Visually impaired since birth, Lachelle Smith never thought of herself as a person with a disability when she was a child. Follow her journey through childhood, school, her early working life, marriage, and family, until she finally discovers the “life changing” career that was “meant to be …”

A Small-Town Childhood 

Lachelle Smith

“I grew up in a small rural town in Central Pennsylvania called Mount Union. I loved my childhood. It was filled with loving memories of family, friends, and faith. My hometown is so small that everyone knew who you were and to whom you belonged. Most neighbors also knew that I was the child who was born blind. Even though I was not born totally blind, most people in my town didn’t understand the different levels and types of visual impairment, so they thought of me as blind. I am not totally blind – I consider myself visually impaired.”

“Growing up in such a small town, with most people knowing that I had a visual impairment, you can imagine how many people were looking out for me all the time. I must say, though, most people didn’t treat me any differently from my sighted sister. I was not raised to think about my disability as a problem. I was raised to embrace the many challenges God would allow into my life associated with my vision impairment. I viewed it as a blessing and not as a curse.”

“In fact, I can remember one day when a mischievous friend was teasing me and made some hurtful comments about me not being able to see. I believe she actually used the word ‘blind.’ I can distinctly recall saying ‘I’m not blind’ and telling her I was offended that she would even say such a thing! When I discussed the incident later with my mother and grandmother, they told me that in fact I was legally blind, but that I should not let that label define who I was or who I would become.” 

Sighted – Or Not?

“From that day until today, I have worked so hard not to be labeled or identified as disabled. One might say I’ve been ‘passing for sighted’ – and I would agree. However, in all honesty, I didn’t know what ‘passing’ meant until I took a course in Psychosocial and Social Dynamics of Visual Impairment, which was a requirement of my Master’s degree program in Vision Rehabilitation Therapy at Salus University. It was during that course that I was introduced to the concept of  ‘passing for sighted’ and its implications. I can honestly say that ‘passing’ has helped me achieve many of the rewards of my life, but I can also say it has cost me emotionally.”

“In my effort to be transparent, I say these truths about myself not only for the edification of a reader, but also for my own healing. You see, I wholeheartedly agree with my family and friends when they shared with me what the Bible says about suffering. My faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior has helped me (and still does) to overcome my fears, anxieties, and disappointments associated with living with my visual disability. For I know that it is only through my belief in Jesus Christ, that I have been able to turn my troubles into triumphs. I feel so blessed to be who I am.”

“Visually impaired or not, I consider myself ‘whole.’ In contemplating the concept of ‘passing,’ I know that it is real, but for many years prior to my knowledge of the term, I considered my actions ‘coping’ with my visual disability in the best way I could. I couldn’t afford to look at myself as different just because I couldn’t see that well. I wanted something better for myself that many well-meaning people didn’t think was possible for a visually impaired person.”

Early School and Education Challenges

“Another memorable challenge I faced growing up with a visual impairment was attending school. In order to provide me with the best education possible, my family relocated to Pittsburgh, PA, where I attended the Western Pennsylvania School for Blind Children for approximately two years. In that educational environment, I remember learning about colors, textures, and other types of sensory development experiences. When the vision professionals at my school determined that I could be mainstreamed into the public school system, my family returned to Mount Union, where I attended elementary school from grades K-9.” 

“I can vividly recall the attitudes I sometimes faced from my teachers, some of whom believed that I would be better served in a ‘special school’ for the blind. Thank God for my mother, who insisted that I remain in public school! I’m not certain, but I may have been one of the first legally blind students in my school system. I remember feeling that some of my teachers were not happy that I was there. I am not speaking about all of my teachers, of course, because many were very supportive and didn’t mind the interruption when I left the classroom to meet with my itinerant Teacher of the Visually Impaired (TVI) for one-to-one instruction in reading and test-taking strategies. There were some teachers, however, who were definitely not pleased. Nevertheless, I continued my quest to maintain as ‘normal’ a life as I could.”

Relocation and More Challenges

“In the late 1980s, my family relocated to the Philadelphia area, where I was exposed to a very different living and learning environment. This was a drastic change for me socially. Remember, I came from a small town where I knew mostly everyone. Now, I was in the ‘big city’ and was petrified of my surroundings. I went from traveling freely in my hometown to always staying close to my new home – with the exception of attending school.”

