When Derrick Whitaker moved to Georgia, the Chicago native expected to find warm weather, friendly people, and thriving communities. But he didn’t know that he’d discover a resource that would help put him on the path to an exciting future: Vision Rehabilitation Services of Georgia (VRS).
Derrick had begun to experience vision loss as a result of diabetic retinopathy. “This was in 2012, when I was in my early twenties,” he said. “I am now completely blind in my left eye with limited vision in my right. When I lived in Chicago, I had checked out vision services but I hadn’t really started on any program.”
His move with his mother to the Atlanta metro area in 2016 was a turning point for him. “It was a new home and a fresh start,” Derrick remarked. “I went to an introductory session at Georgia Vocational Rehabilitation Agency to learn about services that might be available. When they asked me what I wanted to do, I had a very short answer: I want to work! That’s when they put me in touch with VRS.”
Derrick and VRS quickly got down to business, beginning with an in-home visit by a counselor to do a comprehensive evaluation of the services he needed. To strengthen his ability to travel, he completed VRS’s orientation and mobility training. “I learned how to use a cane and safely maneuver in the world outside my home,” he remarked. “I acquired critical orientation tools, including how to use the sun to determine direction and how to avoid overcorrecting when I encountered obstacles as I walked.”
In addition, Derrick received training on special access technology designed for the visually impaired. “The assistive technology instructor introduced me to the NVDA screen reader, which uses a synthetic voice to communicate whatever the cursor hovers over,” said Derrick. “He also taught me Microsoft Word and Excel and how to use important computer navigation tools and shortcut keys. This gave me a great base to build my technology skill set on.”
The job-readiness workshop at VRS helped acclimate him to the work world he hoped to enter. “In the summer of 2018, I got a job as a teacher’s aide in a program called Community Work Adjustment Training,” Derrick said. “I was helping kids with vision loss and other challenges acquire living skills and gain confidence in their ability to achieve their life goals. It was a busy summer, because I also completed my GED then.”
Derrick didn’t stop there. “I want to go prepare for a career in psychology,” he stated. “So I entered Georgia Highlands College and am now pursuing a major in that field. After earning my associate’s degree, I plan on getting my bachelor’s degree.”
Derrick has advice for those who are experiencing vision loss. “You can get depressed, sure, but recognize that it’s a normal part of the process,” he said. “You’ll go through stages — just don’t get stuck feeling down. Make sure you have a good support system. I found mine with VRS: The people there helped me become independent, and I can live a full life and have a rewarding career. Sure, I do things in a different way, but I can get more things done than I dreamed I could do a few short years ago.”