Posts Tagged ‘Intersectionality’

Smashing Disability Stigma with Blindish Latina, Catarina Rivera

Wednesday, April 28th, 2021

Catarina Rivera as a young girl with her hearing aids and a toothy grin.
Catarina Rivera grew up Deaf. By the time she was comfortable not only using hearing aids but with herself as well, she received a diagnosis; she was going Blind. She just so happened to be getting ready to leave home for college.

Today, she has a Master’s in Public Health and is using her platform, Blindish Latina, to advocate and spread awareness. Hear more about her journey and how you too can be a “Stigma Smasher!”



Blindish Latina


Show the transcript

Greetings Reid My Mind Radio Family!

It’s so very nice to be back here with you.
If this is your first time here allow me to welcome you and introduce myself.
My name is Thomas and I’m serving as the host and producer of this here podcast which features compelling people impacted by all degrees of blindness and disability.

Every now and then I bring you stories from my own experience as a man adjusting to becoming Blind as an adult.

In case I haven’t mentioned it for a while, my focus here is on those adjusting to becoming Blind. Honestly though, the more I learn and consider the adjustment process, I think the specific disability isn’t as important. Yes, of course, it matters, especially when trying to resolve specific challenges or learn technique, but there can be so much insight to gain no matter the disability.

I tend to highlight those things that I think are especially important for someone new to blindness, but we all hear differently – meaning you may resonate strongly with something said where I may not. I’d love to know if that is the case so, please remember you can always reach out and share that with me by emailing

Now, let’s get this Poppin’!

Audio: Reid My Mind Theme Music

I’m Katerina Rivera, the founder of Blindish Latina. I am a light skinned Latina woman with long dark brown wavy hair. And I’m currently wearing blue glasses.

— Music Begins – A smooth chill Hip Hop beat…

When I was about three or four years old, that’s when my parents first started noticing that I had trouble hearing, I think I was walking away from them and then not responding when they would call me.

We found out that I had hearing loss and I was fitted with hearing aids, I went to one year of special education, and then I was mainstream. I still received speech therapy on a regular basis, I had an IEP continuously throughout my education. And for the most part, though, I was mainstreamed.


Catarina and her family had no explanation for her hearing loss until she was 17 years old.


I was diagnosed with Usher syndrome, which is a combination of progressive vision loss due to retinitis pigmentosa. And hearing loss depends on which type of Ushers you have


There are three major types of Usher syndrome, known as type 1, 2 and 3. They’re distinguished by the severity of hearing loss, the presence or absence of balance problems, and the age at which signs and symptoms appear.

By 17 years old, Catarina, adjusted to her hearing loss, fully accepted wearing hearing aids and was comfortable in her own skin.

She was on her way to Duke University on a scholarship when diagnosed with vision loss.


When I first got diagnosed, I felt like it was a huge tragedy in my life. It was upsetting, surprising. And it felt like a very big loss. I think that I had to go through the stages of grief in some way. When I was reacting to this, when my parents heard about it, they were very upset. And I felt pain for them. So, I felt like I had to be strong for them.


Presenting that strength doesn’t give much opportunity to deal with the emotions. Even sharing with friends who often don’t know how to respond doesn’t feel right.


I felt like I was dropping a bomb. I felt really heavy. I don’t tell people, hey, I’m going blind, I find that when I would do that, it would really evoke a sense of pity. People feel sorry for me. And I was feeling bad. At the time, I was feeling bad about it. But as I progressed, in my journey, that language doesn’t resonate with me anymore. It’s not the way that I tell my story. It’s not, it doesn’t feel like a tragedy anymore, but I can definitely empathize with myself at that time.

TR in Conversation with Catarina: 10:05
You never said anything about even exploring the idea of postponing school where I’ve heard from other people, and it would be sort of understandable where someone might, hey, I gotta take some time. It sounds like you still went straight to college.

— Music Ends…

Was there ever any sort of, thing about Oh, okay, maybe I should postpone this because of the vision loss?


That’s a very interesting question. I have not heard that before. And I mean, I get it, it makes sense, every person is going to have their own response to something like that.

I never felt like I needed time away from school.


Retinitis Pigmentosa is progressive so the early diagnosis didn’t impact her studies as much as the hearing loss.

With an accommodation allowing her to register early, Catarina avoided the large classes in auditoriums and opted instead for smaller classes making it easier for her to hear the lectures.

There was more of an impact on her social life.
And she wisely considered her vision loss in her decision-making process.


I decided not to drink alcohol, because I didn’t want to impair myself any further, I saw that people were really cutting loose, you know, and partying. And I remember thinking to myself is it’s every person for themselves here.

I would focus more on dancing, because I couldn’t hear people when the music was loud, and I love to dance. So, I never stopped myself from having a good time.


All of this considered, it’s not surprising, Catarina didn’t feel a part of the blind community. For a while she could still drive and wasn’t using a white cane.

It wasn’t until she moved to New York City after graduation and began seeking out community.

When I moved to New York, I didn’t have a job, I had decided to go into the field of education. And I was very motivated to make a difference for the Latino community, for my people. I had applied to a program called Teach for America, where you commit to working in a low-income classroom for two years. And I was very lucky, because not only could I move to New York, to access great public transit, I also was able to go even further than what I had hoped.

I basically got a job as an elementary school teacher teaching third grade, and bilingual education and I was working with students who had Spanish as their first language. It was exactly what I wanted to do, it felt meaningful. I taught at that school; it was in the Bronx.

— Music Begins, a strong, dramatic intro to a driving Hip Hop beat

TR in Conversation with Catarina:

(Laughing) I can just imagine the people who have their preconceived notions, not only about disability, whether it be the hearing loss and the blindness, but then you know, you threw in my beloved bx borrow, okay, you know. And so, then they’re like, oh my she’s, she’s, she’s deaf and blind and she teaching in the Bronx, you say?

Tell me a little bit about how you did your job.


Sure. Yeah. So, I was really happy to be in the Bronx, my fathers from the South Bronx, he’s Puerto Rican. I felt like, Okay, this is like a full circle moment, where I can kind of be in a space that my father grew up in and give back. So, it felt amazing to me.

