Jul 21, 2018
Episode 5 - The Other Side of the Desk
[Start of recorded material at 00:00]
Rachel Tanenhaus: Welcome to Blinclusivity, a glimpse of disability in public health and policy. I'm your host, Rachel, and on this episode, I interview Adam Estapa, an optician who identifies as legally blind.
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Now normally, one thinks of folks who are blind or have low vision as going to the optician, and the optician as being the sighted one. What happens when somebody is on the other side of that desk, when somebody actually has a job in the profession that is supposed to be serving him? How does that work? And do people take you seriously? And what does that say about how we view people with disabilities in general?
Adam is kind enough to talk to us about this, and so I am really excited that he is our first guest on the show. I hope that you will enjoy this interview. I had a great time interviewing him. He is also very open to questions, so he lets folks know how to contact him, and you can always contact me here at email@example.com. I can pass questions along to him as well.
So let's take a listen.
Let's get started. First of all, thank you very, very much for being on Blinclusivity. I'm so excited. So can you introduce yourself, first of all.
Adam Estapa: Well, thank you for having me on tonight. My name is Adam Estapa. And I am definitely proud to say that I am a legally blind optician here in Massachusetts.
Rachel Tanenhaus: That's sort of a rare thing, isn't it? There are not a lot of legally blind opticians; is that a fair assessment?
Adam Estapa: Yeah, I would say that it's probably like a condor. There's like three of us; not very many.
Rachel Tanenhaus: How long have you been an optician, and what goes into the training for that? Because I know nothing. I've been showing up and getting glasses since I was two years old. I show up, and they magically make the glasses happen. And then I say, "Thank you." Sometimes I give them money; sometimes somebody else gives them money, and then I go away.
Adam Estapa: Okay then. Well this is going to be sort of a two-part of this story. For the first half, I was born with a visual impairment. I have macular dystrophy. So with that, what most patients know, I have partial color blindness. My periphery is super strong, but my central vision is not necessarily the best. Certain things I can see close-up; far away unless it's big and bold.
My mother, with raising five of us, which is bravo in and of itself, she decided like anybody else, "I'm going to go back to work now. I'm done raising all the kids." And she ended up getting a job first as just a -- they called it a secretary then; a receptionist. They used that, but now it's administrative assistant, but then it was called a secretary. It was the Reagan 80s, so that’s how things went, at a place called Harris Opticians in my hometown of Bexley, Ohio. And she worked there for a while, and at a point, she noticed opticianry. She was like, "This is really amazing."
So she went to the owner, his name was Gil Harris -- unfortunately, he passed away a couple weeks ago; he was a good man -- and she was like, "Yo, can you teach me this, this opticianry?" And he was like, "Absolutely." And so she apprenticed with him, and she became an optician, essentially, you could say because of me, not to take credit. And so my mom, I think it was 1986, she started to go with opticianry.
And so, being in a small town in Ohio, the optical shop/doctor's office was located like a block from the elementary school that I went to. So I would, of course, always want to see my mom after work. And it wasn’t until about 1995 where, as any other high schooler, you needed a job. I wasn’t necessarily fully employed with them, but I would always go in on the weekends and help out. And I was always curious with the machines, curious with the technology, asking Gil a thousand questions, asking my mom a thousand questions.
And so between 1995 and 2005, that ten years, I would go in and out and always hang out with my mom and see what the newest technology was, and say, "Oh, what are we doing today? What new lenses do we have? What new frames are available?" And so it was through that constant dipping your -- I wouldn't say toes, but whole feet into the water of the optical industry, it was always a part of me. But I was always able to understand.
But it seemed that there was never really a disabled person working in it.
And now we come to part two, which is more my mainstream with opticianry. This was actually a funny story. Forever, my mom was my optician. She would get me the glasses and fit me with my prescription. And I'm very lucky to say, I'm very fortunate that my prescription has not changed in my 37 years on this earth. It's still the same prescription since birth.
Rachel Tanenhaus: That is amazing to me. That just blows my mind. My vision loss is not progressive. It is stable, but I also have all the usual things that people have like astigmatism. So that does change. The idea of having the same prescription forever is, that is a superpower.
Adam Estapa: That is pretty amazing. It's also the amazement of the ophthalmologist and the optometrists who were able to ask you the right questions. As someone with a disability, we need to be a little bit more fine-tuned. Kudos to the optometrists who decide to become low-vision specialists.
And so back to my main story here. My mom sends in new glasses for me to check out, why not? It's just like when someone says, "Oh, I bought you some new pants or sweaters to try on." It's like, "Oh, mom." My mom was pretty good at the style of glasses, I'll say that. And she brings them in, and I'm like, "Oh man, I've got to go get these adjusted."
