 3rd child and my wife was in the early stages of labor, so she sent me on to the interview knowing there was plenty of time. She said I should just call home and check in periodically. This was a fairly long interview, talking to several people. When it came time to talk to the Radiologist, I asked if I could borrow his phone. I could tell by his expression that he thought this rather strange, so I simply explained that I needed to check in with my wife who was in labor. The Radiologist said that we could postpone the interview if I needed to get going. I calmly replied that we should continue the interview. Later, he told me that he declared the job was mine because anyone who would come in for an interview while their wife was in labor, yet remain calm, deserved to be hired!
I stayed in Nuclear Medicine, moving from Ohio to Pennsylvania, to Wisconsin. It was a very in demand position, so I had the freedom to move around wherever we wanted to go.
Although I live in beautiful Door County, Wisconsin, I last worked in Aberdeen, South Dakota at a hospital there. It was a great opportunity to help start up a new hospital. So for several months, I trained for this purpose, but just before the hospital opened, my medical problems became so severe that I had to be hospitalized.
So, in 2012 I had brain surgery for Trigeminal Neuralgia, which caused debilitating facial pain. 2013 saw another head surgery.
I was starting to feel like I was recovering from the second surgery when I suddenly lost my central vision one day in the summer of 2014 due to Macular Dystrophy, an eye condition where blood vessels in the back of the eye rupture and cause scarring.
What exactly did your nuclear medicine career entail and why do you think a sighted person could not persist in that industry?
My Nuclear Medicine work involved injecting radioactive pharmaceuticals into people and watching where the radioactivity collected under a specialized camera. This field takes advantage of how the organs function. For example, a radioactive medicine can be injected that the kidneys filter out and excrete. The camera can visualize this process and come up with a graph that shows the kidney function over time. Other types of scans include lungs scans for blood clots, gallbladder scans and scans looking for cancer.
In Nuclear Medicine, good hand/eye coordination is essential because you are starting IV’s, injecting radioactive materials and doing image manipulation on a computer. And, I don’t think a patient would appreciate a blind person trying to start an IV: ” Ok Sir, can you tell me where your arm is?”
What was your experience after leaving that career finding new employment? In other words, what is the employment world like for a person with a sight disability?
Over 75% of visually impaired individuals are either unemployed or underemployed, and the percentages aren’t much better in other countries.
There is a preconception that blind people can’t work a job, so all kinds of excuses are found by potential employers to not hire you. I had a job shadow set up at a production facility. My case worker and I showed up at the designated time and promptly sat for 40 minutes waiting. When the supervisor finally came out into the foyer, he took one look at me and started talking to my case worker. “ He can’t come back here. He might fall into the machinery. He might break a leg or an arm.” I told him that if safety was a concern, I could hold onto my case worker’s arm and not get close to the machinery. He said, “Then you couldn’t see the equipment and that would defeat the whole point. No, you can’t come back.”
Many job opportunities are lost this way. Potential employers won’t even let you in the door when they find out you are blind. Their minds are made up, and they are not even interested in what your abilities are.
I have blind friends who have been seeking work for years. If they are lucky enough to get an interview, it almost always ends with, “We’ll call you if we need anything else.” They seldom do.
I know of a single mother who is blind and has been looking for a job for 18 years. It’s always the same closed doors and the same going through the motions if you do manage an interview.
How long have you been working at Sunshine House?
I have been working at the Sunshine House since July 2018.
What is your roll exactly in the creation of Mirrix products?
My role is to help assemble the looms. If I can feel the parts, I can visualize in my mind where they go and can put them together.
I am pleased to be a small part of the loom making process. Others fabricate the parts in the machine shop. I kind of like my fingers where they are, so I’m not in there.
I greatly appreciate my job at the Sunshine House because the staff there make it a very positive atmosphere. They actually help me to succeed by making adaptive equipment for me that makes it easier to do a particular task.
Everyone has been very supportive of me at the Sunshine House, which is a far cry from what is found in most other work settings for the visually impaired.
The mentally handicapped clients are fun to work with. They don’t have any pretense about them, they just are who they are. That is very refreshing!
Any information about family/friends you would like to share:
I have been married for 31 years and have 8 children, ranging in age from 30 down to 8. (3 girls, 5 boys)
Could you tell us about the experience of you and Sunny training together and what it means for you, Everett, to have a guide dog assist you through life?
To me, having a Guide Dog means the freedom of going almost anywhere you want, and doing it more safely. In order to get a Guide Dog you have to have good orientation and mobility skills. You have to know where you are and how to navigate the world with your cane.
I became extremely frustrated with running into everything. The cane was doing its job, but I wanted to walk as I used to, not playing the guessing game of what have I just hit.
Also, the more active I became in getting out, the more chances I was taking. I realized that there were times when I could not be confident of traffic patterns due to wind or noise. So I was making road crossings when I wasn’t absolutely sure it was safe to do so. I knew I needed a Guide Dog to keep me safe because sooner or later the law of averages was going to catch up to me when crossing the road.