Now, as far as just some of the logistics, I purposely chose where I was going to live based on the commute to work, I ended up living in Washington Heights, which was just across the river. And I took a bus every day, to my school, I basically only had to walk five to 10 minutes to catch the bus in Manhattan. And I, the bus stop was directly across from the school. So, the only issue that I would have is when I would fall asleep, because it was really early in the morning, and miss my stop in the Bronx and have to walk back. (Laughs)

I also had a really great teacher who also worked at the school who would drive in from Jersey. And so, if I was ready early enough, I would be able to meet her, and she would just pick me up from 100 81st Street and just take me to work as well.

I think people who have preconceived notions of any place need to check that and not make assumptions.



There were, however, real challenges of the job that she never actually considered.


One thing that was difficult was knowing who was bothering who, when you have a lot of children sitting there and I’m in the front. It’s very hard, like I don’t have that peripheral vision. So I’m not able to see like filano was poking filano.

Filano is a term for like anybody, like whoever. So that’s how we use it.


It’s not just behavioral. When young children have questions or want to participate, it’s important that they’re recognized.


That’s something I did do with them. I would let them know and it’s simple, hey I can’t see well. If you have your hand up, I might not see you. So, wave it around. I put it up high, I’m going to scan. I would feel so bad if the kid had their hand up and wanted to talk and I really didn’t see them. That’s demoralizing. So, I would try to make sure They were aware of what was going on with me and I’d give recommendations for what they could do.


In classroom is challenging enough, but what about field trips?


Generally, on a field trip, the teachers in the front, you got to lead the way, you got to set up the access to the subway present the form to the conductor. That was so stressful for me, because I do well in environments that I know.


And then there’s dealing with parents.


Phone calls were also hard to the parents being able to hear well, on the phone, I didn’t know about any of the programs that were out there and that I had been able to use now that has somebody transcribing the phone call while you’re on it or use AI for that. I didn’t have any of that. So anytime I called home, it would be maybe a different voice that I had never heard before. I would let them know that I don’t hear well, repeat yourself. And then a lot of times, you know, it’s like parents are speaking in Spanish. So, I really worked on my Spanish as well during that time.


After three years Catarina left that job and worked for a charter school in Harlem for about a year.

— Music Ends


I realized that in education the way to move up was to move out of the classroom, to become an administrator. And that wasn’t really the way that I wanted to go, I didn’t want my daily life to be about that. So, when I started to become interested in food, and seeing the food that my kids were eating in the classroom and starting to question why they are eating so many bags of chips and candy in the morning.


Actually, that’s a great question especially coming from the person responsible for educating these young minds.

— Music Ends…

And we should know, proper nutrition impacts your ability to focus and learn.

So, she began researching.


I remember going to Western beef, the supermarket and looking at all the products, the corner store and seeing, hey, the waters all the way at the bottom of the refrigerated case why?

The first part of my journey with food was approaching it from an education lens. I had this idea that people needed to be educated.

I started a community health program in my neighborhood where I started teaching families about health, including fitness and nutrition.


In addition to the research mentioned, Catarina also has a master’s degree in Public Health and certification in holistic health.


I realized that the system was also a huge force in people’s ability to eat well. And if I focus just on education, I was really missing the mark.

The great thing about working in the nonprofit space is that I did work with kids in the beginning, I was working on an after-school program. But once I transitioned into Program Administration, I realized how much less stress I had in my life, sitting at a desk and working in a different way. Working on partnerships.

TR in Conversation with Catarina:

So, is that the work that you do today?


So, I’m still in the nonprofit space working in food insecurity. And I’m so glad that I’ve had the opportunity to get training and public health, and learn about food justice, and food sovereignty, which are really important ways for approaching the issues with food and what we can do about it. And as part of that, I’ve been able to involve myself in community organizing. And I founded an organization in Washington Heights called the Washington Heights, Inwood food Council. So, it’s in both neighborhoods, Washington Heights, and Inwood. And this group is pursuing food justice in the community, they’re gardening, they’re working with people in the neighborhood of all backgrounds. And the group now exists without me that I’ve transitioned myself out there completely sustainable and continuing to do very good work.

— Transition
— Audio of Catarina from InstaGram:
“Heres a two minute inclusion tip from Blindish Latina. Caption all of your videos…”

Voice Over from IPhone: “Video by Blindish latina”
Catarina from video: “Happy International Women’s Day! I want to tell you about a women I really admite. And, it’s my mom!”

— Music Begins, A Latin influenced Hip Hop groove.

TR in Conversation with Catarina:

Talk to me about Blindish Latina. First of all, explain the name blind ish.


The name blindish Latina means a lot to me, I wanted to showcase my intersectionality the multiple identities that I have, especially because we don’t see a lot of representation of people of color, of Latinidad that within disability. So that’s why I chose a Latina. And the reason I put blindish is because I wanted to give a hint of the fact that blindness is a spectrum. And I know that so many people don’t know this. They think that when somebody is blind, they don’t see anything at all. They don’t have any space in their mind or any concept in their mind of someone like me, who can see really well in such a small window. But I still retain vision.


The mission of Blindish Latina?


To smash disability stigmas through storytelling, through training and through advocacy.


Right now, all of this takes place on Instagram.


I talk about my own disability journey. And frequently share stories even about things that might seem small to me. And like something that nobody else would be interested in, for example, I did a video about swimming with hearing aids. And just talking about the fact that I have to be concerned about where I put my hearing aids, when I go swimming, and that I get really scared about somebody stealing them off the beach. So, I might leave them at home, and then not here for hours. But I got so much response on this post that other people feel the same way.


It’s not always specific to the Deaf or Blind community.


I also share about disability awareness in general, for example, self-identification.


For example, the debate over using identity first language versus person first language. Identifying as a Blind person as compared to a person who is Blind.

If you gather the right people, this could be a full podcast episode, but Catarina’s point is that it’s up to that individual how they choose to identify.

In addition, she’s sharing best practices and awareness of all sorts of advocacy issues.

