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Lynnette Tatum Learns From Life Experience, Uses it to Her Advantage

by Leonor Coello, Rehabilitation International

Lynette Tatum stands near a computer at her place of work.
Lynette Tatum at the Computer Center for Visually Impaired People at Barch College.

Lynnette Tatum is a senior instructor at the Computer Center for Visually Impaired People at Baruch College. She is partially sighted, lives independently, and enjoys computers, music, reading and talking, among other things. I chose to interview her because I was fortunate enough to befriend her while we worked at Rehabilitation International together. She has taught me a lot.

The Professional
LC: Lynnette, tell us about your job.

LT: I have been an instructor at the Computer Center for Visually Impaired People at Baruch College ( ) for more than two years. Basically, this means I teach a lot. I try to get blind and partially sighted people skilled in using commercial computer software, such as Microsoft Office including Word, Excel, Power Point, Access, and Internet Explorer.

I give computer seminars for people at beginning and intermediate computer skill levels. The courses are three-hour hands-on workshops. Many of my clients are adults referred from the Commission for the Blind and Visually Handicapped, but I teach people of all ages including pre-teens and teens. Right now I also teach a student who is 90!

The Beginning
LC: When did you decide that you wanted to learn computers, and how did you get into it?

LT: I have my mother to thank for that. My mom took it upon herself to guide me into a career after I left college. She suggested I visit the Jewish Guild for the Blind. I was in my early 20s when I first went to the Guild. They were so impacted that it took nine months to get into a program. Despite the wait, my experience at the Guild literally changed my life. I started out taking a simple typewriting class with a patient teacher for one hour a week. While at the Guild I also learned writing, English language skills, word usage, punctuation, and transcription. Before I went to the Guild I didn't have access to any equipment or technology. Even the typewriter I used through school broke.

A Learning Lifestyle
LC: You recently told me you have gained a lot of experience and knowledge from past jobs. Can you elaborate on that?

LT: I never dreamed I would have held all the jobs I've had. The knowledge and experience gained in each employment situation has only made me stronger. In past jobs, I learned diplomacy and people skills. My progress in regards to computer skills has been virtually non-stop since I started working. Negative or positive, I take all my experiences and make them work for me.

Transition to Independent Living
LC: When did you decide you wanted to live independently, and why?

LT: I wanted to live independently as soon as I got my first job. That was in July 1988. I remember getting my first check and I knew I wanted to strike out on my own.

I went with my friend Maria to search for our first apartment?ithout a sighted assistant. When we got to the apartment building, we noticed it was a nice building and even had a doorman. The apartment itself, however, was not so great. All the rooms had been painted in different bright colors. We told the manager we'd move in as long as they made some changes. We returned for a second visit to discover they had painted the walls and polished the floors, but they hadn't painted the ceilings. We asked them why the ceilings were not repainted. They told us it was because they thought we would not notice. Well, we did!

But even though it's been a while since I've been living on my own, I am still transitioning, still learning. Before I moved out of my parent's house I was carefree. Now I have to be responsible.

Sometimes the transition is harder for the family, but my mom took the news that I was moving out pretty well. She raised me to be independent. As an adolescent I visited friends in Queens on my own. If I didn't know where I was going she would say, "you'll find it." I even did a little bit of cooking on my own and became known as the pasta queen.

Not all transitions are this easy. One of the things I've noticed through my work is that many families of people with disabilities do not want to let go of their disabled loved ones. This is especially true in the Latino community.

Recently, I met a young Latina who is the daughter of immigrants. She was very passive because her family did not allow her to have a lot of contact with people outside her family. Her parents did not want to let go of her. They didn't see the big picture. That is, that we have many resources available to us that allow us to live full, productive, independent lives. It saddens me when I see the family members of a person with a disability prevent them from practicing the skills they learn to do alone like cook, choose clothes, and count money.

Overcoming Barriers
LC: What has been, or still is, the biggest barrier that you have had to overcome?

LT: Educating the sighted population. Most non-disabled people have zero disability awareness. My greatest annoyance is what I call the "over there" syndrome. Sighted people see a person with a cane and when the person with the cane asks where something is located they say "over there." Where is this mystical place "over there?"

Personal Interests
LC: Tell me a little bit about yourself outside of work.

LT: I love singing and playing music. Right now I am taking guitar lessons on the Internet and at Lighthouse International. Recently, the Lighthouse group did a show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. One of my other hobbies is downloading music and books off the Internet. My sister, my niece and I make CDs together. It has become a family thing.

Current events also thrill me. I just started listening to a program on Radio International called "The World" about America's relationship with the world. I especially enjoy the stories they do about music.

And, as you know, a computer fanatic. I am on various lists including a visually impaired computer users group. We are always is looking for new members, I encourage readers to research the groups online.

LC: What advice would give to a visually impaired person who thinks they can't do it?

LT: I would tell them that it is not impossible, it really isn't. If you don't have Internet skills, there are a lot of non-computer related careers to pursue.

Students should consult the director of disability programs at their schools for vocational assistance. People who are working or out of work should research their local agencies for the blind, independent living centers and vocational rehabilitation offices.

LC: Thank you Lynnette, at least today you educated one sighted person.