by Bona Son
Hello, my name is Bona Son. I was born legally blind, but not diagnosed as such until the age of four; later diagnosed as cone dystrophy. I was born in Indonesia, but spent the first seven years of my life in San Jose, California. I attended Hester Elementary School, where I was the only student with a visual impairment. It was extremely difficult for my teachers as I could not see the chalkboard regardless of where I sat, and struggled to read regular size print. To add to this, I was still learning to speak, read and understand English. The school I was attending did not have any form of accommodations or adaptations for me. I was extremely scared and felt very isolated and alone.
While in the middle of my second grade year, my family decided to relocate to Stockton, California, a place my family and I, would ultimately call our home. I was now attending Clairmont Elementary School, in the Lodi Unified School District. This is where I would finish the remainder of second grade. Although the situation was fairly similar, I felt that I was turning over a new leaf and had the impression things were going to improve. The school enrolled me in ESL (English as a Second Language) to help with my language barrier; the teachers were very willing to do what was necessary to help me succeed in the classroom setting.
It was not until fourth grade that I was provided a teacher of the visually impaired (TVI) to meet with once or twice a week. She gave me my first series of O&M (orientation and mobility) lessons and taught me how to feel more independent and confident while walking the streets of Stockton, California. She also made me aware of monoculars and how to use them. My English was coming along nicely and the school was providing me with large print textbooks and resources as well. Although I was still the only student in the school with a visual impairment, I no longer felt scared and alone. I was starting to make friends who were able to see past my legal blindness.
Before I began middle school, I was told I would be attending Delta Sierra Middle School instead of Morada. My TVI decided to send me and three other students with visual impairments to the same middle school to build camaraderie and teamwork. This was the first time I encountered anyone besides myself who had a visual impairment; I felt a special connection. I finally met people I could talk to who experienced the difficulties I had at home, school and life in general, and how they dealt with these obstacles. The VI Program at Delta Sierra was one period a day, where we learned to use public transportation, read maps, plan routes and trips, prepare ourselves if we were ever lost or in an area we did not recognize, among many other things. This program would extend beyond middle school and into all four years of high school at Bear Creek High School.
It was during my middle school years that I was first introduced to Community Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired, and the Blind and Low Vision Olympics. I attended several summer trips with many other visually impaired students and sighted volunteers. This made me realize that there were not just a few people with visual impairments like myself but a community of individuals across the globe also enduring the same obstacles as I. It is one of my greatest memories growing up, as I never felt more at peace with my visual impairment. All my life I thought I was alone but those moments allowed me to grow as a person and realize that my visual impairment was not a setback in life, but a special path that I was and still am privileged enough to take.
Upon the end of my junior year in high school, a summer work program was available and offered to students who wanted to get a taste of employment. I was extremely thrilled and pleaded with my parents to allow me the opportunity to do something that was visually out of my comfort zone. Like many other high school students, any job that was available was going to be in the fast food industry. This was my first job experience and it was at Carl's Jr., a fast food burger chain. Although it was not an intellectually stimulating job, and even an average Joe would have no difficulty "flipping burgers", I found it quite challenging. A lot of the steps to create the various menu items were printed on a laminated 8.5"x11" inch piece of paper with, what appeared to be an eight point font. Regardless of how closely I looked, I could not read the steps. No large print version was available to me. Many times I had to ask my fellow co-workers, but ultimately decided that I could perform other duties that were less visually taxing. I spent the majority of the time cleaning the floors, washing dishes, taking out the trash, cooking the fries and burger patties, cutting and storing vegetables, etc. I felt if I could streamline other processes, it would make my co-workers’ jobs easier to create the end product for our customers, and it did. Although it was just a summer job on the weekends, it was very bittersweet when I no longer worked there. The idea of receiving a paycheck felt very rewarding, yet working at a fast food chain seemed mundane.
When high school was over, I attended San Joaquin Delta College and completed my pre-requisites for Computer Engineering. I planned to transfer to CSU Sacramento. (My parents did not want me to relocate very far due to my inability to drive.) While working towards my upper division classes, I encountered many hardships that I could not visually overcome. The circuit boards I was required to wire and program were extremely small, and magnification only helped so much. To make matters worse, many of the wires were different colors and due to my color blindness, made it virtually impossible to distinguish. It was very difficult to abandon a field that I truly loved, but after numerous changes to my major, I finally settled on MIS (Management Information Systems), a hybrid of business and technology.
After completing my Bachelor's Degree in MIS, I was unprepared for a declining economy and certainly not ready for the employment barriers many people with disabilities face while entering the job market. Here I thought that applying for a job with a degree would take upwards of a year, but I endured many years without an interview in sight. I submitted job applications and resumes to multiple places, applied for state positions and completed job examinations with very high marks. Unfortunately, nothing I did appeared to have any impact. I felt depressed and rather worthless as I thought myself to be an asset to the workforce. I ultimately decided to seek assistance from the Department of Rehabilitation. They offered many programs to individuals like me, needing assistance to gain employment. I was referred to an employment program that connected me with many legally blind and visually impaired individuals who also struggled to find employment. All of us in the program had Bachelor's and/or Master's degrees, yet none of us could obtain employment. This was my first realization that the job market was going to be the biggest obstacle in finding employment. On the plus side, I never felt more at peace. During those rough years after college, sending in application after application, I thought I was doing something wrong. Being part of a community and social group allowed me to see that we faced a very common struggle and that I was not alone.