TR in Conversation with Catarina: 49:45
What is it that made you become more interested now, in sort of connecting with the cross-disability community?


One thing that made me interested was the documentary Crip camp on Netflix about the disability rights movement, and the story of this camp that brought people with all different kinds of disabilities together in the 70s.

People of all different kinds of disabilities coming together to take these actions. And it really occurred to me that I had not been in a space like that. It’s something that has been inspiring.


Catarina’s been involved in some of the digital communities, but it’s not as personal.

Right now, she’s focusing on taking Blindish Latina beyond IG.

So, one of the things that I’m doing with Blindish Latina, is public speaking, and offering workshops, and speeches. It’s very important to me to grow my impact and be able to talk to corporations and institutions about disability awareness, why they should care about disability and accessibility, and the actions they can take to create an inclusive workplace and implement best practices. So, this is a major component of Blindish Latina and where it’s headed.
— Music ends


Catarina is hopeful that corporations will be receptive to her message. Especially considering the attention being given to diversity equity and inclusion initiatives.

This is where that smashing comes in.

— audible smashing sound


I think for me smashing stigmas, or being a stigma smasher was exciting, because it was action oriented.

I’m all about actually creating change. I’m not on Instagram just to talk or post photos of myself or get likes, I’m on there to share best practices to activate allies to move people along this continuum, where they are now going to operate differently and make an impact on their sphere of influence wherever they live.


Check out some specific advice for allies or accomplices who want to work with the community in smashing stigmas, straight from Blindish Latina.


People have this idea that being an ally is a huge undertaking.

I’ve broken it down into three simple steps. One, you have to care. You have to believe that it is important to be aware of accessibility to do better.

Second educate yourself. You can learn without putting the burden on people with disabilities to teach you, there are so many people producing content, you can engage with them, follow them, this podcast is a perfect example. Books, websites and trainings and presentation. So, you can do a lot of self-education.

— Music Begins, a triumphant smooth Hip Hop groove

The final step doesn’t actually require a lot of expertise or going far beyond your comfort zone.

— Smash sound —

Wherever you exist. Whatever community you’re a part of you can take action. For example, if you’re part of a church community that’s going to have their masses on zoom, you can advocate for a platform that has closed captions, and speak up and say, Hey, we should consider this other option.

If you are managing your staff, and you’re going to have a meeting off site, you can create a registration form for people to RSVP. And you can have a question in there that says, what accommodations Do you need, and it can be anonymous. And you can create a space that is welcoming. That’s taking an action that’s being an ally.

4TR in Conversation with Catarina:
You see what you did there? You still teach Academy.

— Catarina and Thomas share in a laugh.


That’s the value of experience. The ability to apply what we learn throughout our lives in different areas. That’s wisdom.

Showing the world who you are. All aspects.


One of the reasons that I started Blindish Latina was to show that I am here, that I am a professional, disabled, Latina woman and I exist. I don’t think there’s a lot of representation of all of those dimensions of people who are disabled and are not white, of people that are disabled and are in the workforce, especially for people with blindness. I feel like there’s a lot of assumptions that blind people cannot work. And there are many of us in the workforce. So that’s why I use that term professional. Look, I’m here educated. I have two graduate degrees. I was Valedictorian of my mph, like, Come at me.


Better come correct!

You can check out all of the content including best practices, informative videos with captions, images with alt text and more on Insta Gram @BlindishLatina. You can also connect with her via Linked In by searching by name, that’s Catarina Rivera (spelled out)


And I have a website as well.

TR in Conversation with Catarina:

So, I don’t know if you know, but the fact that you are on the Reid My Mind Radio podcast. That means you are now officially part of the Reid My Mind Radio family.

You perfectly aligned with what we are doing. And so, if I could borrow your turn because we’re trying’ to smash it up too.

— Smashing sound…


Love it!


Some great take aways in this one y’all!

Like using our experience, talents and interests to create impact.

Shout out to Catarina! We’re rocking with you Sis!

Continue to follow what’s happening here on Reid My Mind Radio wherever you consume your favorite podcasts. I hope we can one day make your list.

In the meantime, tell somebody you love or at least like a lot or even if you have no real feelings for this individual, let them know you are part of the Reid My Mind Radio Family. Let them know we have transcripts and more at Now this can be a challenge for some so be patient and no matter how long it may take, explain that it’s R to the E I D…
(“D and that’s me in the place to be” Slick Rick)

Like my last name!

— Music ends into the outro

Audi o: Reid My Mind Radio outro


Hide the transcript

Reid My Mind Radio – A Girl From the South Who Made Her Way to NASA

Wednesday, August 29th, 2018

A picture of Denna during a keynote presentation.
Continuing from the last episode “Black on Audio Description” I present our interview with Denna Lambert. The modern day “Hidden Figures.”

This episode highlights her journey including lessons for those pursuing their own goals, advice for those in positions of power and notes the various ways aspects of identity intersect with blindness or disability.

Before you blast off and hit play, remember, now’s the best time to go ahead and subscribe to the podcast to make sure you don’t miss an episode.

Ok, 5, 4,3,2,1… hit play!




Show the transcript

What’s up Reid My Mind Radio family?

If this is your first time here, welcome. My name is T.Reid. Today’s episode to some extent is a part 2. However, it’s ok if you listen out of sequence.

Talking about sequence, we have to start with the theme music.

Audio: Reid My Mind Radio Theme

Last time on Reid My Mind Radio.

Audio: Final closing segment from last episode “Black On Audio Description.” Screen reader reading the email signature which revealed Denna worked for NASA.


Last time, I introduced you to Denna Lambert.
Denna took part in a continuing discussion around audio description and cultural competence.

When I learned Denna works as a project manager for NASA, I wanted to hear more about her journey. And that’s exactly what we do here at Reid My Mind Radio.

We meet interesting people doing things that often challenge stereotypes and expand on what it means to be a person who is blind or lives with a disability..

The experience of blindness is unique to each person. Impacted by all aspects of an individual’s identity. Today, I get to introduce you to Denna Lambert. Her personal journey takes us through the experience of blindness as a Black woman from the South.

