LIVING THE LIFE SHE CHOSE
This Women's History Month we’re sharing stories of our wonderful women graduates, volunteers, and staff. The story below originally appeared in the March 2020 edition of The Guideway, Vol 74 No. 1, our newsletter. To sign up for The Guideway or for other information, please click here.
Lachelle Smith had worked as an accounting clerk in a hotel and as patient service manager in the healthcare division of a large food service company but found these jobs frustrating and difficult. Despite having graduated with a bachelor’s degree in hotel and restaurant management, she was unfulfilled once she was working in the field. “No matter how much I persevered,” she says, “I was unhappy.”
Although Smith has been visually impaired since birth, she never considered herself “blind.” Her family had taught her to never let labels define who she was.
Smith received services from blindness agencies in Pennsylvania and attended a school for blind children for about two years before she started kindergarten, but her interaction with vision specialists was limited throughout elementary school and high school. “I was low vision, but I had to live the sighted life because I was in a mainstream school,” she says. It wasn’t until she attended college that she began to use adaptive technology.
However, once in the working world, she didn’t feel comfortable asking her employers for the assistive tools to make her jobs easier. She was afraid they would think she was incapable of handling the work. Instead, she was doing what she always did: “seeking my own solutions for job tasks I had difficulty performing.”
When Smith was laid off 18 months into a new position, she viewed it as an opportunity to
figure out what direction she wanted to take in life.
At a previous job, an assistive technology specialist had helped her with some special software. Seeing that Smith was unsatisfied with her job, the specialist told her she might be better suited as a vision rehabilitation therapist.
Vision rehabilitation therapists work with individuals who are blind to teach them how to navigate – safely and independently – the activities of daily living, at whatever level they’re comfortable with.
Even though she had been legally blind her whole life, Smith had not received these types of services herself. “When it was introduced to me, I was like, ‘Oh my god, there’s a profession.’ I was intrigued, and I fell in love with it immediately,” she says.
However, her husband had doubts. He had never heard of VRT and wondered about its viability as a profession. He attended her admission interview to learn more. “He and I both left that interview feeling encouraged, and I felt that I had finally found a profession that fit me, my interests, my goals, and my personal calling to help people like me,” Smith says.
With her husband onboard and the support of her extended family to help with their two daughters – one a toddler and the other an infant – Smith began her studies at Salus University’s VRT master’s degree program.
She experienced another blindness milestone at Salus. Years before, “I had had maybe one session with [the white cane],” Smith says. She never used it in college, but now, in grad, school, she discovered she needed it when she was in unfamiliar environments, when it was extremely bright outside, and at night. Still, it was an emotional decision. “I had a like/hate relationship with the cane. I viewed it as a tool of blindness, and while I understood some of my limitations due to my visual impairment, I was passing for sighted and didn’t want to be viewed or perceived to be different because of my vision.”
She adds, “It wasn’t until I completed my graduate program that I began to understand who I was as a visually impaired person.”
Smith recalls working with her first patient, and their excitement when he mastered pouring liquids without “making a mess.” “It was then that I received my first jolt of the ‘power’ my instruction could have for both my consumers and myself. I was going to help people like me live the life that they choose, not the one that’s chosen for them.”
After she received her master’s degree, Smith earned her certification as a vision rehabilitation therapist and soon went to work as a VRT with a state blindness agency, providing services to clients in their homes.
The daily travel, which often involved multiple journeys by trains, buses, subways, and walking, soon took its toll. “Providing vision rehabilitation services was the easy part. Getting to each client 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.”
Smith decided to go part-time, but as she reduced her public agency workload, she opened a private practice to provide services directly to clients, whether they were referred to her through state agencies or came to her privately. “The transition from agency employee to business owner proved excellent for me, both personally and professionally,” she says.
A new career direction
Smith continues to run her own private practice, but several years ago she was approached by her colleagues at Salus to come work for the university’s VRT program. She began as the coordinator of the master’s and certificate programs and is now the director of the VRT programs and an adjunct professor; she is responsible for teaching and molding future vision rehabilitation therapists.
It’s a job that involves a lot of travel. Once her students have completed their coursework, they do internships all over the country. It’s Smith’s job to observe her students during their practical experience in the field. “Wherever my student is located or practicing is where I go,” she says.
This past summer, Smith spent a month in Canada, working with staff from Vision Loss Rehabilitation Canada so they could become certified vision rehabilitation therapists.
A traveling companion
The desire to travel more freely and more safely informed her decision to get a guide dog. Smith came to realize that with the amount of traveling she does nowadays, the cane was slowing her down. “I had a tendency to run into things more or just was never able to really view my surroundings without a quick scanning. I was constantly moving my head back and forth, and I would get very tense.”
Before choosing the Guide Dog Foundation, she made sure to do her research, which included speaking with friends who had guide dogs from the Foundation. It was also important to her that the Foundation is accredited by both the International Guide Dog Federation and Assistance Dogs International. “I thought it was a really great program. I love the small class sizes, the convenient location to my home, and the actual [learning] strategies.”
Smith was teamed with Lyra, a Standard Poodle, because her husband has severe allergies to dog dander.
“The training experience was wonderful,” she says. “My trainer was very patient … I had a lot of questions. He helped me to link this new information with things I could relate to past experiences so there would be a bridge of understanding. I really connected with that.”
Students spend the first week of class learning the basics of guide dog handling. In the second week, their instructor will customize their training to address specific needs or areas students want to work on. For Smith, this included visiting a church and learning how to find a pew and settle Lyra under it. “I go to church a lot, so it was great to get that experience.”
In the months since they’ve been a team, Smith reports that she and Lyra “have been traipsing all over Philadelphia and have gone out of state at least once.” While she’s still figuring out how she might incorporate Lyra in her classroom with her students come the summer, the dog has been welcomed both at work and at home.
Smith’s faith is very important to her. “I believe that my visual impairment is a blessing to my life. There are burdens associated with blindness, but for me, the blessings significantly outweigh the burdens.”
Her guide dog is one of those blessings.