Well, the endless, boundless knowledge of my wife, Rachel, who -- she literally said it this way: Adam, you can't always go to your mommy for your glasses. Strong point, because we're now married in our early 30s, so that was a good point. So therefore, I go like anybody else to my local optical shop to get these glasses fitted. The prescription is already in them. And I go in, walk through the door, and I think right off the bat, no one says, "Hello," or, "Welcome." That obviously is not a good sign from the beginning, so obviously, that's not too good. The optician comes up and states, "What can I do for you?" And I was like, "Can you please adjust these glasses for me? I know I didn’t get them from here, but they're just not fitting well." And I put them on, and he flat out says in a very "clearly I'm wasting his time" voice, "Well, they look just fine to me."
And it's like, "You're not the one wearing it." And two, I'm like, "Take a closer look." And sure enough, when I had to go somewhere else, they were like, "Yeah, this clearly didn’t fit." But at the very beginning, he couldn't care less of how it fit for someone. I even mention that I'm legally blind, and he still didn't care. He was like, "Yeah, sure."
And I needed sunglasses. So he made clip-ons for me. And at this point, he said, "You know, can we make them darker? I'm photosensitive with my disability?" Even though I know for a fact, I have worked with labs that do it, he was like, "No, they can only go so dark, so much." I'm telling him all my reasons. At the time, I'm not being mean back; I'm just saying my medical condition. And he's like, "Yep, um-hmm, yep." And he's not looking at me. He's just typing this order in on the computer.
Rachel Tanenhaus: Right. Team photosensitivity right here. If I could go around with a bag on my head, I would totally do it. But that is apparently frowned upon in most social circles.
Adam Estapa: And too, you're right. With the sunglasses, my mother would in fact go to the lab and say, "Okay, this is a special patient. He's my son. He need to add a coating of tint on top of the polarization layer." Polarization eliminates the glare. So labs can do it; it may be an extra process, but they'll do it. It's just like a custom body shop, or anything. If you ask them, they will do it. But of course, this shop is like, "Yeah, no, I just don't really want to do it."
Rachel Tanenhaus: Yeah, and I think a lot of health care providers -- and I feel like opticians are health care providers in a sense. I think a lot of health care providers forget that it is also a customer service industry.
Adam Estapa: No, I completely agree and that is very true. I think that a lot of optical shops have lost their way. A lot of them, they do good; it's part of our capitalist society. There is nothing wrong with it, where they go -- but it's just that I feel that we've gotten off track. We've gotten to a point where it's become more retail rather than medical.
And it was later that day that I'm just going for a walk to the grocery store and I'm just so frustrated. I'm like, "I would never have done that to a patient. My mother would have never done that. You know what? I'm going back to school. I'm going to be an optician. That's it. I've had it."
And so me and my wife go and look up, and there is a great opticianry, the Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology; the head professor there, Blair Wong, who himself is visually impaired, and that just blew my mind right there. And I go to school, tell them I'm legally blind and want to be an optician, and they're like, "Yeah, come on in. Have a sit-down. Let's learn." It wasn't, "What are you doing here?" It was, "Let's sit, let's learn. Let's get this guy a degree and show him to the world, because he's going to do spectacular things like the rest of the students here."
And this was 2013. And in 2015, I graduated with my degree. And I am ABOC certified and NCLE certified. ABO stands for American Board of Opticianry. You have to take a test for it. You have to study for it, just like any other medical profession, so that means you know what you're doing. And the other is called National Contact Lens Examination certified; I took it, passed it. You have to know all the things of how you're going to help these patients if there's an accident. How do you do certain base curves; index of refraction; Abbe value -- all these fancy medical terms --
Rachel Tanenhaus: Physics is awesome.
Adam Estapa: Physics is awesome, and light rays are awesome -- to figure all this out.
That's where I'm, getting back to my point -- a lot of retail places, again, it's just about selling the frame. The frame is nothing more than a vessel that carries the prescription. The frame can be awesome, that's true. It can feel good. There's nothing wrong with that. It suits our personalities. But what matters to me is the lenses. The lenses are what helps us live. It helps us go around and live.
Rachel Tanenhaus: It makes us go.
Adam Estapa: Exactly. Lenses make us go.
Rachel Tanenhaus: I guess for me, one of the really interesting things about this story is the reception that you got when you went to school. For me, my background is I'm a public health professional, and I went to public health school and got my degree. And there's still very much this idea of people with disabilities as being an outcome rather than a population.