“Moving to Philadelphia changed me from an extravert to an introvert. I only went to school and the corner store independently; for all other trips outside my home, I would only travel with my mother, sister, or a trusted friend. (In fact, I’m embarrassed to admit that it wasn’t until I began to work in the field of vision impairment that I began to travel independently in Philadelphia.) In any case, when my mother went to register me for school in Philadelphia, we were once again faced with proving that I was capable of attending a public school. I remember that the school wanted to place me in the Special Education class. Again, we fought that decision and I went on to complete my education in the public school system, graduating in the top 20% of my high school class at Overbrook High School, where I was in ‘Motivation Honors,’ a college preparatory program.”

Moving On To College

“After high school, I continued to pursue higher education, attending Widener University in Chester, PA. I had the most pleasant experience at Widener. All of my professors were so supportive and were willing to make any accommodation necessary for me to succeed. I must tell you, however, that I never thought to request specific accommodations, with the exception of asking to be placed in a newer dormitory that would allow me to use my adaptive technology, which – at the time – was cumbersome and bulky. I used an old Telesensory Voyager closed circuit television (CCTV) with a 20″ monitor, along with a table to keep everything in one place.” 

“My only regret with my undergraduate college career is that I changed my original major from Psychology to Hotel and Restaurant Management. Why did I change? I don’t know. I felt that I needed some excitement in my working life and career; what I found, however, were several unforeseen visual challenges during my school internships. Some of those challenges included having the ability to perform inventory tasks and monitor the performance of hundreds of employees who prepared meals. I was required to visually inspect all food preparation areas for cleanliness and make sure the employees were completing their assigned tasks.”

“Many of my employees knew that I had a visual impairment and would exploit the fact that I could not monitor them in the same manner as my sighted colleagues did; therefore, some would not do the work and left me scrambling to complete it once they left. This caused great distress with my management, as well as in my home life. I would arrive at work two hours ahead of time and leave 1-2 hours past closing time to keep up with the amount of work I was required to complete. I often worked 12-hour days, from 9:00 AM to 9:00 PM, in order to keep up with everything.”

“When I completed my first internship, I knew that my selection of career was not the right ‘fit’ and would be challenging for me, both visually and emotionally. I consider myself a ‘people person,’ but telling others what to do was just not ‘me.’ Nevertheless, I continued my studies in this field and graduated with my B.S. degree in Hotel/Restaurant Management.” 

Meeting Her Future Husband – and Motherhood

Lachelle and her husband Will on their wedding day

“While at Widener University, I met and dated my husband, Willie A. Smith II. I was in my sophomore year and he was a junior when we began to date. This was a new experience for me, because I had never dated anyone prior to my husband. I didn’t really know how to date and I was very self-conscious and wondered if anyone would want me or have a romantic interest in me if they knew that I was visually impaired.”

“In fact, I tried to scare Will off by telling him in our very first telephone conversation that I was ‘legally blind’ and couldn’t see well enough to go out with him. As you can imagine, it was actually me who was frightened. He was very persistent, however, and I finally decided to go out on a date with him. Almost 16 years later, we are still together.”

Lachelle and her daughters

“Will and I married two years after I graduated from Widener. We have two precious girls – Taylor Ann, age 12 and Lauren Victoria, age 9. I consider myself blessed to have a wonderful family who supports and encourages me to be the best I can be. None of them look at me as being visually impaired. Actually, they often forget and I need to remind them, in some instances, of my visual limitation. However, I try to instill in my children that with faith and determination, nothing is impossible, no matter what challenges come your way.”

“As a visually impaired mother, I sometimes feel smothering. At times, my husband will have to tell me to back off and let the girls just play. For some time, I would want my husband to primarily interact with them outdoors, because I was afraid I would not be able to protect them or detect dangerous situations. I had to pray about it to the point where I have gotten a lot better. I now allow my girls to ride their bikes the entire length of the sidewalk versus only riding two home-lengths away. I think about how far I’ve come and am amazed that my girls are as outgoing as they are.”