I was born with congenital cataracts. It was hereditary. It’s on my dad’s side of the family he is also blind. He grew up in the days the schools were segregated
when his parents found out he was blind, they sent him to the School for the Blind. You know the Negros School for the Blind.
TR in conversation with DL:
Ok, where was that?


TR in conversation with DL:
Was it actually called The Negro school for the blind?

Yeah, yeah.

## TR:
Audio: RMMRadio Announcement – part of intro
For further exploration of growing up in a segregated school for the blind as an African American,
take a listen to a past episode titled:
[At the Intersection Between Black & Blind](

spoke with Robert Lewis who attended the Maryland School for the Blind both pre and post segregation.

Now, back to Denna discussing her father’s experience.

My dad graduated I think a year or two before they desegregated schools. If you remember like the Little Rock Nine this was all in Little Rock. he felt like
if they integrated schools then he would have been in this environment where he would have been vulnerable and in danger.

## TR:

The Little Rock Nine refers to the group of nine black students
who were the first to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, in September1957.

They were greeted by the Arkansas National Guard called in by the governor. Along with some pretty angry & racist residents.

Audio from archives of this event.

Our life experiences are impacted in some way by the generations that
come before us.

The lessons learned by our parents help shape our own lives.

For example, Dena’s father had more information about cataracts and was aware that his new born should be examined early.

His experiences as a black and blind man in the blind school system framed decisions made on behalf of his daughter.


And this is again kind of like a testament to him. just knowing that in order for me to receive services he had to ultimately face the very people that I think he feared and distrusted the most. Most of the professionals were white and came from the school for the blind that he said he was going to avoid. And that’s what pushed his decision that I attend public school. versus the school for the blind – which I’m really glad they did.

TR in conversation with DL:

The people that you were interacting from the blind school, were any of them blind or were they all sighted folks?

All of the TVI’s, the early intervention people, the O&M, they were all sighted. and white.


Children observing and identifying with adults in their environment often serve as early role models. It can make a real impact on what they themselves aspire to reach in their own lives.

In other words, that question what do you want to be when you grow up can really change based on what a child believes is possible.

My music teacher, I took piano lessons from first grade on up to when I graduated, so that was actually my Dad’s principal. He did teaching on the side after he retired. He was kind of my first person who was blind who read Braille, used a cane , he took public transit. I was like woh I want to be like him because I was partially sighted so I didn’t know Braille. I saw that he could read, he wasn’t[‘t shuffling with his feet. I was like what is this? It definitely taught me that hey you know blindness doesn’t have to be something that you have to hide. Which is something that I think my Dad had to deal with because I think the thought was if you have any kind of vision then it’s better to pass as sighted then to just be who you are as blind.

[TR in conversation with DL]
Yeh, there’s a lot of people today who are dealing with that.


Of course, there is no substitution for having teachers who recognize a child’s potential. We see the fruit of those early seeds planted in the form of encouragement and support.

I went to public school from pretty much first grade all the way up. I had a really great TVI (Teacher for the Visually Impaired). She stayed with me from preschool all the way until I graduated. We still stay in touch now.

My parents couldn’t take off and come to the school and do the things, but my TVI she would. She was kind of like my surrogate Momma in a way. (Laughs) Which I know a lot of kids don’t get that kind of services.

Teachers of the Visually Impaired or TVI’s often work with students to
assure they have materials in an accessible format.
This includes Braille, large print or electronic.
They often serve as a child’s advocate in the school communicating with the child’s teachers.

Denna was fortunate that her TVI made sure to teach her how to do all of this herself.
Teaching her to be independent.

She really kind of laid the ground work for when I got to college. I didn’t necessarily need the DSS office as much as what I probably would have needed if I didn’t have those skills to do it on my own.

DSS office is the disability student services available to college students with disabilities – playing a similar role as the TVI in high school just no hand holding, figuratively speaking.

[TR in conversation with DL]
Where did you go to college?

I went to University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. So that’s in the north west portion of the state. My mom , she wanted me to stay close to home and study Special Education you know work with blind kids, but I was the one who liked tearing apart radios and light bulbs and you know just different things.
(Laughs from DL and TR)
I went in as an Electrical Engineering major. There were some minority programs that really were trying to encourage students of color to study STEM fields so I got a scholarship to Fayetteville and just went from there. It was definitely hard because North Arkansas, those programs would have that real conversation of do not be in certain areas after dark. You have to be aware of where you are in this part of the country.


We just traveled back to the intersection of black and blind.
There are still lots of places all throughout the country today maybe more places where people of color truly aren’t feeling welcomed let alone safe.

And as a Black woman who is also blind that safety is a real concern.

For now, let’s walk back across to the blind side of the intersection.

I was one of the first blind students in the Engineering program. There was some things that I needed to learn in that there weren’t a lot of books from RFB&D available in like the Physics and the Electronic magnetic classes and Circuits classes. That’s where I would have to work with other classmates or find readers – which was something I wasn’t quite used to doing. Everything from K through 12 wasn’t available, but since I was entering into this field where they really didn’t have a need for that then you kind of have to get used to making up stuff. (Laughs) You know to get it to work.

[TR in conversation with DL]
And a lot of that stuff is graphical based I would think.

Yeh, thankfully a friend of mine, well actually two of them. We grew up together in Little Rock. So Noel Romey, he was the first blind Chemical Engineering major at U of A. And then my friend Chris Nestru he was the first Computer Science major. So they were a year ahead of me. They were kind of that advanced team laying the ground work for doing tactile graphics and then they started building up a corps of readers or note takers that were either Physic majors or Chemistry majors who would be willing to take notes. In some of my Calculus classes s I would have somebody sit next to me just drawing on paper because I could see with like a marker. they would draw whatever the professor was doing on the board. I couldn’t see what was happening on the board, but that student would sit next to me and we would do it together.

Being a trailblazer isn’t easy.
Denna offers some consideration for professors who sometimes fail to believe in their students abilities.

