Jeff Pledger, Financial Analyst
Jeff Pledger, a Senior Financial Analyst with Verizon, lives in Maryland with his wife, Suzanne, and daughter Caroline. Recently elected President of Verizon’s Disabilities Issues Awareness Leaders (DIAL), he’s frequently on the road advocating for employees with disabilities in Verizon’s workforce.
Jeff is also the past president of AbleTV.net, the first multimedia company that specialized in producing and hosting accessible video content for the web. A humorous, fast-straight talker and a self-proclaimed “gentleman,” he’s a man who’s ready and waiting for his next “never say quit” life challenge!
A Coma – and Then Blindness
Jeff and his guide dog Vincenzo
I lost my sight on September 14, 1984 at the age of 27.
For approximately three weeks before that date, I had been having severe headaches and wasn’t able to hold any food down. Not good! On September 11, things became much, much worse for me. I vomited seven times in a row and thought, Well, that’s not normal! I called my doctor and told him that something was really wrong.
I was admitted to the hospital right away and given all kinds of tests: lung X-rays, EKGs, you name it. While I was hospitalized, I passed the time by reading quite a bit. One time while I was reading, however, I remember I had an incident that felt as if the shades were being pulled down in my hospital room. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that was an indicator of what was to come.
On September 14, (which is a day I’ll never forget), I was in my hospital room, watching Monday Night Football. Howard Cosell was broadcasting a Miami Dolphins/Buffalo Bills game. (Remember the guy? Best national sports broadcaster ever!) At halftime the score was 24-24. I decided to take a short nap – and went into a coma! The nurses thought I was asleep. Finally, at breakfast the next day, they realized something was wrong because they couldn’t wake me! Spinal tap results showed I was in serious trouble. They gave me no more than 24 hours to live and told my family to get a priest.
The entire family was called. My Aunt Carrie played a major role – we joke that she’s always had her own red phone with a direct line to Jesus. I survived the night. They gave me a powerful serum drip medication and I came out of the coma five days later.
When I emerged from my coma, I heard both laughing and crying. I asked them to turn on the lights because it was so awfully damn dark. My mother cradled my head, as all Italian mothers do. The good news was – I was alive. The bad news was—I was blind! I sank down into the hospital pillow and all I said was “Oh, my God.” I didn’t shed a tear while I was in the hospital. Every day I would question my ophthalmologist. I’d ask, “This is temporary, right?” He told me the diagnosis was optic nerve atrophy, and I’d eventually go totally blind unless some medical miracle emerged. It hasn’t as yet.
Getting Blindness Skills Training
Remember, I was 27 years old in the “me, me, me” decade. I really wasn’t a nice person before I went blind. Afterwards, I have to say, I did a 180-degree turn.
At 6 feet, 2 inches, I’m a pretty tall guy and when I went into hospital I was 185 pounds. Ninety-three days later, after leaving the hospital, I weighed in at 133 pounds. Within a month I went to the Westchester branch of Lighthouse Guild International for blindness skills training. I went because Debbie, my home health nurse, said she couldn’t stand me any more! Ever since I left the hospital all I’d done was watch Perry Mason re-runs. So we got in touch with the Lighthouse.
Debbie helped me a lot. We both learned braille together, even though it didn’t always go smoothly. I know it didn’t help when I would throw my braille books across the room. But Debbie would let me stomp off, not pick up the books, and wait until I came back. She was also there for me when I was learning how to type, to use the Perkins brailler to write braille, and do a few things for myself around the home.
On my first day walking by myself down the street with a white cane, I told Debbie, “I’m going to get a newspaper and some M&Ms from Donahue’s.” (Donahue’s is our local store.) So she called them on the phone and told them I was on my way. I know she watched me go down the hill. I remember that walk so well. I wasn’t used to picking up sounds as I walked. It was rush hour—cars didn’t stop and the traffic sounds were frightening. I remember I bought a pound of M&Ms. I thought I’d earned them! Even though I was depressed at the time, it was one of my first successes. I suppose, even then, I was beginning to get occasional glimpses that I would return to my old self of “never say quit.”
Before all this happened, I was driving a truck for a fruit and vegetable wholesale business. I’d hoped to buy the business in partnership with the son-in-law of one of the owners. I’d spent a couple of years at Pace University learning about computers and felt I could provide cost savings by computerizing the billing system. Just after I lost my vision, however, I didn’t think I could make it on my own. Now, many years later, I think I could have!
When I started at the Lighthouse, they had a business program sponsored by various corporations, but the year I planned to take the course, they closed it down. Then I heard about a blind South Asian writer who worked for the New York Times and Newsweek. He’d gone to Arkansas Enterprises for the Blind (now known as World Services for the Blind) so I thought about going there. That didn’t work out either, so I decided instead to go to Westchester Community College.