Work Experiences – and a Revelation

“Upon graduating from Widener University, I accepted my first job with a large food service corporation in the healthcare division as a Patient Services Manager/Vending Manager/Retail Manager. I cannot begin to express how difficult this job was for me. I struggled to make this job my career, but I never felt confident in my ability to do all that was needed to succeed. No matter how much I persevered, I was unhappy.”

“I was charged with managing hundreds of employees in food preparation and retail operations (the cafeteria and gift shop), as well as supervising the vending machine operations. None of the forms I used were accessible and to be honest, I was afraid to ask for accommodations. Why? I was fearful that management would think that I wasn’t capable of doing the work. I also didn’t want to be viewed as a ‘problem employee.’ That is why I struggled to find my own solutions for many years.”

“I left this job after my first daughter was born and took a job doing accounting work at a large hotel. Well, this was equally difficult. The duties of the job weren’t complicated – it was the computer inventory system that I struggled to master. I was an accounts payable clerk, which required me to do a very visual job that was both boring and visually taxing. I didn’t use assistive technology, so it took me hours to accomplish my work.”

“I didn’t use assistive technology because  … well, I didn’t ask for it. I think I was so sensitized to performing tasks ‘the visual way’ that I didn’t take advantage of the tools that could have made the experience less painful. I guess this is where the ‘passing’ issue didn’t work for me. Also, experience from past positions prepared me to seek my own solutions for job tasks I had difficulty performing.”

“I had just finished creating a system in which I became more productive in my accounting job when a friend informed me that another large food service corporation was looking for a Patient Services Manager. I interviewed for the job, got it, and settled in to my now-familiar routine. This job required me to supervise food production, patient meal delivery, and overall compliance with hospital industry standards.”

“Needless to say, I was very unhappy – again – with my job choice. I was forcing myself to continue in a career that did not make me happy and did not cultivate my strengths. Eighteen months into my position, the corporation lost the hospital account and we, the current management staff, could either relocate or accept unemployment. I chose to accept unemployment.”

“At that same time, I realized I was pregnant with my second daughter and I took this opportunity to really examine what I wanted to do with my life. I knew that I no longer wanted to work in this field and I needed to concentrate on my family. I prayed and waited for direction from God and it hit me that I wanted to work in a field that would actually help someone. I knew I wanted to get my Master’s degree and I decided to research counseling degrees. I absolutely love to encourage people. I believe that is my gift. I get pleasure helping someone recognize his or her strengths.”

“I also recalled a conversation I once had with a co-worker at one of my past hospital jobs. She told me that I didn’t belong in that field and that I should look into becoming a vision professional. When I recalled that conversation, I immediately contacted Salus University (which was the Pennsylvania College of Optometry at the time), where I first learned about the many professions and professionals associated with the vision rehabilitation field.” 

Entering the Vision Rehabilitation Field – and Academic Success

“After speaking with the director of the Master’s degree program in Vision Rehabilitation Therapy at Salus, I knew this was the career for me. I absorbed all the information I could and I vowed that I would educate the public about the abilities of individuals living with disabilities. I would make it my duty to acknowledge my own vision impairment in the pursuit of advocacy for my blind and visually impaired peers. I told the director that I loved all people, especially those who were challenged in some way; and if provided the opportunity, I would do my best to encourage them and teach them that they can enjoy a quality life despite blindness or vision impairment.”

One type of optical low vision device: a lighted stand magnifier
One type of optical low vision device: a lighted stand magnifier

“My experience at Salus University was truly life changing. I learned so much about myself that I never understood prior to attending some of the classes. I learned about the concept of ‘passing,’ as well as the challenges and disparities that people with vision loss experience. I was so ingrained in the sighted world that I was ignorant of some of the basic needs of the blind and visually impaired population. Can you imagine that? I am a part of that same population, but I was blind to the needs of my peers.” 

“As I pursued my degree and learned about the many resources and interventions available to adults with vision loss, I found myself excited about the opportunity this program at Salus was creating for me, both personally and professionally. I did my best to absorb as much information as I could and set out to change the lives of the future consumers I would have the pleasure of serving.” 