A few months later, I learned a position with the Internal Revenue Service was available with assistance from the Department of Rehabilitation. I responded immediately and attended orientation and several months of training at World Services for the Blind in Little Rock, Arkansas. It was a major change as I had never resided outside of California, but I accepted the opportunity because of the potential for employment. Upon the completion of the program, I relocated to San Leandro, California to work in Oakland, California. My means of transportation to work generally involved several minutes of walking and the BART station, a mass transit system I would grow to love and use on a consistent basis to and from work in the Bay Area. Because the hiring process was coordinated with World Services for the Blind for this particular position, accommodations of all kinds were scheduled and planned months in advance. Unlike my fast food position of years past, my first day of training was greeted with open arms. I was provided a closed circuit television desktop video magnifier (CCTV), a portable video magnifier, a large screen monitor with screen magnification software and keyboard, etc. I truly felt at home as my coworkers, staff and managers were very welcoming towards my visual impairment and legal blindness. After a year and a half of working at the IRS, I made the hard decision to resign and relocate back to Stockton, California. My significant other of more than 15 years and I decided the time had come to marry and that would be difficult to achieve if I continued to work in the Bay Area.
When I relocated back to Stockton, California, I started with great optimism. I anticipated that my work experience at the IRS would surely be a great asset to other organizations. Unfortunately, I was met with the same grim results. I applied to many local and state jobs within San Joaquin and Sacramento counties, but to no avail. I contacted the Department of Rehabilitation once again, which connected me with job developers and assistance from United Cerebral Palsy and the Community Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired. I felt reinvigorated once again. I knew I was on the right path towards gaining employment. I was also applying for jobs more than before. It definitely helped that I had more individuals helping me in the application process. While this was occurring, I was being re-introduced to services offered by CCBVI and met an O&M instructor by the name of Joni Bauer. She gladly met me at my home to get a true understanding of the environment that I encounter on a daily basis. I explained to Joni what I was and was not able to see and do, and some of the daily challenges I encountered. We also shared some of our hobbies and interests, and realized that we both enjoyed riding our bicycles. Although I could never ride 200 miles a day like Joni, I enjoy riding my bicycle with extreme caution, as I typically pedal with others vocally guiding me from time to time. As I progressively discussed my interests in computers and technology, Joni gladly provided me information regarding a potential internship opportunity at San Joaquin Regional Transit District (RTD). She specified there was no certainty, and that she would stay in contact with me through the process. Within a few weeks, Joni had provided me the internship opportunity of a lifetime. RTD’s chief technology officer immediately contacted me to schedule an interview. Two days after the interview, I received an e-mail offering me a position. I ecstatically accepted the position and contacted Joni to thank her for believing in me and giving me the chance to show organizations that individuals with disabilities are severely misjudged and deserve a chance to prove we are far more capable than many believe.
As of today, I have worked at RTD for about seven months. I am extremely grateful to Joni and the many organizations and programs that believed in me when I did not believe in myself. RTD has been incredibly supportive of my legal blindness and has made every attempt to ensure I am comfortable in my working environment. I will continue to do my best and represent the visually impaired and legally blind community with utmost respect.
With the help and education from the many VI teachers, programs, associations, and communities I have encountered, I feel more confidence, freedom and independence than ever before. This has allowed me to physically explore the world around me without using my vision as an obstacle. I have been able to white-water raft on the American River, ride my bike more than 40 miles, hike to the tops of various mountains and waterfalls, run and complete over 20 different races (5k, 10k and half marathons). I will participate in Spartan, Tough Mudder, and Warrior Dash races next year.
These are a few of the things I never dreamed were physically possible. The foundational support I received from the Stockton community instilled confidence to a once scared and alone individual. Outside of work, I travel the world with my wife, during our many vacations, and lead a rich, fulfilling life, without ever doubting if my legal blindness will stand in the way because I know it will not. This is my journey. It has only just begun.
Having Fun & Raising Money to Provide Crucial Services for the People in San Joaquin County Who Are Blind
Community Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired was the topic of a recent article in SAN JOAQUIN MAGAZINE! Check out the article about our recent fundraiser!
Quarterly YAGA Workshops (Young Adults Graduating and Advancing)
Identify Strengths ♦ Solve Problems ♦ Improve Social Skills ♦ Build Self-Esteem
- Assistive Technology
- College Prep and Information Tours
- Job Seeking Skills
- Social Media
- Support Network
As featured in the SAN JOAQUIN PARENTS MAGAZINE, Sept/Oct 2016 Edition.