There aren’t that many people with disabilities working in public health. One of the reasons for that is that it's really hard to sit in a classroom all day and hear about people trying to prevent you. I got out of grad school in 1999, but when I went to grad school, you never heard the word "disability" without the word "prevention" after it in public health. And it was kind of an awkward thing. Interventions did not have a lot in them about being accessible or about serving people with disabilities. "People with disabilities" were what happened when you did it wrong.
And so for me it's really interesting hearing that you went to the school, and they were like, "Yeah, let's do this," because they didn’t see you as the consumer or the product or any of those things. It was a matter of -- and I feel like that's really important. I believe very strongly in the mantra or the motto of, "Nothing about us without us," and I think that in order to serve a population, you have to have folks from that population represented there. So I think that that is really an important thing.
I recognize that it helped that the person in charge of the program also had low vision, but do you ever encounter anything in the field where they're a little surprised to see you on that side of the desk?
Adam Estapa: Absolutely. Unfortunately, the answer is yes. And this is where things actually start to get very interesting. Just like any job, when you first get out after graduation or during school, regardless of field, you're going to hit a lot of professional turbulence, regardless of your practice. I worked at many optical shops in the two years I was at school. It made my résumé look very choppy. When I would interview, they asked me that, and I flat out would say, "I’m legally blind." And they saw that as a liability, not an asset.
And that was very disheartening because always remember this: all humans make mistakes. It happens. It's like, "Oops, I forgot to staple those papers together when I put it in for the boss for that project." But when a visual impairment person makes a mistake, the person assumes, "You made that mistake because you're legally blind. Therefore, because you're legally blind, you're going to keep making mistakes. You're not going to learn." Which is not true.
Rachel Tanenhaus: I think that happens with a lot of marginalized communities. I think that when people presume -- when someone inadvertently does something that happens to feed into the stereotype; when they were expecting you to be Mr. Magoo, and then you make a mistake, then they're like, "Look, dude is Mr. Magoo. I have data of one thing." And I think that that happens a lot, something analogous happens with people of color. I think it happens with people with disabilities all the time. I think it happens with folks who don’t fit into traditionally acceptable relationship molds. For a long time, and probably still, the LGB community, such as it is, every time a same-sex relationship broke up, they were like, "Yeah, well, they can't keep it together." Or whatever happens with poly folks all the time: if a polyamorous relationship ends, they're like, "Yeah, well, that stuff never works," rather than -- but nobody says it about what's considered the mainstream or the default.
So I feel like that's something that people with disabilities come up against when we go into the job market that makes it that much harder; that is, if you showed up -- how many sighted people do we know that went to work one day with the wrong shoe on? Every professional has one story in their life where they put on the wrong color shoe or the wrong sock or something like that. But when we do it, it's because we were blind, right?
Adam Estapa: Oh, absolutely. That is definitely correct. It's kind of like -- there was already a mark against us when we already came in. In the medical professional side, I have had fellow opticians tell me, no joke, "Oh, you need to see to work in this business." I started crying, I won't lie. I cried, and I had to excuse myself. And that hurt. The point was that that's just not fair.
However, the general public saw that as amazing. And they would always say this, "Oh, so you know how to help people? You understand them?" And then it's like, "Oh my god. This is someone who's just coming in needing glasses, and they get it. The general public gets it, but the medical side doesn't get it.
Rachel Tanenhaus: I think that's a thing. They call it the medical model of disability for a reason. We are often viewed as a problem, or as "the" problem. We're trying to fix you in this room; what are you doing here? I have had people come up to me on the job and say -- when I need x, y, and z to be accessible -- they say, "Well we didn’t make that accessible because it was for professionals only." And I like my job very much, but not so much as I would do it for free. I am not a volunteer. I am a professional.
There is this presumption that you stay on your side of -- we have to be in the position of being helped. We cannot be the person doing the helping, right? That is so frustrating to have heard that.
Adam Estapa: I've always been told, and I believe this myself, that we as humans generally get uncomfortable when we're around things we don’t understand. So we're left with two options when we don’t understand: we either attack it, or we embrace it fully; as I tell people I work with, "You have to trust me." I trust me, I know what I'm doing. Both brain and brawn, I know what I'm doing. And having found a place right now where they were like, "Your disability is an asset. It's not a liability." This is the CEO who said this. He is an amazing person who said this, over at Boston Laser. This guy was incredible, the CEO; as well as the doctors. It's like there were finally a group of individuals who get it, who have seen it, and they were like, "This gentleman can help patients."
Rachel Tanenhaus: And that’s the thing. I think that one of the things that we need in the world of healthcare, and in the world of retail as well, is empathy. But when you work next to somebody who has the disabilities of the people you're serving every day, then they are a whole person. You are much more likely to see them as a whole person. And I think it makes a huge difference that you went somewhere that recognized that; that you went to school somewhere that recognized that from the beginning and that you are in fact working somewhere that recognizes that.