I think when you’re in that early 18m, 219, 20 years of age and you’re one of those very few people that look like you’re going through the same thing, then it is easy to get discouraged when somebody starts casting their own doubt on your ability. I wish I could kind of go back and say hey, you have power in your position. If you don’t know how something’s going to be done, that’s fine but with that student say hey if engineering is about discovery you know and science is about discovery then let’s use that same philosophy in figuring it out with a blind student.

Quite honestly that attitude should extend outside of the university setting.
It’s good advice for anyone in a position of power

Denna was very clear to note that lots of her experiences with professors were quite positive.

Establishing relationships played a significant role in her success.
In fact, it was one such relationship with a staff member in the University’s Career Services department that helped lead to her eventually landing her job.

Not finding many companies in Arkansas willing to hire a person with a disability, this staff worker helped Denna attend a Microsoft sponsored conference as a student speaker. The conference was called Career Opportunities for Students with Disabilities.


That was kind of becoming a thing. How do we increase opportunities. So I was invited to be a guest speaker. She helped me get a way to go. And that’s where NASA was (laughs…)NASA had a really good recruitment program.

[TR in conversation with DL]
Ok, so hold on. When you say that’s where NASA was , meaning they were one of the employers taking part in the conference?

Yes. It wasn’t so much recruiting, but they were ready to help me network with the right folks. So they were like hey, would you be willing to move out of Arkansas. I’m like yes!

(DL and TR laugh)

[TR in conversation with DL]
Hell yeh!


(DL & TR laugh)

I’m sure Arkansas is a great place, but Denna was in search of opportunities that weren’t presenting themselves in the state.

And it wasn’t for a lack of trying. In fact, while she interviewed with NASA things didn’t necessarily go the way she would have liked.

The conference and conversation with NASA was in May 2003.

While waiting to hear back from NASA she completed her school work and graduated in December.

Her father discouraged her from going on to get her Masters in fear of her becoming a professional student. He suggested she get some work experience.

Finding a job was my job (Laughs…)
[TR in conversation with DL]
Yeh! Did you have any other prospects at that time?

I was volunteering for some nonprofits. Helping them with some data management now we call it analytics. I had that programming background. I was trying to keep busy and keep my skills up but unfortunately it wasn’t paid positions but I think that was helpful because I had to get dressed, take a bus and go somewhere. Staying at home, it was easy at the time to spend all day on those blindness listservs. The days can just go by and you know one day will turn into one week and one week will turn into a month and then it will just cascade into a longer period of time where you’re not being productive.


There’s lots of benefits gained from volunteering.
The work experience, increasing your network and even the possibility of leading to a paid position.
Yet, Denna found value in the mundane.
Getting dressed, doing my hair, going on the bus even if it was just 4 hours a day of volunteering. That’s what I did. It just helped.


Finally, in May 2004, Denna received an offer and a word of advice from her father.

When NASA sent the offer, he was like you got to go because there’s nothing here.


And that’s what she did.

[TR in conversation with DL:]
You’re the current, modern day Hidden Figures? (Laughs)

A little bit! There’s a lot of us at Goddard and at NASA that we’re the first in our generation from our families to move away or…

[TR in conversation with DL]
Which us are you talking about?

Us as in Black Women or Black men.


Notice how quickly the shift occurs between identity.

Hidden Figures is the 2016 film that is based on the lives of three of the African -American female mathematicians known as the “human
computers”, tasked with calculating
the launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit, and guaranteeing his safe return.

I saw Hidden Figures 5 times.
Those are the grandmothers of NASA. We’re here because of them.

[TR in conversation with DL]
For sure!

Just to see how true to what the work environment is like. That was pretty amazing to see. That whole thing where she’s running 30 minutes from one end of the campus to the other – that is very true because even at Goddard, our campus is 1600 acres of land. We have three shuttle buses that take you from building to building. She was walking in high heel shoes. And they did have that, they did have segregated areas. There still are some things that need to be changed but it definitely improved a lot because of them.

[TR in conversation with DL]
So what about from the perspective of blindness?
there have been blind people at NASA for quite a while. Either in the programming or Electrically areas, because Electrical engineering can be very theoretical in addition to tangible or hands on. There’s a guy, Marco Midon I think he started in the 90’s I think working at NASA. Bob Shelton started in the 80’s. So there’s definitely been some folks around. I think NASA has because of the really ugly history that they have to confront and deal with diversifying the astronaut core and the work place with Katherine Johnson and stuff, I think it helped to pave the way to having more robust diversity programs where they intentionally went out to conferences like NESBIor SWE, Society of Women Engineers, or SHPE – Society of Hispanic Engineers.

Denna began her career at NASA as a Contract Specialist working with the Engineering group.
Active in building her career Denna realizes the importance of having a diverse set of skills and knowledge base.

She’s currently working as the Coordinator of the Goddard Information and Collaboration Center

A lot of my job honestly is meeting with people, talking with them getting their ideas and putting it together. It could be environmental folks, science folks, budget. You have to work together as a team and that’s definitely been interesting experience being the young Black, Blind woman in the room leading the meeting. (Laughs)

[TR in conversation with DL]
Yeh, That’s exactly where I was going because I see the technical and the people side challenges. Talk about those.

Yeh. I think one advantage of being blind if I could say there is an advantage is getting people to verbalize what their thinking. If I hear a pause in something or I hear a change in tone then I can say hey, it sounds like something’s there, let’s talk about it. My team knows I am a very verbal person. If there pointing and saying here and there, you know they’ve adjusted to know that hey we have to talk it through. It’s been interesting to see them adapt. I think they’ve seen the benefits.


While there have been many advancements in technology, the fact remains, blind people need a set of tools to help effectively manage different aspects of their lives.

As a user of the access service system Aira, not only does Denna find it helpful in accessing documents but its playing a real role in her ability to both better do her job and manage her career.

NASA holds regular open sessions where employees with various expertise offer presentations. The idea is to help share information and give a chance for seemingly unrelated divisions to possibly find synergies – or ways to help one another.

For those who are blind, such a conference can require some planning.

That’s where Aira opens up more possibility.

Aira provides that flexibility enabling blind people to have something often overlooked by many; spontaneity.

