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Interview with Maria Rios, New Yorker with a Song in Her Heart


By Leonor Coello

Maria presently has two jobs, one working from home as a medical transcriber three days a week, and the other working at Baruch College's Computer Center for Visually Impaired People, as a Tutor to visually impaired students two days a week. She tutors students in Microsoft Word, Windows, and using the Internet.

LC: Maria, describe your life

MR: I keep my life very busy. I don't mean to but it just gets that way between work, singing, and my performing. I am always either working or learning new music. I do lots of reading and have joined a service called Audible.com, which has books on computer. We are able now to get the recent books, the library used to take a long time to get the new books.

I don't feel any less of a person or that I've missed that much in my life. There are times when I wish I could drive, but for the most part I am happy and feel that I am a well-rounded person. The choices I've made have made me never regret not being fully sighted. I lost my sight as a baby so I don't really remember what it was like to have total vision. I think it is better now than when I was a child, because I remember then I was always bumping into things.... it did not stop me though, I kept going.

In the future I guess I hope to keep up with my music. Someday I hope to sit back and enjoy retirement, but I don't know if I will be able to. I will probably always keep myself busy; it is better for you mentally and physically. Even when I had an accident and broke my kneecap that didn't stop me, I was in the hospital for a week but as soon as I was out I was right back to the Lighthouse in a cast and wheelchair. Being visually impaired sometimes leads you to very funny experiences. I think that is the best way to handle any kind of disability. Rather than cry over spilled milk, it should be handled with humor cause humor helps uplift you and it does not let you get depressed.

LC: I know your parents are from Puerto Rico, but were you born here?

MR: No, I was born in Puerto Rico and came to Pennsylvania when I was one-year-old.

LC: What is your favorite hobby?

MR: Music! I actually have two: music and reading. I have taken some piano lessons, right now I am also taking voice, and I am in two courses at the Lighthouse in Manhattan.

LC: Tell me about your love for music, I understand you have a beautiful voice.

MR: Well thank you, I went to a school for the blind called the New York Institute for the Blind, which still exists by the way. They had a great music department. I've always loved music. My mother said that before I could speak I was singing. People would come by and pay me quarters (I don't know what happened to the quarters, I guess my mother.... ha, ha.) to sing Spanish songs because that is all my parents listened to at that time. I grew up listening to the radio a lot, I don't know, I always had the ability pick up the melody and the words. When I started going to the institute they had a course for kids, I sang there and started taking piano lessons, and I guess my love for music just developed more and more. In high school I was in the chorus and we had music festivals. At that time each state had at least one or two schools for the blind. Each year we would get together at one state or another and have a weekend big music festival. However, my love for music came mostly from listening to the radio and a lot of buying records. I used to love to watch Shindig (now I am dating myself) Gold Diggers, all those musical shows. When I moved here it was excellent because the friends that introduced me to Lynnette, this couple Dottie and Steve, they used to sing for the library. The library has programs in different boroughs so when I moved here we formed a foursome. The library would hire us and pay us to sing in the different library programs. After Dottie and Steve moved to South Carolina, Lynnette and I continued to sing for the library now and then. As a part of the Lighthouse ensemble we are going to be singing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art next month.

LC: How did you found out about the job? Did some one refer you or did the school send you after you took the course?

MR: At the time there was a Radiology Medical group that sprang from Lenox Hill Hospital and they decided to make their own practice. They were looking for a transcriber so they contacted the Lighthouse because the doctors knew a transcriber who was blind that worked in the hospital. The hospital contacted the Lighthouse, the Lighthouse contacted the Jewish Guild, I just happened to be ready, and they hired me right then and there.

Computers

LC: At what age did you decide that you wanted to learn how to use the computer? Was it your decision or did someone else suggest it?

MR: Actually, I was living in South Jersey, working as a medical transcriber for the hospital in town. At that time I did not use a computer. In fact, computers were not in use as a general rule, so I was working with a typewriter, which was horrible because when I made a mistake I would not know it. When my supervisor would go over my work I would end up having to type the whole thing over again. On the other hand, some times I would run out of ribbon and would not know until two or three reports later. It was not fun having nothing on the pages. Therefore, I decided to move to New York because there was a lot more accessibility for the blind. At that point computers were being used more and it seemed to me the right thing for me to do. I went to the Jewish Guild for the Blind for training, at the time they were teaching Word Perfect because that was the program most being used in business, this was in '87, early '88. The Commission for the Blind gave me a computer after I took the course and I got a job working for Lenox Hospital and Radiology using the computer and I worked for them for 13 years.