Blind people are one of the least employed groups of people in this country, for sure.
Adam Estapa: Absolutely.
Rachel Tanenhaus: And that has not changed with the advent of the ADA. Can you talk a little bit about your experiences in school, and working with somebody who was already in the field who had similar experiences to yours and got it, knowing from the beginning that someone was always going to get it?
Adam Estapa: It feels as if a couple of tons has been lifted off of your head, as well as your chest. You can skip the BS and get to work, and it feels absolutely amazing to know that it's like, okay, all of this anxiety and drama of a disability has now been taken out of the equation. You can actually focus on seeing that your mathematical calculations are correct. What posture do we need to help the patient to be in order to see the progressive lenses correctly? What tint of sunglasses so the sun doesn’t bother them? You feel abled; you feel "normal" when that equation has been taken out of the equation.
Rachel Tanenhaus: I think that's it. There's not a social model thing that's going to make me able to read tiny print or whatever, or make me able to drive. But I think a lot of what actually is disabling for us about our disability that technically "handicaps" us about our disabilities is the environment and the people, the attitudinal barriers, because the situation could have gone totally differently, right? It could have gone the other way. And I think that that is a lot of what happens. It is exhausting when you have to worry about those things, and that is the default. It is the default that when you go out into the world -- and I'm not trying to be like doom and gloom, the world is a terrible place and hates us all; I don't mean that in that way.
But you can't walk into the room assuming that people get it, because statistically speaking, that's less likely, if you don’t already know them. And so that kind of exhaustion that happens when you are looking for a job, when you are trying to establish a career, is something that I think a lot of folks don't get, but is a bigger barrier to me, I know, then whether or not I can read the thing they just handed me. There is assistive technology to deal with that, but there is not assistive technology to deal with the people who are interviewing you.
Adam Estapa: That is correct. I interviewed at a place once, and the head doctor who owned the establishment, she needed to know, "Can you process insurance as an optician?" As any professional, you go off your list and what you can and do, "Oh yes, I have worked with insurances before. I've pulled these up. I have worked with these companies. I know exactly what to do." And she was like, "Okay, here's a page of the insurance, and you take a look and see what the benefits are?"
And of course, it's written in 11-point font, super tiny. I start looking close -- BOOM. She has to drop a comment. "Oh, you're looking really close." You're a doctor. Don't say that out loud. You can say it inside yourself, that's fine. Or you can say, "Is the font size big enough? Do you need anything else? We can always blow it up." This is the 21st century, Microsoft is pretty incredible with what they can do. Not, "Oh. You're having trouble seeing."
That clearly meant to me, "I don’t think I'm going to hire you." I knew that the second -- we're ten minutes in, and I'm like, "This interview is done. This interview is over. I did not get this job. I did not land the role. We're done."
Rachel Tanenhaus: So we're going to take a little break, talk a little bit about how the bills get paid around here, and how the lights stay on. And then when we come back, we will hear more from Adam.
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The one thing I will say is that I love it when people are not so bright, and therefore say it out loud or put it in writing. That makes my day.
Adam Estapa: Oh, I've got a gem for you then.
So I go in for another interview at another place, and I look at my phone. And this person wasn’t an optician, but they were, I believe, apprenticeship. And they knew I was an optician interviewing. So I'm looking at my phone really close, and she says, out loud, "Whoa. You're looking really close to that phone." And I flat out say, calmly, "Yes, I'm legally blind." "Oh, and you wanted to be an optician?"
Like, this is out loud, in the store. I'm sitting on the couch in the other side of this office, so the whole store can hear this broadcast going. Keep in mind, you can't flip out or leave, so it's like, you know what? Just be yourself. It's just you being you that's going to set things straight or try to remedy the situation. Part of my ego wants to say, "Yeah, you really shouldn’t say that to people with disabilities or anybody." I could use other terms and examples, but that's not the point. The point is just don’t say it. You can think it, that's fine. That's your own mind. But you could have worded it in so many other ways rather than just being so extreme like saying, "Oh, why are you working here?"
Rachel Tanenhaus: Because I'm good at it.
Adam Estapa: Exactly. That too. How about that? How about I'm just good at what I do? Is that good enough for an interview? You go in, and I can skip 30 minutes right here and just say, "Ma'am or Sir, I'm good at what I do. I'll see you on Monday."
Rachel Tanenhaus: That's right. Why would we waste the time of going for an interview if we didn’t think we could do the job? Now I realize that there are plenty of people who show up for interviews and they are totally not prepared to conduct it, and probably had lousy interviews. But if we didn’t think we could do the job -- you didn't learn to become an optician from the Fisher-Price School of Opticianry, right? You actually went. You passed the test, and you did the things.