“My first experience working with this population was in the fieldwork component of my Master’s degree. I worked at the Feinbloom Vision Rehabilitation Center at the Eye Institute of the Pennsylvania College of Optometry. This was a terrific experience for me. For the first time, I was able to interact with optometrists, ophthalmologists, low vision therapists, and patients who had low vision. I assisted with low vision examinations and provided instruction in the use of optical and non-optical low vision devices.”

“Best of all, I was able to teach specialized vision rehabilitation therapy skills to patients who requested training in this area. I remember my very first patient. He wanted to learn how to pour cold liquids without spillage and ‘making a mess.’ I can vividly recall his (and my) excitement after he learned pouring techniques and experienced success. It was then that I received my first jolt of the ‘power’ my instruction could have for both my consumers and myself. It proved to be addicting.”  

A timer with large, bold numbers can help with kitchen tasks
A timer with large, bold numbers can help with kitchen tasks

“After that experience, I had the opportunity to refine my skills during my internship at Associated Services for the Blind (ASB). This site was very different from Feinbloom because it was a center-based full-service rehabilitation agency. I was able to engage with my adult students in a setting that provided instruction in all of the major areas of vision rehabilitation therapy: personal self-care, home management, communication skills, and assistive computer technology. This was so much fun for me! My experience at ASB was an experience that I will always treasure.”

“After completing my fieldwork and internship requirements, I went on to receive my Master’s degree in Vision Rehabilitation Therapy. I graduated with a 4.0 GPA and received the Academic Excellence Award. I mention this not to receive accolades, but to encourage others. I didn’t believe I was capable of accomplishing such success, but I now know that it pays to do what you love. If I can encourage anyone by this story, I’ve accomplished my goal. Never believe that you are not capable of accomplishing your dreams or aspirations, because with hard work and determination, anything is possible.”

Her First Job as a Vision Professional

“Upon receiving my Master’s degree, I applied for, and received, my Certification as a Vision Rehabilitation Therapist (CVRT) from the Academy for Certification of Vision Rehabilitation and Education Professionals. I also accepted a position as a Vision Rehabilitation Therapist with my state rehabilitation agency. In this role, I was exposed to the visually impaired population in a different way. I was now experiencing the reality of the theory and practice I had learned in the classroom and in my fieldwork and internship placements. This excited me. I could practice what I learned from Salus and my own life experience to help positively change the quality of life for so many visually impaired individuals.”

“I was itinerant, which meant that I traveled to my adult clients and provided training in their homes instead of working in a clinic or rehabilitation center, as I did previously. Despite my excitement about this new career, real-life issues began to affect how I performed my job. Like many other blind and visually impaired itinerant CVRTs, transportation played a major role in the challenges I faced in providing services to my consumers and clients.”

“I traveled chiefly by public transportation, which, over time, took its toll on me. Providing vision rehabilitation services was the easy part. Getting to each client – sometimes transferring ten times between trains, buses, subways, and on foot – wore me out. By the time I reached home in the evening, I was visually (and physically) exhausted and had nothing left for my family.”

“After a year working full-time in this position, I decided to change to a part-time schedule. I maintained the same job with the state, but I did so under my own business name, which is InSights Vision Rehabilitation Services. I was – and still am! – very pleased to own and operate my own business. I’ve been working as an independent contractor for the past five years.”

“The major difference is that I have more control over my caseload, schedule, and where I will – and won’t – travel. I absolutely love it! Another benefit is that I can receive contracts from private individuals seeking services who do not want to go through the state system. And finally, I can now provide more personal adjustment counseling to individuals who desire it. The transition from agency employee to business owner proved excellent for me, both personally and professionally.”

Her Alma Mater Beckons

“Six months ago, however, I began to feel that I needed to do more. Once again, I prayed and asked God for direction. I began to examine the field of vision rehabilitation and determined that the only way to increase recognition of my profession, as well as the needs of the blind and visually impaired population, was to work in a position in which I could elevate the public’s awareness of those needs.”

“Within the field of vision rehabilitation, we are acutely aware that the numbers of current vision professionals are not sufficient to meet the needs of the growing numbers of individuals who are living with vision loss, or who will become blind or visually impaired. We discuss this critical issue continually within our field and at our professional conferences, but these personnel shortages persist.” 