His College Career
An Orientation and Mobility instructor from the Lighthouse helped orient me to the campus. I got on real well with Dr. Joseph Hankin, the college president (who has since retired). He had a great open-door policy and we’d just sit and talk about different issues on campus. It’s through him that I began to develop an interest in advocacy work and accessibility issues. At the college, the problems we had with accessibility involved mainly people with wheelchairs, plus the library had a very antiquated revolving door.
My accessibility work was helped by other disabled students when we realized that together we had the power to make changes and we managed to remove some of the physical barriers. We wrote a grant to replace doorways in six buildings. One of the proudest moments was when all those doors had press buttons and automatically swung open. That was a real good feeling!
Westchester Community College was a two-year college, and I wanted to continue at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT); I learned, however, that MIT didn’t accept transfer students in the two programs that interested me: computer science and engineering. Therefore, I went with my second choice, which was the Stern School of Business at New York University (NYU). I received a scholarship from NYU for $8,500 a semester (which required that I maintain a 3.5 grade point average) and the New York State Commission for the Blind and Visually Handicapped picked up the rest, which enabled me to graduate with zero debt. At NYU, I continued my advocacy work and that interest has remained with me to this day.
My luck was really going strong when I met Suzanne in my senior year at NYU, who later became my wife. By that time, I’d got my dog guide, Vincenzo. One day Vincenzo and I were in the White Plains, NY train station. There was a Dunkin’ Donuts on the corner. (In those days I had a slim waistline, broad shoulders, and a great pair of legs, plus I looked good in jeans – or so my wife later told me. She saw me from the back!) When Suzanne saw Vincenzo, she stopped to watch him devour an apple-berry muffin.
I remember hearing the “ka-ching!” of her heels on the floor. Very memorable! I looked down at the dog and all I felt was Vincenzo’s tail going back and forth. So I thought quickly and knocked over my coffee as she passed. She stopped and asked me if she could help. I asked her to tell the stationmaster about my spilled coffee so they could clean it up. (I was trying to show how much I cared about the world!) She came back and offered to buy me a cup of coffee. I’ll never know to this day why I said this, but I responded, “No thanks, I’ll eat my muffin dry.” And she said okay and walked away.
Suddenly my heart and my mind are going crazy! There are about 300 people on the platform, due to a train delay, and as I’m eating my apple-bran muffin, dry, and thinking how dumb can I be to let this woman escape so fast and how can I find her?
Then out of the blue, she came back and asked where I got my dog. I started choking on the muffin. She told me she had the same color hair as Vincenzo. I took Vinnie out of his harness and told him to do all kinds of tricks for her. I could hear the folks around us start clapping. The train came in and we got on and sat across from each other. She spoke softly and I really enjoyed our conversation. I asked her if we could get together for dinner and a movie.
Suzanne and I dated for about nine months. Then she got a job promotion and moved to Massachusetts. I’d encouraged her to take the job. But then I missed her so much that I visited her every two weeks, and then every week, and after seven weeks I decided I couldn’t live without her—so I proposed! We were married six months after that.
His Working Life—and Advocacy
I’ve worked hard for most of my life. Years ago I was recruited by Bell Atlantic for their executive development program. I’d always wanted to work for Bell Atlantic and I’ve been with them as a financial analyst since 1991. Bell Atlantic became Verizon in 2000.
I came into Bell Atlantic as an assistant manager in the Executive Development Program (EDP). I went through several other jobs, including the Customer Records Information System (CRIS) and various iterations of Bell Atlantic’s Federal Systems line of business as a pricing analyst and database manager. I still do the database management for Verizon Federal, Inc., which is a part of Verizon Business. I’m now a Senior Financial Analyst and have been so for the past two years.
I used to manage people and now I manage machines. This means I have to be extremely knowledgeable about a wide range of software. WindowEyes from GW Micro, Inc. is my screen reader. I like the company, and I like the people. They do a great job.
I’m also the president of Verizon’s Disabilities Issues Awareness Leaders (DIAL), which provides support and resources to Verizon’s employees with disabilities. We have about 225 active and retired members. My main challenge is to communicate the aims of DIAL, to be its main spokesperson, and encourage members to cooperate with me. I’m particularly proud that we all worked together on the task force to develop the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which provided many benefits to people with disabilities; for example, we now have cell phones that are easier to use by people who have low vision and hearing loss.
How Dog Guides Changed His Life
Jeff (center with Vincenzo) at donation ceremony at Guiding Eyes for the Blind. Pictured also are John Butler, Verizon’s director of community affairs, and William Badger, president and CEO of Guiding Eyes.
I got my first dog guide Vincenzo (Vinnie) in 1986, two years after I went blind. Then I had a second dog, Oliver. Now I’m on my third dog—another Vincenzo—Vincenzo the Second! I got them all from Guiding Eyes for the Blind in Yorktown Heights, NY. It’s a great place!