Okay, I do have a question about passing the test, though. Traditionally, standardized tests do not go well for us. ETS and all those folks, they hate us. So how did that go, because they probably don’t get a lot of requests for accommodations on the optician tests.
Adam Estapa: No, they don't. And this is the part that was the amazing part of technology and simple compassion and humanity kicking in. When I go to take my standardized testing, it is a separate company that proctors. But when I told them my situation, they were like, "Oh, no problem. We'll show you how to blow up the font, and it's that easy. We get visual impairments and disabilities all the time. You just blow the font up, you're good to go, ready to rock and roll. Any issues, just let me know. Okay?"
And then when I email the American Board of Opticianry, and they're based in Virginia, just outside of Washington DC, I tell them my situation, and they were like, "Oh yeah, no problem. We'll give you some extra time, and we'll increase the font size for you. Any issues? You just give us a buzz. We'll take care of you."
And it's just like -- do you see how easy that is folks? Just that little bit, instead of, "I just don’t want to do it."
Rachel Tanenhaus: And no one even had to sue them. And I say this because there are many, many, many lawsuits against the LSAC, the folks that administer the LSAT, the admissions test for law school; ETS, the folks who administer most of the standardized tests that you take in public school; zillions of lawsuits under the ADA. Then they're just like, "Maybe you're just not meant to take these tests or whatever," and then they get sued again because they didn’t follow the last lawsuit.
The fact that people just did it, I'm like, "What is this sorcery?"
Adam Estapa: Exactly. What is this magic of Microsoft being able to zoom the text in? Well, I just had to do Control and the plus sign and there it went, boom. It just got a little bit bigger. And even when I didn’t get it, someone was like, "Oh, I can help you with that, no problem." Easy enough. And it's like, it didn’t take a quantum physics degree to figure that out. They just did it.
Rachel Tanenhaus: How much time and money got saved by doing it the first time, right?
Adam Estapa: Ugh. Who knows?
Rachel Tanenhaus: I feel like this story is the happy tale. When things go right.
Adam Estapa: Exactly. This is the pause that I'm going to say in this story. A lot of my patients have had strokes, glaucoma, cataracts, unfortunate injuries and they've literally lost an eye, or they've had some sort of neurological or physiological impairment. And so when they come in and see the doctor, I will look at their chart. And it's, they used to be 20/20 and now their correction is 20/80 or 20/100. And it actually makes them feel better to know that there was someone who is helping them that got it, or the person themselves is not understanding that you are not going to see perfect anymore, but what you do have, I'm going to be able to make it work better for you.
And the fact is that I take my time with them. The frames are one thing, yes. Frame sales is part of opticianry, we're not going to lie about that. But that is the caboose. That is the end. At the very beginning, it's called a treatment plan. Not all lenses fit all people. There is no one size fits all, despite what we want in a capitalist society. But for some patients, it does work. But from talking of those where it doesn't work, and therefore it needs to be carefully crafted for them. And when I tell them that I'm disabled, and that they themselves are getting less and less sharper vision, it makes them feel better to know that life does in fact go on, despite that, you know, you may not be able to drive at night time anymore, or you just can't drive people because of the vision won't allow it or they themselves are too afraid to drive. But when we help them, their vision gets sharper or we tell them what to look for to help them.
Rachel Tanenhaus: And I think that one of the things that people without disabilities don’t realize is that unless they have a really good reason for it to be otherwise, they're really crap at being disabled. They don’t know, right, because they figure that being blind would be the end of their lives because they don’t have any practice at it. They don’t have any training at it, and maybe one of the silly simulations where they put on a blindfold to try to walk across the room or something, and they knocked half the furniture over, and they're like, "Oh, this must be what being blind is like." No, you're just not good at being blind yet.
So I feel like when they actually are around people who are able to serve them because they understand the situation, but also are around people who are functioning in their lives, and that life is not over, I feel like that is the huge deal for people who the only thing they know about blindness or about disability is what they know through some well-intentioned but poorly-designed simulation. And I think that's another reason why it's so important that -- I don’t feel like people with disabilities need to be in the disability ghetto. There's a lot of people with disabilities who are like, "I don’t want to go into the disability field because I feel like I'm being shoved in there because that's where they will hire me." I don’t think it's like that.
But I think if you have an interest in something that happens to serve the public, or have some sort of health care related bent or something like that, we need to be in those fields if we can get in them because that is the way that people are going to get it.