I don’t have to kind of plan a couple of days ahead of time to contact the coordinator to get access a document or whatever. I can show up to those sessions and have AIRA to describe it so it makes it more efficient. They can describe what’s happening, the information on the screen. They can help me kind of find people. (Laughs) So like hey, I want to go talk to that speaker. So while I can do that on my own they can say ok this person is 30 feet in front of you but they kind of have a line … or they can let me know how to navigate to that person . It’s given me that extra edge that I could easily miss those opportunities if I didn’t have it.

Denna isn’t always consumed by her work.
She has lots of other interests.

Like traveling.
In fact, when first scheduling our interview
Denna was on her way to her first Travel Eyes vacation.

Travel Eyes founded in 2004 by a blind entrepreneur, Amar Latif.
As noted on their website, they’re the first commercial tour operator providing independent travel for
people who are blind or partially sighted.

Blind travelers can sign up for a trip without worrying about needing a guide. Sighted travelers receive a discounted trip in exchange for
guiding and describing the sights to the blind travelers.

Denna says she had a wonderful time on a cruise but offers a word of advice for blind travelers.

That’s where the day to day experience of being guided by someone who is sighted can vary widely.

For more local fun and activity, Denna has and rides her own tandem bicycle.
She discovered her own way of finding pilots or the rider in the front steering the bicycle.

There’s different tandem groups. Most of them have married people , older couples that think they want to ride a bike. And usually it’s the husband that wants to ride the bike and the wife she may think it’s a good idea but then she’s like no I don’t know if I can trust him that much.

That’s how I’ve been able to find some pilots. So my first pilot he was a corporate lawyer. He’s a little crazy, you know he’s a good guy but he taught me how to ride.

(TR Laughs!)


Currently, Denna’s in the process of starting a family of her own.

When I started having these conversations of you know I’m 37 years old I definitely would love to be married, find the person and stuff but that just hasn’t happened yet. (Laughs)

When you start to turn past 35 people get a little crazy like ” Wooh so when do you want to start having children…

[TR in conversation with DL]

That pressure is on. When I would have these conversations the medical community would be like well you know can you handle this, you know with you being blind. So there was a lot of that extra doubt whether I could be as capable of a mother as someone else.

I looked into fertility. They have the technology now if you’re condition is hereditary they can weed out. It’s cool that they have the technology, personally, that was kind of getting into the playing God part so it really didn’t feel right.
If God were to allow me to have baby that’s blind or whatever, you know to me that’s a blessing.

Audio: “Rebirth of Slick” (Instrumental)


In telling Denna’s story, I made a choice to highlight the various aspects of her identity and specifically note how they intersect with blindness – which in itself is just one part of her experience.

I never know what a listener is going to take away from an episode.

I could only hope that those who listen to the podcast don’t see guests like Denna as the exceptions. Rather they see the opportunities that Denna both made for herself and was fortunate enough to receive. Realizing that small differences could have truly changed the trajectory of her life.

It’s probably fair to say that opportunities for black women in Arkansas are not as great as in other parts of the country. And even exploring those available in so called progressive cities we know they too have their own set of challenges attached that other groups don’t experience.

Now add disability to the mix.

I think about listeners who themselves may be experiencing vision loss as an adult.
Denna’s experience and the benefits she notes of volunteering stand out as good advice. Not only for those seeking employment, but even older adults no longer in the job market. In fact, that advice was applicable no matter a person’s disability status.

Every now and then I’m reminded of the first time I heard the phrase cool blind people. I struggled with it for a while because inherent in the term is a separation. It’s an admission of sort that within the world of people who are blind, there are some that don’t qualify.

Truth is that’s true for every community.

The problem really is that too often society seems to suggest that the two could never actually go together. Cool and blind people. I know that’s not what those who introduced me to that term are saying. In fact, cool blind people are those who are living their own lives on their terms. There comfortable being called blind. They know it refers to their eye sight and that alone.

Being blind is just one aspect of who they are. They’re not trying to overcome it or excel in spite of it. They take it with them wherever they go. They wear it well. In fact, they make it look good. Any stranger or passerby who sees someone to be pitied or the receiver of charity, well like beauty, I guess cool is in the eyes of the beholder.

Denna she’s obviously one of the cool. So much that she sums up her story as just being a girl from the south who made her way to NASA.

I’m fortunate enough to have the chance to speak with several cool blind people here on Reid My Mind Radio. Hopefully, as I continue on my journey, I’ll get my cool blind card one day. It’s not something I want to receive based on proximity, I have some things I know I need to work on to make me fully qualified. I look at the RMM Radio alumni as mentors. Along with those I met throughout the state through advocacy work, I got this!

If you yourself are new to vision loss and want to earn your cool blind person card, I got you covered.
Subscribe to the podcast wherever you get podcasts; Apple Podcast, Google Play, Sound Cloud, Stitcher Tune In Radio. Of course you can go to

Big shout out to Denna Lambert. Thank you for two great episodes and I have a feeling we’ll hear from her again here on the podcast. We have more to talk about.

“He’s a little crazy!”


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Reid My Mind Radio: At the Intersection of Black and Blind

Wednesday, January 18th, 2017

Many would assume growing up blind in the 1950’s & 60’s had its challenges. What about growing up Black and Blind attending a segregated school for the blind?

Robert Lewis at work at the Radio Reading Network of Maryland

In this latest Reid My Mind Radio you hear from the Executive Director of the Radio Reading Network of Maryland, Robert Lewis.

We talk about;

  • Attending a segregated school for the blind
  • How being blind saved his life
  • Playing music with Stevie Wonder and much more.

Plus in the special podcast edition, we include some of his personal music suggestions for those times when you just need a lift!




Press Play below to Listen now!



Show the transcript

TR:Happy New Year!

I know some of us are not feeling that happy in 2017 and possibly longer. I don’t know like 4 years!
Well, as long as we’re not six feet under or my personal favorite stuffed into an ern sitting on a mantle… we’re good and we can make things happen.
We can fight…fight the power!
But first a new Gatewave piece I know you’re going to like and some extra immediately following!
Hit me!

