Vocational Rehabilitation Technologist and Bookshare member applies her technical and artistic talents to serve clients and explore creative outlets
When Jolene Nemeth was eight, the teacher wrote some math problems on the chalkboard and told the students to write what they see. Jolene wrote little squiggles on her paper. The teacher thought she was not paying attention, so she sent her to the principal’s office. The principal started laughing and said, “This is what you saw, right?” Jolene said, “Yes, that’s what I saw. I’m being honest with you.”
Due to cataracts and glaucoma starting at age three, Jolene has a significant visual impairment. Her parents believed in mainstream classes and fought for accommodations. Although teachers were willing to help her, many didn’t understand Jolene’s challenges. Fortunately, the principal brought in some services. The teacher was given bright yellow sidewalk chalk and told to write as big as her hand. Jolene also received assistance from an aide who taught her how to advocate for herself. Even so, she experienced initial resistance from parents: “We don’t want a blind kid in the school.”
Jolene Pursues Artistic and Academic Passions
Jolene’s visual impairment didn’t stop her from pursuing artistic outlets. “Since I was young, I enjoyed drawing cartoons and painting,” she says. “I loved reading comics and had a library of Garfield books as well as Peanuts, Calvin and Hobbes, and Disney books. I began writing children’s fiction and illustrating the stories.”
Jolene pursued her passions in school and earned a bachelor’s degree in communications with a minor in art. She studied television and radio production and 3D animation. In 2001, after graduation, she lost all remaining vision from a failed surgery – the forty-first operation on her eyes. At this point she turned her attention to assistive technology as an avenue to achieve career goals.
Jolene Prepares Clients for Success in the Classroom and the Workplace
Today, Jolene lives in Manchester, Connecticut, with Donner, her German Shepherd guide dog. She is a Vocational Rehabilitation Technologist who works for the Bureau of Education and Services for the Blind. She is one of three specialists who provides services to individuals with visual impairments and some physical disabilities. She currently has fifteen clients in three categories: preparation for school, preparation for work, and job retention.
She evaluates clients’ technology needs and recommends assistive technology that will help them with work or school situations. She suggests various hardware and software options including portable video magnifiers, braille displays, special keyboards, and software. She also trains clients so that they can use the technology effectively in all environments.
Bookshare is Invaluable Resource for Education and Employment
One resource Jolene recommends to her clients is Bookshare and its vast collection of over 900,000 accessible ebooks for people with reading barriers such as blindness, dyslexia, and cerebral palsy. “Bookshare is an important part of their training,” Jolene explains. “I educate them on the various ways they can read Bookshare books and the different types of books available. The students use many sources, but Bookshare is by far the best because it has the largest collection of books and the ones they need. From textbooks to research materials to novels, Bookshare is an essential tool for students. I only wish it was available when I was in college,” she explains. Job seekers can find books related to upskilling, resume writing, and interviewing, and other clients have found books to support professional development.
Her clients typically read using a reading app on a computer or assistive technology device. Those with limited sight read books with DAISY text and audio because they can see how words are spelled. Others rely solely on audio and choose from a variety of high-quality digital voices.
Access to Books Strengthens Artistic Pursuits
“Before I lost my remaining eyesight, I enjoyed drawing, painting, and sewing,” says Jolene. “I eventually learned to do many arts and crafts again.” To create her artwork, Jolene uses wikki stix – wax-covered yarn – to form an outline on bristol board which she fills in using watercolor markers and colored pencils. “I even download art books from Bookshare to read about different techniques or to refresh my memory about the visual aspects of drawing and painting.”
A Bookshare member since 2002, Jolene has downloaded over 3,000 books. She soaks up medical thrillers by Richard Preston, Michael Chrichton, Tess Gerritsen, and Robin Cook, and counts the Harry Potter and Chronicles of Pern series among her favorites. She uses a computer, Victor Reader Stream, and her iPhone to read books. When she listens to audiobooks, she increases the narration speed to almost 400 words a minute. “I can finish a 300-page book in less than three hours,” she says. She also appreciates the bookmarking feature and the option to download BRF (braille ready format) files and read them with her Braille display.
Keep Looking Forward
Jolene has learned to be resourceful, reinvent herself, and keep forging ahead. “Many of my clients get frustrated and have difficulty dealing with barriers of being disabled,” she says. “The world can be challenging for those of us who are blind or visually impaired. Life is not about what happens to us, it is about how we deal with it. The important thing is to find ways to do the things you enjoy and try new things. Strive to do your best, learn from your mistakes, and keep looking forward because you never know what you will discover in life’s journey.”