Adam Estapa: Exactly. I definitely feel that with my life growing up is that I am definitely between two worlds. I am the only person with a visual impairment in my family. My parents, just like anybody else, weren't sure what to do, but it was through someone in their local church that said, "Do this," to help them out. And I had very strong supportive parents, ridiculously loving parents to be honest, who were like, "My son has the god-given right to go to a normal public school. He is going in there, and he is going to learn with the rest of his family, just like anybody else."
And so I feel that I have become a Panama Canal if you will. On one side is the abled, and on this is the disabled, and I work between the two. My co-workers don’t treat me like I have a disability; they treat me like anybody else. They will get frustrated at me. They will get happy with me. And I show them the same love back. And that’s a great mutual understanding. I'm very happy where I work right now.
That's where I feel right now. That's my position right now in life. I don't consider myself -- I am disabled by all legal and medical purposes, but I don’t feel disabled.
Rachel Tanenhaus: You don’t feel disempowered, basically.
Adam Estapa: That's the better word, thank you. When I can't see that monitor at Logan Airport, then I realize that I'm disabled and I need to ask someone, "Yeah, when does that flight leave again? When is that train going to board?"
Rachel Tanenhaus: I think it's also worth acknowledging that there are different situations that people go through. So for example, it might go different for somebody who isn't a cis white guy or something like that. Like they may be treated a little different in the situation along with the disability, or they might not. Is there anything that you wish I had asked you that I haven’t so far?
Adam Estapa: People would always say -- my wife, friends, family -- they would always say, "Adam, if you weren’t legally blind, what would you do?" It's a good question. It's not an insulting question. People can be offended. It's okay; we're all people.
I actually have an answer for that, but guess what? I still love it, and still do it. My father is an airline pilot; well, he's retired now. And I've always loved aviation, and I still do. Even through childhood, I still love aviation. Easy enough, I would have been airline pilot like my dad. Or better yet, I probably wanted to own my airline; I would still love to do that to this day. But I still love aviation. I still enjoy it, and I'm legally blind. Ain't nothing wrong with that.
But I think to say that, "Well, then, so you're not really happy with what you do?" No, that's not the truth. I see what I do as it's my job, it's my passion. It's my love. And aviation is something that's enjoyable to me. If you want to say it's a second place, that's fine. But you know what? This is one pretty sweet second place.
Rachel Tanenhaus: Yeah, I think it's possible for people to have multiple callings. I think that there are folks who are like -- my partner knew from the time he was three on that he wanted to study volcanoes. But not everybody has that happen. People have multiple passions. I think that it is perfectly reasonable to say your life could have gone any number of different ways, and I don’t think it has to be a second choice.
There are a number of things I could have gone into, and one of them happens to have been public health, and I went into that. But if I didn’t go into that, there were other things I was interested in. My original major in college was journalism, and I wanted to be a television broadcast journalist, a reporter. And then I learned a little bit more about journalism, and I was like, "Never mind." But at the time, that was what I wanted to be doing.
This is not a second choice. This is just the way that my life happened to go. So for you, aviation is awesome, and you could still be into it, and I bet if you plunk down the money, they will let you buy an airline. They just won't let you behind the wheel, or whatever it is they have on airplanes. The tiller? What do they have?
Adam Estapa: Yeah. I even tried to work for the airlines. Like anybody else, I tried to supply the application. They called, and when I told them I was legally blind, they didn't beat around the bush. They just flat out said that. I mean, my heart was broken, but in terms of the logic, yes that's not going to happen. And it's okay. I can still love it.
Rachel Tanenhaus: They'll let you work at something other than a pilot, I presume.
Adam Estapa: No, they pretty much didn't let me in, period.
Rachel Tanenhaus: Yeah, that's kind of illegal.
Adam Estapa: Here or there, you're right. I'm also one of those people, too, where it's like I remember reading long ago about a young man named Vanderbilt, who we all know -- he ended up getting a school named after him, evidently. But he was a railroad baron. And in New York, he was famous for the Staten Island Ferry, from what I believe -- New Yorkers, please correct me if I'm wrong on this.
Rachel Tanenhaus: Oh, I'm sure they will.
Adam Estapa: Okay. And from what I heard of him, early on, he was trying to make a name for himself with his railroads, and all the other competition was essentially trying to screw him over. And he ended up sending them a letter being like, "You know what, guys? I'm not going to sue because the law takes way too long. Instead, I'm going to beat you by being so awesome at what I do, it's going to put you guys out of business." And sure enough, if my history is correct, that's exactly what happened. They went under, and he kept going.
And so, I figure for myself as an optician, as a blind person, it's like, "You know what, you don’t want to hire me? Fine. Guess what? You lost an awesome employee who has an amazing work ethic and incredible compassion and customer service. That is your loss."
