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A Blessing in Blindness

October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM). This month we celebrate the contributions of workers with disabilities and educate about the value of a workforce inclusive of their skills and talents. On the second Thursday in October, we also observe World Sight Day, a global event meant to draw attention on blindness and vision impairment. I thought this would be a good time to sit down with an old friend and colleague of mine, who recently went public with his disability.

I lived in Los Angeles from 2003 to 2005 after college pursuing a career in screenwriting. Like many writers and actors looking for their opportunity, I worked at a job that would hopefully lead me to some “connections.” For me, this job was the now defunct Sports Club/LA, a fitness club to the stars such as Adam Sandler, Shaq and Tom Cruise’s ex-wife, Katie Holmes. It wasn’t the celebrities that I remember most, it’s the friendships I’ve made during that time.

One of those friendships was with Ayinde Waring, a salesperson and talented writer, who I believe came up with the idea for the television show “The League,” but that’s another story. Three things I remember about young Ayinde was - he took his job very seriously, he always smelled nice and he was a positive human being. The one thing I did not know about Ayinde was that he was born with Stargardt's Disease. I found out via an article he wrote and shared on Facebook late last year. Stargardt's Disease is a macular degenerative disease, identified in young adults. It is a genetic disorder and scientists have not found out what causes the disease. There is no cure for it and it will eventually cause the loss of a person’s central vision. “My vision has progressively gotten worse so even things that I could perform a couple of years ago, I'm visually unable to do now,” Ayinde add. “For me personally, I am legally blind, though I can “see,” but there are certain limitations. I cannot drive or operate machinery and cooking can be a challenge. I cannot always recognize people's faces. Imagine if you covered one side of your eyes and were forced to look ahead with the uncovered eye. Then try and see what's on the covered eye side. Something like that.”

I worked closely with Ayinde for over a year and never noticed his disability or that his disability interfered with his work performance, but for him it was an internal obstacle. “I worked in sales for a number of years and being able to recognize my clients and input information into the computer was a challenge. I was a pretty good sales person (people person), but the program that we used on our computers did not allow for font sizes to be increased. I couldn't actually read the contracts and would have someone help me (without letting others know). I was embarrassed by my disability then. Or at least I hadn't come to grips with the fact that I am actually blessed. I struggled with seeing people on the other side of a room and being able to recognize them. They would wave and I wouldn't see them. This proved to be a problem on a number of occasions.”

Ayinde is not alone. As of 2018, one of four Americans live with a disability and seventy percent of those disabilities are hidden. Talented jobseekers and employees with disabilities struggle to find competitive employment due to lack of opportunities, stigmas, discrimination and finding the right company to grow their career with. “There were (and still are) many obstacles for me with regards to day-to-day activities and when I was looking for jobs in the workforce. I struggled with test-taking assessments on the computer or otherwise because I simply can't see the information. Also, I try and avoid counting money because now I don't always recognize the difference in bills if I can't hold them up close. If the job description ever said anything to the effect of ‘needs to be able to see well at distances,’ I knew that it wasn't for me. When I wanted to work in the Entertainment industry as a Production Assistant, I was turned down often because I couldn't drive. This blocked my entrance in being able to get the career that I wanted started. If I can't sit close to my computer to type then I would also be in trouble.” As job opportunities were getting scarce, Ayinde did what some jobseekers with disabilities do – created his own opportunity. “As my vision grew worse, I felt that I would have to create my own career by being self-employed. I started a marketing and communications consulting business with my wife and it grew. Simultaneously, I've always been a writer and have been able to earn wages from that also. I now focus on writing primarily, though we still have several clients that I work with. My visual impairment doesn't affect me at all as a writer. As a consultant, the affects were minimal most of the time.”

I’ve read a few of Ayinde’s scripts over the years and when I discovered he had Stargardts I was curious to how his writing process works. “You can literally write with your eyes closed. My wife has put large stickers on my keyboard to make it easier for me to see the letters. It helps some, but it's still a bit of a struggle if I don't place my fingers right. I tried using a large keyboard before but it just didn't feel right. I have to use a bigger than normal monitor (mine is 27" and I could actually use something bigger). It is attached to an arm on the wall so that I can pull it up close. Still sometimes it isn't close enough. I always write in larger fonts, mostly 22 or 24 and I zoom in to 300%. I use a screenwriting software called Final Draft which allows me to do this. I tend to make a lot of spelling mistakes because of my vision so my editing process normally takes a while. My wife is extremely helpful in this because she reads everything that I write and edits it for me to correct.”

Ayinde will never be defined by his disability. Similar to most people living with disabilities, he lives his life no different than anyone else. He’s a husband and father of three sons, who are all heavily involved in sports. “My time is spent with them at their various sporting events. I have to use binoculars to watch them on the field, no matter how close they are. I really enjoy being with them all. I also like to listen to music, watch movies (at times), watch football (all day), and run. I love to run. I try and do it at least four times a week. It worries my wife because of my vision, but I'm extremely careful and try and stay on roads that I can be safe on.”

Ayinde didn’t go public with his disability until he was 46. He has a hidden disability. Most around him, including me, didn’t know his day to day struggles and more importantly his accomplishments working with his disability. More confident with his disability he shares his advice for others, “I just felt like it was time to let the world know the truth. I had tried to hide my vision impairment because I didn’t want people to feel sorry for me or pass judgement on me. It is not something to be ashamed of or feel as if you're inadequate. We all have our talents and gifts and for many of us they are not dependent on our vision. I would encourage those with hidden disabilities to be honest with their employer; because often at times people and companies will help (ADA requires that they do). I encourage them to see the blessings of their blindness. For me, I hear very well and retain information rather easily. If someone tells me a minute fact about themselves I don't forget it. They too will have their gifts. And always remember, we're visually impaired, so we always see the good side of things!”

As I mentioned earlier my old friend, Ayinde was always positive and he still brings that positivity to those around him in weekly messages on Facebook to those who follow him. “My motto is ‘everything that has happened in your life has happened to get you to this exact moment in your life.’ There is a blessing in my blindness and I embrace it.”

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