Teaching Independent Living, Volunteerism and Advocacy Skills
by Empish J. Thomas
Lithonia, Georgia

Instructor, advocate and volunteer are all words that accurately describe Doug Hall, 60, a senior rehabilitation specialist at the Orientation and Adjustment Center in Daytona Beach, Florida. The center is located on one of the largest blindness services campuses in the country, boasting about six organizations that train and assist disabled people with independent living skills. Agencies include the Center for the Visually Impaired, the Braille and Talking Book Library, the Florida Division of Blind Services, Easter Seals and the Lions Club among others. In addition to these organizations, Hall identified training apartments as being an added feature that helps to foster independence. "These dorms and apartments are ideal places for learning independent living skills," he said. "Students live there for about three weeks living on their own."

Since November 2006, Hall has been teaching personal management to people who are blind or visually impaired. Hall, who has been blind since he was 8 years old, is passionate about instructing students in the skills critical for independent living, such as cooking, cleaning and grocery shopping. He firmly believes that in the field of rehabilitation, it is important to not only learn skills to be employed, but for life in general. "My goal for my students is to help them have a well-rounded life that is balanced," said Hall. "I love my job as I get to influence what they do and actually see their progress."

In his classroom of two to three students per session, Hall also focuses on personal grooming, social skills, community involvement and advocacy. He enjoys sharing ideas with his students and considers himself as much of a student as he is a teacher. "I encourage my students if they have a question to ask, and I will find the information, because there is not one answer," he said. "I leave myself wide open to different ideas and solutions to problems."

A major part of Hall's career track has been volunteerism and that is how he acquired his position at the Orientation and Adjustment Center. "While working at the Braille and Talking Book Library, I was asked to be a volunteer consultant," said Hall. "I had been doing consulting work for about two years when the job was offered to me." It was an excellent opportunity so Hall took the job after 14 years working as the Volunteer Services Center specialist at the library where he coordinated volunteers and handled public relations. His position at the library also came about through his volunteer work. "I was working on the consumer advisory committee for the library at the time," he said. "It is truly about networking and being at the right place at the right time." He was familiar with reading programs because of prior volunteer and consulting work for the University of Florida and used that previous experience in his job at the Braille and Talking Book Library.

Hall began his career path in New York where he received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the State University of New York at Geneseo in 1971. Five years later he received a master's degree in counseling at the University of New Hampshire. While vacationing in Florida, a unique job opportunity presented itself and Hall took it and relocated his family. The Rehabilitation Center for the Blind (the center's name was changed) had a counselor position open that required experience in blindness and mental illness. Hall had worked in the rehabilitation field for two years with people who had mental illnesses, which made him an ideal candidate for the position. "I was the only one who had that background out of 25 applicants," he said.

When Hall is not teaching his students in independent living skills, he is a fierce advocate for the disability community. In 2005, he was appointed to two councils by the governor of Florida. On the Florida Independent Living Council, which oversees all the statewide independent living centers, Hall has been the secretary and chairs the state planning committee. On the Florida Rehabilitation Council, Hall works as the liaison between both of these councils. He has been a self-advocate for many years and tries to impress the importance of advocacy on his students. "Sometimes I take the students with me to meetings," said Hall. "I want them to see and believe that they can help create change in their community."

Hall has other advocacy projects in which he is involved, such as the Florida Council of the Blind where he has worked for more than 15 years on the access committee, which looks at programs and physical access. He also has helped to develop a coalition for statewide transportation services where organizations such as the Blinded Veterans, National Federation of the Blind, Statewide Independent Living Council, Lighthouse for the Blind and others work on creating and improving public transportation options. Hall admits that balancing his advocacy projects and teaching can be challenging. Many times there are scheduling conflicts as advocacy meetings and classes are held during the daytime. "In order to work around this, I sometimes get other instructors to help with my classes," said Hall. "I am also learning to pull back on some of my commitments and to say 'no' more often."

Hall says that being an advocate allows him to give back because many people have done a lot for him over the years. "I can repay what I have been given," Hall said. "It has opened doors for me and I have developed a lot of contacts." This philosophy is not only beneficial for a successful life but for a career as well. Hall's self-advocacy and volunteerism has launched him into a rewarding career that he loves. He advises anyone who wants to pursue this type of career to volunteer and get involved in the disability community. "Volunteering provides a chief way of doing things," he said. "Employers are not likely to hire you without volunteer experience because it shows a lack of willingness to get involved." Hall's other words of advice are directly in line with what he teaches his students in the personal management classes. "Appearance is critical because sighted people depend on that more than blind people do," said Hall. "Grooming is very important because it can reflect a poor self-image." Other suggestions include having good written and oral communication skills, being punctual and asking for help. "If you don't ask and you don't try, the answer is no," said Hall. Also, a positive can-do attitude gives you a leg up over the competition."

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