The Modern-Day Helen Keller: Darlene’s Story

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“Alone we can do little, together we can do much.” This well-known quote from Helen Keller has no doubt moved many. But as an advocate for people with disabilities and a member of the deaf-blind community herself, employU client Darlene finds this particular quote significant. Darlene explains, “[It] implies a need to be supportive and responsive.” Two reactions she hopes to inspire when advocating for her community.   

Darlene would like to turn this passion for advocating into a career path with the help of our staff at employU. When asked what her dream job would be, Darlene states that she would like to utilize both her Master’s of Science degree in Human Resources Management and her experience to support the HR team of a business or organization in breaking down the stigma of hiring deaf and/or blind individuals. She would contribute to this cause by assisting them with understanding how to access and provide adaptive technology to allow employees ample opportunity to succeed on the job. She also enjoys program planning, promoting, developing, and researching anything that will allow individuals with disabilities access to the resources they need. Darlene’s empathetic approach and valuable firsthand knowledge are two assets gained from her own life experiences and journey.  

Just before entering first grade, Darlene was diagnosed with Congenital Inner Ear Nerve Deafness and received her first pair of hearing aids at the age of eight. As time went on, Darlene started having trouble seeing and began tripping over things as she walked. It wasn’t until the age of 28 that she was diagnosed with a progressive eye condition called Retinitis Pigmentosa. For years she was able to read, write, and read lips. But her vision was narrowing and she began losing her sight, starting with her peripheral vision.  

Darlene started using a white cane to help her locate objects that were outside of her range of vision, like curbs. But as time went on and retina cells slowly deteriorated, her peripheral field, colors, depth perception, and central vision gradually disappeared. Darlene’s vision has narrowed to less than one degree.   

“Changing from being sighted and reading [to] actually using your fingers [and relying on] touch and hearing is very, very difficult. But it’s doable. You can do it. It just takes practice. Just like you would do when you were learning to read. You have to practice, practice, and practice,” Darlene explains. In 2011, in order to learn more about how to maneuver her new world as a deaf-blind person, Darlene participated in training at the Helen Keller National Center in Sand Point, New York for eight months. Through her training, Darlene gained knowledge of tools, techniques, technology, and other resources. This knowledge has strengthened her ability to perform proficiently on the job and in her daily activities.   

One such resource, the National Deaf Blind Equipment Disbursement Program, provides effective communication equipment to the deaf-blind community in the United States. Through this program, Darlene has been able to gain access to equipment and technology that assist her in her daily life. Currently, Darlene uses several forms of adaptive technology including an assistive listening device (ComPilot). This is a Bluetooth accessible device that she wears around her neck. It can connect to any Bluetooth-capable device that produces sound and route it directly into her ears, muting all background noise. She also has hearing aids and a brail keyboard, which she uses to type 60 words per minute. Additionally, voice over programming utilized with Apple products, and screen readers, such as JAWS, utilized with Windows and PC products, assist her with reading and writing.  

After training in New York, Darlene came home to Florida and began advocating for the deaf and blind community through several organizations. She later became the program coordinator for the Florida Support Service Program. Within a year, Governor Rick Scott appointed her to two state councils: Florida Coordinating Council for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing and the Florida Building Commission Accessibility Advisory Council, to advocate on behalf of those who are blind, deaf, and deaf-blind.   

As a current representative on the Florida Building Commission Accessibility Advisory Council, Darlene is responsible for reviewing waivers sent by contractors and construction companies to determine ADA codes for new and renovated buildings. As a representative on the Coordinating Council for Deaf and Hard of Hearing from 2012 through June 2020, her duties included researching the number of deaf and hard of hearing individuals in the state, summarizing the data, maintaining it in a state utilized spreadsheet, and reporting it to the governor. Her responsibilities also included researching and sharing information and resources for constituents in the community and maintaining the group’s Facebook page.  

But Darlene’s advocacy work doesn’t stop there. From 2011 through 2019, as Coordinator for the Florida Deaf-Blind Association, she was responsible for coordinating with various service providers, researching state-based resources, matching clients and providers accurately, planning and executing workshops and events, and managing the revenue in collaboration with the association’s treasurer. She was also awarded Educator of the Year in 2015 during her time with this organization.  

Currently, Darlene is the Florida Ambassador for the national Usher Syndrome Coalition. In this role, she maintains and updates ongoing research for the coalition, provides and connects individuals in the Usher Syndrome community with resources across the country, and collects information on various accommodations and accessible tourism sites across the state. She is also a member of the National Federation of the Blind, in which she is contacted for consulting purposes regarding resources and access to resources for blind persons in the state of Florida.   

As an active advocate for her community, how does Darlene feel about being compared to the infamous Helen Keller? “I am honored to be labeled a Modern-Day Helen Keller. She is my role model. Her courage and motivation have inspired me tremendously. I have often wondered what she would think of our world today. The tools, technology, and other resources are abundant and rapidly changing every day. I can imagine her being like a child in a candy store, wanting to sample each resource and find the right ones that [are] right for her.”  

While Helen Keller has inspired Darlene, Darlene continues to inspire those around her. She perfectly exemplifies another famous quote by Helen Keller: “Never bend your head. Look the world in the face. Never give up.” Through it all, Darlene has continued to move forward with not only achieving her own goals, but also with working to help others succeed as well. She is certainly an inspiration to us all!