Rachel Tanenhaus: Living well is, in fact, the best revenge.
Adam Estapa: Exactly. And where I work now, we all do good. They don’t see me as the legally blind optician who has screwed up. They unfortunately see it as the whole business screwed up. But on the other way, too, when I do my job fabulously, they see it as we all did. And that actually makes me feel good. They're not seeing my disability.
Rachel Tanenhaus: Or if they do, it's just a larger part of who you are. I'm somebody who, if you see my disability, that's fine. It is part of the package. But they have to see the whole package.
Adam Estapa: Correct.
Rachel Tanenhaus: And it's not necessarily my boss's job to see my disability. My friends, that's fine. But my boss needs to see me as an employee, and I presume that is the case for you as well.
Adam Estapa: Exactly. His name is Dr. Samir Melki. He started Boston Laser. He took a chance on me.
Rachel Tanenhaus: He took a chance on you? But he took a chance on all his employees. Like anybody that you hire, whether you're sighted or blind, anybody you hire can screw up. Like, he did not take a bigger chance on you; he just took one that other people weren’t willing to do because of their preconceived notions.
But I want to be really clear that you are not a larger chance or liability than any other optician would be. You're good. You're good at your job. The chance that people think they're taking is entirely their baggage. We live in a world right now where that's unusual. What I would really love to see is for that to be the baseline.
Adam Estapa: Oh, exactly. He is an amazing judge of character. All the doctors he selects are amazing. Every single person I've worked with who has either retired or they're coming on now, no -- he is very good at what he does. He is very good with the people he works with and around. And for me to be a part of the Boston Laser family is just very warm and welcoming.
Rachel Tanenhaus: That is awesome. And I think that is something that happens whether or not you have a disability. It's really helpful, it makes all the difference in the world, if you have a good boss, and if you work in a good place. But also, if you have a good boss and you work in a good place, they are more likely to be clueful about the disability stuff.
Adam Estapa: Correct. Very well. Again, he is an ophthalmologist, so he does also eye surgery, so he is literally very in tune with the physicality of the eye, as well as all the symptoms and procedures that need to be done to correct that. He's no spring chicken; he knows what he's doing.
Rachel Tanenhaus: Right, right.
Well, thank you so much for being on Blinclusivity. It has been awesome to have you on, and I have learned a lot. So thank you so much. And yeah, do you have anything else you want to make sure you get in here?
Adam Estapa: Yeah, I just wanted to let everybody know that I'm not trying to push or pitch anything, but as I tell all my patients, even if they'd never bought a single pair of glasses from me, or that they went somewhere else, you're allowed to talk to me.
Rachel Tanenhaus: Does that include asking you about your experiences professionally? If people are hearing what you're saying, and they want to either provide feedback, they can also email the podcast at firstname.lastname@example.org and they can tweet us and all those things. But if somebody wants to ask you a question, how can they reach you?
Adam Estapa: If they have a general question for me, I have my professional email, because everyone's got to have a professional and a personal.
Rachel Tanenhaus: I'm not giving my professional one out on the show because I am not representing my employer. But you can do that.
Adam Estapa: Oh, yes I can. So my professional email is my full name email@example.com if you want to ask me a general question, or anything else; try not to solicit or do anything stupid.
Rachel Tanenhaus: Don't spam the guest, guys.
Adam Estapa: Just don't do that, because you're going to go in the junk pile and then once you're in the junk, you don't come back out. And then when you actually have a legitimate question, guess what? I'm not going to see it because I put it in the junk pile.
Rachel Tanenhaus: The junk pile is essentially the Hotel California: you can check in any time you like, but you can never leave. So don’t be that person.
Adam Estapa: Exactly. Don't. Just no.
Rachel Tanenhaus: All right, well thank you so much. It has been a pleasure, and this has been great. So thank you.
That was a lot of fun, and again, I am very thankful to Adam for being on this podcast. I learned a lot from interviewing him, and I look forward to having more guests on the show. I think that that's going to be a lot of fun too.
Now it's time to give out the Stairway to Hell and the Curb Ramp of Awesome awards. And I have to tell you, I've been at a little bit of a loss, because things have been kind of bleak. And I know that there is always good being done in the world and folks fighting the good fight, but I just had a hard time finding it this time.
So I need your help. I need you to email firstname.lastname@example.org and tell me about who you think deserves the Curb Ramp of Awesome award, because I did not come up with one this time. There are people doing work that have been recognized before. I am, of course, always grateful to ADAPT for the incredible work that they do. They have been out there, in the trenches, fighting against the Judge Rotenberg Center, and the electroshocks that they are still administering to autistic folks and folks with other disabilities, and the torture that they are administering. And my heart is, as always, with ADAPT. But guys, you've already won the award. So chill out -- no, don't chill out. Keep fighting the good fight. But I can't give it to you every time.