“While I was thinking about my next steps, Salus University approached me and asked if I would consider interviewing for the position as Coordinator of the Master’s and Certificate Programs in Vision Rehabilitation Therapy! I must admit that I was in shock when I learned I had been invited to interview. It was unbelievably humbling to be offered the opportunity to train others to succeed as Vision Rehabilitation Therapists, just as I had been trained. I was immediately reminded of my prayer to God to direct me to an area in which I could make a difference to people like me – and this is where He led me.”

Lachelle teaching stovetop safety to a student wearing a low vision simulator Lachelle teaching stovetop safety to a student wearing a low vision simulator

“I accepted the position and am now working as the Program Coordinator and instructor for the Master’s and Certificate Programs in Vision Rehabilitation Therapy within the College of Education and Rehabilitation at Salus University. I’ve come full circle!”

“A typical workday for me at Salus begins with checking e-mails from students, other faculty, and prospective students. I review my lessons for the day, in preparation for teaching my courses. At present, I am teaching in the summer residency program, which is when students are required to attend courses on campus to learn hands-on independent living skills.”

“My days always include meeting with my students and other faculty members. My other duties include grading course work; doing research; conducting campus tours; recruiting new students; supervising and advising students on campus and in fieldwork/internship sites; building and cultivating relationships with other professionals and vendors; and attending conferences and giving speeches to advocate for services for individuals who are blind, visually impaired, and have low vision.”

“In addition to all of those duties, I teach the following courses:

  • Independent Living Skills for Vision Rehabilitation Therapists (which addresses the methods and skills needed to teach blind/visually impaired individuals in the areas of home management, personal management, diabetes management and recreation and leisure pursuits)
  • Communication Skills (which addresses the skills needed to teach handwriting, braille, recording, reading strategies, bill paying and budgeting)
  • Foundations of Education and Rehabilitation (which addresses the importance of the rehabilitation field with respect to laws and practices)
  • Principles of Vision Rehabilitation Therapy (which addresses the history and evolution of the field, as well as the guidelines of practice, assessment of needs, and theories for practice)
  • Assessment (which addresses the many assessments used to create individual written rehabilitation plans for consumers)
  • Psychosocial and Social Dynamics of Vision Impairment (which addresses personal adjustment to blindness/vision loss and its implication on the delivery of services)

An Excellent Journey Thus Far

“I believe I have had a fantastic life despite my vision impairment. Yes, it has been sometimes plagued with hardship, disappointment, humiliation, and discrimination, all because I was different from the majority. But despite these negative effects of my vision impairment, I must also cite some of the positives: wonderful friends, a successful and rewarding career, and a personal passion to make life better for people like me.” 

“As you can see, I am a woman of faith, and it is my faith in Jesus Christ that has helped me to deal with the consequences of my vision impairment. I am empowered by God’s grace and mercy towards me.  When I am faced with a situation that is a direct result of my vision impairment, I try to look at God’s purpose for allowing it to occur in my life. What is God trying to show me about Himself and/or myself? How will I grow personally, spiritually, or professionally because of this situation?”

“I pray because I’m a woman of faith, I work hard to settle my perceived issues as quickly as possible, I ask for help when I absolutely need it, I accept the things I can control with my own strength, I pray about the things that are out of my control, and lastly, I take responsibility for the decisions I make, whether they are good, bad, or indifferent. It isn’t easy, I know. I can only tell you what works for me.” 

“And I am confident in the abilities of those who are blind/visually impaired. My desire for you is that you recognize how awesome you are, just as you are. May God bless your lives richly and if I can assist you in any way, please feel free to contact me. It will be my pleasure to know you.”

You can contact Lachelle at lasmith@salus.edu or insightsvrs@comcast.net.

About Salus University

The College of Education and Rehabilitation at Salus University has a proven reputation for training excellent vision professionals. The program was established in 1983, making Salus University the first institution in the country to offer four master’s degrees and certificates in the following areas:

The programs offer tuition assistance through grants funded by the Rehabilitation Services Administration and other financial aid sources. If you are interested in learning more about these programs in vision impairment, visit the Salus University web site at www.salus.edu.

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