[Audio: RMMRadio Theme Music]


Meet Robert Lewis, the Executive Director of the Radio Reading Network of Maryland. With over 35 years in the business, he is more than qualified to run the network. We’ll hear more on that, but it’s his life experiences that are truly compelling and offer a glimpse to what it was like growing up as an African American attending a segregated school for the blind.


I went to the Maryland School for the Blind, here in Baltimore Maryland. It was a wonderful place to go to school. I started there in 1954. It was a nice school but in the very beginning there was one side for the blacks and one side for the whites. And you were not allowed to sleep on the white campus . The two races went together for school but after that we would go our separate ways the first couple of years that I was there. That’s the way they had the whole setup.

Things were done to you or things were done that would not be tolerated today.

In the beginning they wouldn’t  buy Black kids Braille writers and things of that nature until like 50’s or more like in the 60’s. They started doing some things for Black kids that they didn’t do before and they would do them for the white kids.

You would be surprised what we had to deal with  in the 50’s and 60’s in a blind school.


The discrimination, limited social interactions, like at parties.

As soon as we started to dance with one of the  white girls, the party was over. That party was ended!
They weren’t going to have that.

Society makes people prejudice. If they had left us alone it would never had happen, but because the teachers and because of the house parents and so forth  letting you know that you were black, who cared?
The students didn’t care!

The Lion’s Club used to come out and deal with us.
And at one time the Lion’s Club did not deal with Black kids.


the discrimination lead to varying degrees of abuse.

During a school Halloween party, a member of the Lions Club was responsible for guiding Robert to his chair.



He grabbed both my arms and walked me backwards to the chair.
I’m a 6 year old kid and this is a full grown man and he was squeezing my arms as hard as he could to try and make me cry and I said to myself he’s trying to hurt me but I’m not going to let him know that it hurt. So I didn’t and after he got me to the chair he pushed me down with a little bit of force. That was his way of saying well I don’t really like doing this or I don’t like Black people and I don’t like Black kids.


There was the even more abusive punishments dealt out by those charged with protecting and educating blind children.


Some of the Black kids were punished to the point that we had to stand out in the hall at night with no clothes on.
First we didn’t understand it but then we realized that the person that was doing that may have had a little problem on the side.


The discrimination continued as Robert traveled outside of the state competing with the school Wrestling team. He recalls, they couldn’t eat in restaurants.


We went to one restaurant and the lady said you got to eat as fast as you can so we can get you out of here before the owner comes  back because if he saw we had Black people here he would fire me!


In North Carolina, it was more than getting a meal.


Guys jumped out of the car and came over and they were going to beat us
all up.
We had no idea … What is this all about? Is it because we are blind; no, it’s  because you’re black and you’re blind!


Eventually, the segregation came to an end. The children lived together.

At first the parents were very upset about it and they didn’t really want it but  in order for the school to get money from the state, they had to integrate the school.


Remember, Robert described the time he spent at the Maryland School for the Blind as wonderful. Discrimination and racism were just a part of his school life.

We had a lot of terrible things that we dealt with but  we also had good things because we had a lot of white friends that we went to school with that would do anything in the world for us.

Maryland School for the Blind had one of the best wrestling and track teams in the country so we went all over the place.
We learned so much and we had so much fun as far as the students together.
We had a really good soul band good jazz band.
I grew up with the Beatles . I grew up with the platters. I grew up with Elvis Presley.
Some of the kids that were white, we learned their music and they learned ours.
I would come home and my sister would say here comes the little white boy!


In some sense, Robert really does straddle two identities. Not black and white, but rather black and blind.
The intersection of the two present a fully unique experience.

As a young African American growing up in Baltimore Maryland in the 1950’s and 60’s , Robert observed the events taking place in his neighborhood from a different perspective.


I heard one day when the police came out and they sicked the Shepard on the neighborhood and one guy named frank grabbed the dog around his neck and killed him.
You could hear in the wagon, you could hear the beating he was getting.


The wagon he refers to is the police patty wagon used to round up and transport suspects charged with criminal acts.
Robert says that the recent episodes of police brutality in cities like Baltimore aren’t new.


When they would beat the kids in the wagon, you could hear the wagon going up and down. if they wanted to find out  if you were telling the truth they would take a phone book and put it on top of your head and then hit it with a police stick. And there were no scars. What they would do is open the window.  they’d say you can tell us what we need to know or you can jump out the window. or take the beating.


Once , the additional identity of being blind could have possibly saved his life. As a young boy traveling in the car with his family, he recalls when an officer stopped his father for speeding.


the police was giving my father a ticket and I reached out to touch his gun and the policeman stepped back and drew his gun to shoot me. My father said oh please don’t shoot my son, he’s blind. And the policeman said oh he’s blind? So he took the bullets out of the gun and put it in my hand and let me play with it . He said, I’m not going to give you a ticket I’ll let you go this time. He said, but every day  for the next week I want you to buy your son an ice cream cone and every night for the rest of the week he’d come by the neighborhood and say did your father  buy you an ice cream?


By no means was Robert’s childhood full of violence.
residing on the school campus during the week, he returned home on weekends.

Man it was fun because I could come home and tell  them what I learned as far as in school, but then I could get on the roller skates and skate up and down the sidewalk and ride my two wheel bike. My grandfather was a mechanic, I had my hands inside automobiles. My mother would take me to the five and dime store and let me buy a toy. She treated me just like she did all of her other kids. My cousin Mack Lewis had a boxing gym in Baltimore. He was a very well-known manager of boxing. He would train Larry Middleton Vincent Pettway… some of the big time boxers. I would go over to the gym and listen to the guys box. I’d go around listening to musicians. I went over to the stable and rode the horses. I could honestly say I felt just like any kid that could see because I really think I had some angels looking out for me. I really enjoyed hearing things and dealing with things that I dealt with  you know in the neighborhood. Friday nights and Saturday nights was a great time because everybody had a good time. They had crab feasts. They’d walk up and down the street.


TR:{In conversation with Robert.}
So you were not at all isolated. You were definitely part of the community  it sounds like.