So folks, please do send me your ideas at email@example.com because I need some help here. I know that these things are going in the world. I know that there are folks out there who are doing the right thing, or organizations that are doing the right thing, and I just need you to remind me. It is not that I'm lazy; I'm just a little discouraged.
And on the other hand, we have just so many people vying for the Stairway to Hell award. It must be terribly popular. I'm glad so many people have heard of it. But you don’t have to work so hard for it, folks. It doesn't have to work that way.
I've had so many things to choose from. It's been a rough few weeks, you know. Someone with a guide dog got kicked out of the Stonewall Inn. And I remember the first time I went there; I went to the monument. I passed the monument, and I was just so proud, because I knew that was part of my history. It's a good thing I didn't actually try to go in, because apparently I would have been shown the door.
But no, that didn't get the award this time.
I don’t want to depress with all the bad news that has been going on. I feel like one of the things that has got my attention, though -- the folks who are really starting to bug me are people who act like they are part of a cause, but in fact are perfectly willing to throw folks with disabilities under the bus about it. For example, one of the things that is going on right now is that there's a huge campaign against plastic straws. Apparently, there's a very disturbing picture of a tortoise or a turtle with a straw caught in its nose, and it's awful. And I do not wish bad things on animals, and I don’t want them to have terrible things happen because of plastic straws.
That having been said, the amount of trash out there that has actually plastic straws is pretty insignificant compared to some of the other things that can be done. And straws are really important for a lot of people with disabilities. It's fine if you want to reduce the use of plastic straws, but banning them is not the answer; making them optional is absolutely the answer. So there's a lot of people out there who feel like they have found the one thing they can do to save the environment -- and if you can't go with them on that journey right then, then you are bad and why do you hate the environment?
I am not sure that they are doing anything else for the environment. But when people say, "Well, I have a disability, and I need to use straws," they say, "Well, go get one of the reusable ones." But reusable ones are generally more expensive and they also they require cleaning, and obviously such things need to be sanitary. A lot of people with disabilities have stamina issues that mean that one more thing that they have to wash, one more thing that they have to keep track of, the more things that they have like that in their life, the less likely they are to be able to get the things they need to get done.
And you say, "Well, it's only one straw. It's only one thing." But there's a growing number of "only one things" that people with disabilities are told, "Well, if you would just do this, you wouldn’t be ruining the environment. You wouldn’t be the problem." And I don’t think we're the problem. It's not that we never do anything that's environmentally unsound, it's the self-righteousness of, "We understand that this is the thing that you need in order to be able to function, but you're terrible for wanting it. You're terrible for using it." There's got to be another way. People have to work together on these things.
So I think the Stairway to Hell award goes to people who engage in virtue-signaling at the expense of folks with disabilities. Generally, they don’t check with people with disabilities before they engage in this particular form of activism. And it may be the only activism they're engaging in. Again, you can only do what you can do. But if you activism isn't intersectional, if it throws other people under the bus for being who they are and doing what they need to do, then it needs to be examined. So I guess that's a general group, and a pet peeve, but that's where we're at right now.
I guess those are sort of hand-wavy awards this time around, but with your ideas -- and feel free to send them to firstname.lastname@example.org, I can do better next time, and I hope to do so.
So stay tuned, and thank you so much for listening.
Are you following Blinclusivity on social media? Do you have ideas for future topics or guests? Would you love to give feedback about the podcast? Well, feel free to do so through the platform of your choice. You can find Blinclusivity on Twitter at @blinclusivity; on Facebook at www.facebook.com/Blinclusivity; and on the web at www.blinclusivity.com. That's "inclusivity" with a B-L at the beginning.
You can also drop me an email at email@example.com. I'd love to hear from you. Also, it would be really helpful if you could rate Blinclusivity on iTunes because it helps other people discover the podcast. Thanks!
Blinclusivity is created, written, produced, hosted, and edited by Rachel Tanenhaus. The Blinclusivity logo was designed by Emily Gillis. The Blinclusivity concept was developed with assistance from Andrew Gurza. The theme song was composed and recorded by Nathan Curtis. The transcript was made possible by generous Patreon donors, and by transcriptionist Robert Crawford. Technological help was provided by Jason Schneiderman, Charles E. Leiserson Jr., Cate with a C, and Sheeri Cabral.
Copyright 2018, Rachel Tanenhaus. All rights reserved.
This has been an episode of Blinclusivity, a glimpse of disability in public health and policy. Thanks for listening.
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