Having a Guide Dog frees up your mind tremendously, because you have put your trust in the Guide to navigate the obstacles and keep you safe. You can concentrate on where you are, your route, etc.
When I first met Sunny, I was full of anticipatio and so was she! The instructor brought her into my room and promptly left. Sunny ran all over the room, jumped up on the bed and mauled me with slobbers. I remember thinking, “What have I done? Well, you’re in it now!”
Guiding Eyes for the Blind school at Yorktown Height, NY lasts for 3 weeks. The dogs are already trained, it’s us humans that need the instruction on how to work with them! So over the 3-week course, we learn grooming, feeding and the commands to use with our dogs. The classes involve lecture time and time out exploring the local towns and cities with our dogs.
In class, they try really hard to expose us to real life situations in navigating through unfamiliar territory. We learn how to navigate steps, crosswalks, escalators, elevators, malls, grocery stores, etc..
Attending Guiding Eyes for the Blind has been the most fulfilling event of my life because it allowed me to regain much of my freedom without the fear of injury or annoyance of running into stuff.
What is causing your visual impairment? How much sight do you still have?
As mentioned already, my loss of vision is due to progressive Macular Dystrophy, where blood vessels burst in the back of the eye and cause permanent scarring. I still have some peripheral vision in the left eye so I can tell if something is moving but not what it is. I still have light and dark perception in both eyes; however, the right eye is considerably less perceptive.
What issues do you two find arise when out and about in the public?
I know some folks don’t get it that a guide dog should only be handled by his or her human and that it can be very dangerous for others to give treats, throw balls, give commands, etc. Could you please enlighten us to the rules surrounding guide dogs that will serve to keep you and Sunny safe.
Yes, some people can be quite a problem. But thankfully, the vast majority are respectful, but just may not know how to act around a Guide Dog.
Here are the basic rules on how to treat a Guide Dog team.
1. Do not attempt to pet the Guide or Service Dog.
2. Do not sneak food to the dog behind the handler’s back.
3. Do not speak to the dog.
4. Do not entice the dog by staring at it or by using motions.
Some individuals will try to do these things to the dog without the handler’s consent. They feel that the blind person is making up unnecessary rules.
On the contrary, the rules are in place to protect the Guide Dog and its handler. Petting, feeding, speaking to and even staring at a Guide/ Service Dog only serves to distract the dog from its true purpose: to serve and protect its human. Someone may gratify themselves by petting, feeding, etc, but what they are really doing is teaching the dog to seek out attention rather than paying attention.
For example, a distracted dog could fail to notice a dangerous situation if he/she is busy seeking such attention.
I should probably mention that some Guide Dog handlers are reluctant to even give out their dog’s name to passers-by, because once the name is known, it can be used to distract the dog.
One of my friend’s even had someone grab her Guide Dog by the collar so he could pet it. When my friend objected, the man told her off and said to let the dog be a dog. She had to tell the man to stop harassing them, which finally got his attention enough to make him leave. These kind of people are the worse. They feel entitled to pet your dog even though you tell them no.
Again, most people are good at heart and will respect it when you tell them no. I try to always explain that these things cause the dog to become distracted and not do his/her job.
I must say that my experience has been very positive by in large. The community and culture in which I live is a factor in my success. Some of my friends have reported some very opposite responses to their Guide Dog than what I have had.
You have a very active facebook page (or Sunny does but you manage it) and blog. How do you “read” what is on the page and do you type or use voice recognition software to write.
Very good question. I use text to speech and speech to text options on my iPhone. Apple has built-in accessibility options in settings called VoiceOver, which allows me to navigate through the various screens. So instead of clicking a button, I use finger swipes and touches to navigate.
I can type some because I have the keyboard memorized, but I often have some hilarious bloopers.
I also have some awesome Apps on my phone designed for blind people. One App allows me to take pictures of printed material, and it will read it to me. Another App has volunteers that come on live so they can describe what you are pointing the phone’s camera at.
For the blog, I ask my children about pictures I want to use, and if I run into any snags. The younger generation makes it look so easy. (Sigh.)
Anything else you would like to add about you and Sunny?
Yes, Sunny saved me from serious injury (or worse) while I was still at Guiding Eyes!
We were doing night practice in a local town and Sunny was guiding me across a crosswalk. We were over half way across when a car ran the stop sign and into the crosswalk. Sunny quickly put it into reverse and pulled me backward. The man driving the car had the audacity to blame Sunny by saying, “Shouldn’t the dog have stopped?” My instructor had jumped forward as Sunny had pulled me back, so she handled this errant driver expertly. “Look here Buddy, this gentleman isn’t under your car right now BECAUSE his dog stopped, “ she exclaimed. He tried to continue the excuses but the instructor waved goodbye as she firmly said “You can go now. Just Go!”
I learned two things that night. Trust my dog completely and don’t mess with an upset Italian lady. They tend to get somewhat animated.
Sunny grew up in New York and did more than a year with a Volunteer Puppy Raiser maned Hadley. After passing numerous tests, she went back to the school for training.
Sunny will be 3 on March 26.