As soon as I got a dog guide, life changed. (Although, I have to say, my mother was dead-set against animals. She used to tell my dog, “If my son regains his sight – you’re gone.”) The biggest challenge I had when I got my first dog was coming to terms with the fact that I was still angry about losing my sight. I was probably that way for the next two years. I used to have a sign on my dog that said, “Please don’t pet me. I’m working.” When somebody walked up to me and started petting the dog anyway—and you’d be surprised how often this happens—I’d say, “You must be as blind as I am!”
A friend of mine told me I had to “chill”—that my anger was driving people away. But it took me a while to come to terms with things. I’m a bit wiser now. So when somebody comes up and wants to pet my dog, I say, “He’s Italian, so you can blow kisses instead.”
I continually remind myself that yes, I might have had a bad day today, but this is just an instant in time – tomorrow is always another opportunity for a better day. Like I said, I’m becoming a much nicer guy than I was before I went blind! Most of the time anyway …
The beauty of a dog is that it goes forward, goes left or right – it knows exactly what it’s doing so I can walk as safely as if I could see. Vinnie, my first dog, helped me more than anything, particularly socially. He was a great icebreaker; after all, that’s how I met my wife! It’s funny though, even today, people in the street will talk with my daughter or my wife very comfortably about my dog but they often seem afraid, or unsure, of addressing me directly. Maybe it’s because they’re uncomfortable around blindness.
My dogs have opened up so many opportunities that I might not otherwise have had. A dog is more than just increased mobility. Through them, for example, I’ve learned to pay attention to differences in sound. I now associate sounds with different kinds of things; for example, building walls with lots of glass sound very different from all-concrete walls; and an overhanging building sounds different again. Sound is a fascinating thing.
Relaxing and Enjoying Life
And a good Scotch is also a fascinating thing! I have to say I recommend two things: being happy and having your hands on good single malt. I’ve been sampling them over the years and I have about 15 different bottles of single malt in my home. Two of my favorites are Balvenie 17-year-old Double New Oak and Glenmorangie. You know the secret to drinking a good scotch? Pour a couple of shots into a glass, and then add a shot of distilled water. The aromas and tastes explode!
Want to know another way I relax? Running! I’ve run 20 marathons since I’ve been blind. I’ve run with the Achilles Track Club for people with disabilities, and over the years I’ve helped train about ten athletes to do marathons. I founded the Westchester branch of the Achilles Track Club.
The first long run I did was a 10K (6.2 mile) race for Guiding Eyes for the Blind. I used to joke about doing the New York City Marathon but I’ve now run it four times! The joy I had walking with my wife on the last marathon we did together was great. We did 15-minute miles for all 26 miles. She kept asking me, “Is everything okay?” and I’d respond “Just fine, dear.” It’s my male ego that refuses to admit anything’s wrong!
I’m 51 and I’m told I look as if I’m in my 30s. I spend about two hours, three days a week, at the gym and I come out drenched. When I’m on the bike I really make it burn! I enjoy weight training, but I totally love running marathons. I’m proud to say I ran on a number of Guiding Eyes for the Blind fund-raising marathons and managed to bring in quite a few dollars for them.
I’m a voracious reader. I used to listen to audio books. I was never a fast braille reader, but now that technology has improved, I use books in DAISY format and get books on tape through the public library and the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. And my family likes vacationing. We have our own timeshares and get away as much as we can. We’re now preparing to go to Myrtle Beach, where we’ll just hang out. We love to travel.
My wife and I have been on a number of cruises. Here’s a tip about cruises: If you’re visually impaired and going on a cruise, talk to the company about it before you get to the ship. If you have a dog guide, it’s best they’re prepared before you arrive. On the last cruise we took, they built Oliver a sandbox under the poop deck (pun fully intended!) and it worked out just great.
The Importance of Family
I’m blessed with a strong and close family. My daughter is very gifted in art, singing, and performing. We do things together, and we enjoy TV shows. Our network of friends continues to expand through my family’s interests, running, my love of technology, and my dog.
I have a braille dictionary in my house and the word “quit” has been erased. I believe you should stick things out to the end, no matter how slow it goes. If you fail, learn the lessons from the failure. If you’ve never failed, how can you appreciate success? But, bottom line, you have to have laughter. Lots of it! When I came back from the hospital I thought I was going to die—but, as you can see, I didn’t! Like so many people, I was given an opportunity to either fail or succeed when I lost my sight. The same choices are given to everyone in many different forms, and it all comes down to what you want to make of yourself.
The key is never to give up on yourself—never say quit. As you face and overcome each challenge, you grow stronger, prouder—and happier. And happiness is definitely where the laughter is!