LC: How has learning the computer helped you?

MR: Immeasurably! It has changed my whole work pattern and everything for me. It has made it so much easier; I can correct my own work now. I am now sure that when I send a job out it is spell checked. I am an excellent speller anyway, but sometimes your fingers do some strange things. I am able to hear my reports before they go out because I use a screen reader (JAWS). I key in a word it reads whatever I am keying in so now I know what I am writing. Before, I thought I knew what I was writing now I am sure. In addition, it is really excellent for educational or personal gratification because I love to e-mail. I keep in touch with people by sending messages via e-mail. I am called now the queen of e-mail. I also like to get on the Internet and look up different things. If I think of something that I would like to know more about, and sometimes I don't sleep well at night and I hear the radio and they mention that you can get such and such a thing at www, I get on the computer and check it out. It is great for getting information. Here in New York there is a library for the blind but it is not close to where I live, so I can't go there at any time, so with the internet I can just access any information that I need to know about at any time. It is also great for music, I can hunt for our favorite music of yester years, and I am also able to download music.

LC: Where do you find the information on what technology is available for persons who are visually impaired?

MR: Actually there are a lot of different sites, everybody has a site nowadays. On the other hand, if you don't know the sites just keying in a related word, like vision or books or blindness and the search engine will take you to the different site that may help you. Every so often I get messages in my e-mail offering sites of groups of people who are visually impaired to get together. There is a chatroom of people who are visually impaired members of the American Council for the Blind (ACB).

LC: Before the web, how did you find out what was available for you?

MR: Mostly by word of mouth, so it was not that often and there was not much flow of information. Because it was harder to find, you would have to know about the existence of the Lighthouse. Mainly organizations would only give you the information about their own programs. A lot of the other information you would have to get from other sources like friends, so it was good to some degree but it was not as efficient as it is now.

Independent Living

LC: At what age did you decide you wanted to live on your own? In addition, how was the transition with your family?

MR: I had wanted to live independently for a while, but it was not until I was about 35 because I was living with my mother in a house that I helped to buy in New Jersey. I also had a little sister that I was helping to raise. Therefore, it was not easy to pick up and leave. When my sister grew up and got married, that is when I decided that it was time to make a life of my own. Down in South Jersey there is no transportation so I had to depend on people taking me everywhere. That got a little bit weary and annoying. I had friends here in New York and they introduced me to Lynnette, who was also looking to becoming independent as well so we decided to room together since neither of us could afford rent on our own. I think probably knowing that I had someone here that would help me out made it easier leave. When I did it was exciting, I felt like a new world had opened. Really, I moved here and I really never looked back, I haven't regretted it, not one day.

Advice

LC: Finally, what advice would you give to a person who is visually impaired and says " I will never be able to learn computers, or able to manage on my own?"

MR: I would say to them to think again, to not give up or not close themselves up in that type of thinking that "I am blind and can't do anything" because there are many blind people out there doing a lot. I have even heard of blind physicians. Of course you are not going to be a sergeant, but you just have to deal in realities, what is and what isn't possible to do. Today, what you can do is so much more than it used to be, you can become pretty much anything you want to be because the technology now is there. When I was going to college I had to depend on people and readers, on classmates for reading and for my homework. Sometimes kids are not always so reliable. Now days blind students have computers and all they have to do is go to the net to look for books for their homework. If you don't have enough economic resources, the Commission for the Blind is a great organization because if they see that you are a serious student or seeking for a particular job, if they feel that it is a viable line of work they will help you with adaptive equipment.

The best advice that I can give is to keep trying to do either what you have always done or find ways of modification around your vision to get the work that you want to do. You can also try to connect to agencies or people who can give you other avenues of work or studies, but never give up and don't be afraid to ask for help. Don't stay at home, try to get out there and do your thing. The worst thing you can do is give up and stay at home. The life as you saw it then or was experiencing it then, that may be over but there is a change now and it's like going down a new path and opening new avenues. It can be fun!