Columbia City Based Dept of Services for the Blind Facilitating “Economic Vitality” for People With Visual Disabilities

by Brian Bergen-Aurand

Nearly 160,000 people in the state of Washington are visually disabled, according to the most recent American Foundation for the Blind statistics. Blindness and low vision affect every demographic in the state and can play a role in the education, employment, independence, and general wellbeing of every visually disabled person.

The Seattle office of Washington State’s Department of Services for the Blind (DSB) is located at 3411 S Alaska St, Seattle, WA 98118 in the Rainier Vista/Columbia City neighborhood, three blocks west of Columbia Park. According to their website, the state’s DSB “provides ‘one front door’ for people of all ages who are blind or have low vision in Washington State.”

The DSB offers job counseling (including skills and assistive technology training and school-to-work assistance), teaches adaptive skills and provides counseling to people who are blind or have low vision, and serves children and youth who are blind or have low vision “from birth through high school graduation.”

They also support recreational activities and provide “resources and support for families and friends of people who are blind or have low vision” and work with businesses to maximize resources and returns with regard to the blind and low vision community.

On Thursday, December 21, 2017, I spoke with their Communications Manager, A. LaDell Lockwood. For about twenty minutes, Lockwood (who goes by LaDell) and I talked about the wide range of services DSB offers, the office’s place in the community, and what they foresee as the future of their particular disability services.

“Work is our goal,” Lockwood told me. “If you want my thirty-second summary of what we do, that’s it. We work on a case-by-case basis to provide training and support to help blind and visually impaired persons get or keep their current jobs, no matter their age.

“If you are fourteen years old, we help you finish school and go on the job market. If you are sixty-four, our counselors might recommend new computer screens or other adaptive technology training so you can stay in the job you have.

“And we help employers accommodate their employees. Again, it is always on a case-by-case basis, but sometimes we can help with costs. We are a state office, and we have some federal funding—through the Department of Education—so there are always hoops, of course. But, if we can help with costs, we do.”

When I asked Lockwood more about DSB’s relation with employers, she replied exuberantly, “Yes! We want more employers to come in and start the process with us, even before they have any employees who are blind or have low vision. We would like to be able to help more employers be more proactive.”

“Sometimes employers—especially small business owners—think the cost of adaptation will be prohibitive. But, sometimes it is just a matter of a different light bulb or a new piece of software. Our goal is to work with them on a case-by-case basis to provide accommodations.

The Seattle office of DSB (the largest of the seven facilities located throughout the state) serves clients across the region—from South Seattle to the Canadian border and from the Cascade Range to the Pacific Ocean. They also have a cooperative agreement that sometimes finds them serving Oregonians and others from outside their jurisdiction.

Currently, the office is serving 1338 clients, 326 of whom are under 24 years old, an age distinction established by federal guidelines. At this point in the 2017 federal fiscal year, they have successfully completed assistance to 133 clients.

“Not everyone we help is blind, emphasized Lockwood. Some people have low vision. This is a common misunderstanding. If you have any level of visual impairment, our counselors may be able to assist you.

“In addition to our employment programs, we also focus on other aspect of independent living. We provide training and counseling. We have residential life-skills facilities and work with the Washington State School for the Blind (WSSB). They are a separate entity in Vancouver, but because we have some clients in common, we do partner with them on occasion.

As our conversation turned toward the Seattle DSB office’s location in Columbia City, Lockwood (who has been with the agency for four years) said she was not sure why they first chose the site almost thirty-five years ago but recalls that their student dormitories used to be located nearby at Rainier and Adams.

“I can tell you that this is a good, vibrant neighborhood and a good location for our office, with public transportation, stops directly in front of the building and a parking lot available for our clients—many of whom use ride sharing or arrange rides with family, friends, or other service providers. Our clients often do not have disposable income, so we need to maintain an accessible location.

“And, we try to be a good neighbor. We try to be part of the community. We have been looking to upgrade the building and renovate somewhat. This is a good place to be.

“We also try to be involved in the neighborhood. We have had a booth at the local farmer’s market and we recently did a special White Cane Safety day event in October.”

When, near the end of the phone call, I asked Lockwood about the future of the office and the services they provide, she said they are all waiting to learn exactly how the new tax bill will affect their funding and how any changes at the federal level might affect the work they do locally.

“One thing we know for sure is that our demographics are changing,” Lockwood said. As the baby boomers and later generations age, they experience more issues with their vision. As we age, we need more vision support. So, we expect more clients from that change, perhaps.

“Also, on the other end, we provide services through the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, which was passed in 2013. Those resources help us provide more services for young people. Any changes in that act could also affect how we assist clients.

“The only thing we are waiting to find out is how the new tax bill will affect what we do here. No one seems quite sure yet what effects it might have. Besides that, though, we do not have plans to change how we serve clients.”

Washington State’s DSB is open Monday through Thursday, 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. They do not accept walk-in visits because they want to have counselors available and start the process as soon as they meet with clients. They can be contacted for appointments, though, through their website or by telephone at 206-906-550 or fax at 206-721-4103. The state DSB can be reached toll-free at 1-800-552-7103 and will direct clients to the nearest agency office.

Brian Bergen-Aurand is an editor-at-large with the South Seattle Emerald, the founder and chief editor of Screen Bodies and the editor of two books: Comedy Begins with Our Simplest Gestures and Transnational Chinese Cinema (with Mary Mazzilli and Hee Wai Siam). He is also an instructor at Bellevue College and the administrator of the blog where he writes about film, disability, and political culture. Follow Brian Bergen-Aurand on Google+ and on Twitter @bbergenaurand.