Memorial Day and the Chance to Serve: Is the Peace Corps for You?

Tribute to Veterans Who Experienced Vision Loss

Sgt Mittman at Arlington Cemetary

Many visually impaired people have experienced vision loss as a result of injuries sustained during their time of service. Other veterans have developed conditions that affected their vision as they aged. As we celebrate the Memorial Day in remembrance of those who have served this great nation and VisionAware offers a great tribute to our Veterans in a special section.

How Can You Serve Your Country

I am a master sergeant’s daughter and almost every branch of military service is represented in my extended family. I have been visually impaired since I was eight years old and unable to serve in the military. Just like me, you might be wondering if there is a place to serve your country as a person who is visually impaired. One option you might consider is the choice I made a couple of years after I graduated from college, the Peace Corps. I consider myself a veteran of foreign peace.

Proficient? Self-Confident?

Are you proficient in your own adaptive techniques, are you a confident person, who is able to answer questions about your disability without becoming defensive and have you a sense of adventure. When I applied to enter the Peace Corps, I was a recent college graduate, married to a sighted spouse and had some work experience as an aide in classrooms for children who were mobility impaired, intellectually disabled, or visually impaired. I had also taught independent living skills for the California Department of Rehabilitation during my college years. This last job was on the recommendation of my rehabilitation counselor. There was no home teacher available in the county where I attended college. They could only send someone once a month from Sacramento to work with newly blinded individuals. Thus it was that I was hired as a contract instructor in independent living skills for the California Department of Rehabilitation.

Searching for What To Do When Position Phased out

I am totally blind and have been so since the age of eight. After graduation from College, I worked for a short period as a social services caseworker but found myself at loose ends when my position was phased out. I had often volunteered my time during high school and college. I tutored other blind students, served as a U.S.O. hostess, taught Sunday school, counseled high school students with disabilities, and volunteered at the democratic party office in my home town. Thus, applying to the Peace Corps seemed a logical step to take. I had always felt fortunate to live in a country where most doors were open to me, if I had the courage and determination to push through them. I felt strongly that I wanted to serve my country because of all of the opportunities I had been given. I was not particularly looking forward to returning to graduate school and job opportunities in my chosen field of social work did not look since social programs were being continually cut back.

The Peace Corps Wanted Me For My Skills!

I received my first offer of a position two months after applying. I understand that this is unusually quick. The Peace Corps keeps a log of requests from underdeveloped countries for volunteers to perform a variety of tasks. With in a week of the first offer, I received a second one. Both positions had been on the Peace Corps books for quite awhile. Both jobs were for someone to teach in a school for blind children. My husband was accepted as an unassigned spouse. They would help him find a job once we arrived, because the Corps wanted my skills. This was a big switch. I was used to having to do a lot of hard selling to convince prospective employers that I could indeed perform on the job.

Placed in Western Samoa

Three months later, I was on my way to Western Samoa in the Pacific. I spent the next two and a half years establishing a school for blind children. I taught staff, and students, raised funds for equipment salaries and building projects, did public relations work and even managed a little travel.

My husband was assigned to work with me upon my request. The culture I had to operate within did not offer much respect or status to young women. I found Curtis an excellent spokesman for the project. He had no previous work experience with visually impaired people other than having been married to one for three years. However, he did have a teaching credential.

Special Arrangements Meant House with Flush Toilet

The Peace Corps made no special arrangements for me other than agreeing to assign my husband to work with me on my project. During language instruction and acculturation, the trainer of our group placed me in the Methodist minister’s home. This was the only house with a flush toilet on the tiny island where we were being submerged in the Samoan way of life. The other volunteers had to use outhouses set out in the lagoon, reached by stepping stones. I used my own braille writer, slate and stylus and tape recorder to take notes during language lessons. I was forced to leave my eight year old dog guide behind when I accepted the assignment and had to revert to my cane for mobility.

Being On Display

The hardest thing to get used to was always being on display. Being a Peace Corps volunteer made me a curiosity and being blind doubled my entertainment value. Without the distraction of TV, a stranger in the village was always a good excuse for a party or as much fun to watch and comment upon as a circus in town. There is very little privacy in a village and everyone feels free to talk about all that you do. It is difficult to survive such close scrutiny unless you can overcome being self conscious. Medical care can also be a problem. I was hospitalized once for dengue fever, suffered a bout of paratyphoid B. And my husband missed our first child’s Christening party because of an attack of dysentery. We did prepare an extensive medical kit including some prescription drugs from our own physician before leaving the U.S. We also went to the library to research the two countries which made us offers.

Is the Peace Corps for You?

Is the Peace Corps for you? If you answered yes to the questions above, are in good health, and enjoy challenges, then perhaps the United States Peace Corps is for you.

A version of this article appeared several years ago in Dialogue Magazine