I was part of the community, yes!


Community, in his neighborhood, school and even activities that lead to lifelong passions like music.


I got my start playing marching band music. I played Sousaphone in the band. I played the Base Drum and from there I went to a complete drum kit. Being totally blind and a drummer, drummer’s completely different than other musicians. When you go and tell people you are blind and you play drums … I told one guy and he said I mean, I could see you playing the horn, but ain’t no way in the world I can see you playing the drum set cause you blind. How you gonna find the drums and the cymbals. I play an 18 piece drum kit! I’m a very good drummer.

I played with 15 and 18 piece bands.

I played with Stevie before.


So we’re clear, he’s talking about Stevie Wonder.


He came to the Maryland School for the Blind and we played  together.


Today, Robert is back on the campus of the Maryland School for the blind.
Not with the school, but rather in his job with the Maryland Radio Reading  Network, a radio reading service for the blind and others with print disabilities.


I started as a board operator and I’d go to work and people would whisper and say is he blind? This is a radio reading service but they had no blind people working there. I started as a board operator and moved up the ladder and I became the Executive Director.


TR :
Some of his responsibilities?


Fundraising, directing,   , setting up all the program, fire those that need to be fired or hire the people that need to be hired.


TR: {In conversation with Robert}
What would you say are the aspects of your specific experience  that have either helped or make your job more challenging?


The hardest thing is proving things to people. Proving what you can do.
If I ask someone for money and they’ll say to me well what do you do at the station? How do you know if you’re on the air or not? Or how do you know what time it is? And after a while, all of these stupid questions just get to you but, you can’t let people know they’re getting to you because they really don’t know. So you have to answer those questions as polite and as nice as you can do it. You have to be nice to people and after a while I wouldn’t say you get tired of being nice, sometimes you get tired of the way people talk down to you

I love my job and I like what I’m doing. If I sit home retired I’ll probably weigh a thousand pounds.  so I’m trying to avoid that  or find something else to do probably go into some music, but right now my whole job is what I do now with the radio station and part-time  stereo sales.


This is Thomas Reid
{James Brown’s “Say it Loud”
“Say it loud, I’m black”
Your Black and Blind…
James Brown’s “… And Proud!

for Gatewave Radio…

Audio for Independent Living!

[Audio from : KRS1 “We’re not done” “We’re not Done”… “Check this out” from “You Must Learn”]


TR:The intersection between disability and race, gender and other identities is something I’d like to explore more.

It’s now part of my own life experience and with people with disabilities being the largest minority group, it’s probably an effective way to promote disability related issues.

If any of these apply to you and you have a story to share or know of someone who does, please send me an email…

It was a real pleasure speaking with Mr. Lewis and I hope to do so again. I can just imagine all of the other stories he could share.

In fact, there are more stories that were not included in the Gatewave piece.

Sometimes it’s hard to explain the level of ignorance people display in response to blindness or disability.

Some of the stories can be entertaining, but often they’re confusing. And as I like to say, you can’t make sense from nonsense.

As you heard in the end of the Gatewave  piece, Robert sells stereo equipment part time. After selling some equipment, he called the customer to check in with him two weeks after the sale.


He said, as long as you live please don’t ever call me. I said, don’t ever call you again? He said no, because I have to have eye surgery next week.


… and I know it’s only because I bought that equipment from you.

I said to him, did it rub off?

He said please never, NEVER, never call me again!

I said, OK!



Recently I was reminded about someone who I knew for years, who didn’t say this to me but definitely treated me as if I were contagious!

And like Robert said…





I wanted to end the conversation  on a positive note because we all know those haters are going to hate and ignorance is out here!

Plus it would only be right especially profiling someone who has been through all that he has and refers to his experience as wonderful. That’s an optimist folks!

I asked Mr. Lewis to give me some music recommendations. I thought I’d pass them on to the podcast listeners who enjoy a variety of music.


I don’t really listen to a lot of the new stuff.
If you’re a gospel person I consider the older gospel like Aretha Franklin or James Cleveland to be outstanding. If you really want to get into the going back into the world and listening to oldies but goodies and things of that nature think songs like “What’s to become of the broken hearted”. robins had some really good stuff out. “The Masters Call” It talks about a situation that a guy got involved with and was able to find god. When I’m really down if I want to hear something nice I listen to “Palisades Park” by Freddie Boom Boom  Canon which really is a very nice song to give you a little bit of upbeat or some things by gene Pitney  or things like that really will help you, inspire you music wise. Just getting a boost. Even down to Leslie Gore. I don’t mean songs like “It’s my party” but I mean really good songs that she did that were just outstanding; “Love and spoonful”. The Temptations had an unbelievable bunch of songs that really move me. I mean I love music. There’s so much music that that I really really enjoy. When you look at big bands sounds. I think one of the best instrumentals that I ever heard  in my life was Jimmy Smith’s “Mojo”. And only because no one plays an organ like Jimmy Smith. No one can move their hands and feet like he does; God bless the musician! He was unbelievable!
If you listen to that song and you listen to his right hand what he’s doing with his right hand is beyond what a musician can do. I enjoy so much of the old stuff. I mean Mandrill. I like a horn section. I love tower of Power. Ray Charles’ band moved media also have to put Jimi Hendrix in that line up. There’s so much harmony in some of the groups that came out of England. Crosby, Still, Nash &young. To me Cold Blood has an unbelievable band. They have Lydia Pense who sings for them. Oh my God that girl can sing!
James Brown’s band was fantastic. More so than his singing. His band was as tight as they come. But Ten Wheel Drive is also another tight band to listen to. And also Gail McCormick and Smith. They took the version of the Shirelle’s Baby it’s you. They have a horn section there that is fantastic. There’s nothing like 8 or 9 horns playing together like that . Like Tower Power does… My dream someday would be to play a song with Tower of Power or Ten Wheel Drive. These guys are tight!


Now before you go to your choice of music apps and begin listening to some of these suggestions, do yourself a favor and head over to your podcast app and subscribe to Reid My Mind Radio. It’s good for your mind, your body and your soul!


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