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Joyce Shoemaker
Joyce Shoemaker

Tell us a little about yourself. What made you interested in pursuing a career in the blindness/low vision retail field?

My education and training in low vision comes from decades of first-hand experience. There’s no need for a book to describe this world to me – at age 12, doctors at Stanford University diagnosed me with Stargardt’s Disease, the most common form of juvenile macular degeneration. Imagine adding the complication of vision loss to adolescence—from needing extra time to do my homework to not being able to drive.

Stargardt’s causes loss of central (or straight-ahead) vision, including central blind spots. At first, things just didn’t appear sharp to me. Also, I had difficulty adjusting from dark to light. When I came inside after playing in the sun, I would have severe headaches and couldn’t focus quickly. Over the years, as the disease progressed, those central blind spots have increased. I’m unable to see things straight ahead unless they’re very close to me. I can’t recognize a face from a distance, but I can see the outline of someone’s body. The common joke is that I may not be able to see your face, but I’ll notice a piece of lint on your shoulder!

Since Stargardt’s is a progressive disease, I learned to adapt quickly by developing and relying on my other senses. For example, when someone walks into the SightConnection store, I recognize that person by voice at first, rather than by appearance. To the surprise of many people at the agency, I can identify my co-workers by listening to the unique rhythm of each person’s walk. Don’t try to sneak up on me, because it won’t work!

As you can imagine, the progress in technology and public awareness has increased tremendously since my childhood. When I grew up (during the 1980s), adaptive aids were not widely available, but I managed. At times, I had to depend on friends jotting down notes and homework assignments; each time a new school year began, I made sure that my assigned seat was near the front of the classroom. Essentially, I got through high school by using a hand-held magnifier for most of my reading.

One advantage I had was attending a small high school, which gave me more one-on-one time with my teachers and guidance counselors.  But I must give credit where it’s due: my family—and their constant support—was a tremendous help. My parents raised me without limits, and I was encouraged to remain active despite my Stargardt’s diagnosis. Throughout my teenage years, I showed horses competitively, snow skied, and participated in other “normal” events and activities.

Like many young girls growing up, I spent hours dressing Barbie and thumbing through fashion magazines, going to department stores trying on clothes with friends, and following seasonal trends. So when I participated in a career course during my senior year in high school and had the option for an internship at a department store, I jumped on it. 

Starting in gift-wrapping (do department stores still offer this service?), I had my eye on the mannequins! I expressed an interest to my boss and weeks later I was dressing “life-size Barbie dolls.” It may seem unusual that the girl who used a magnifier to read her school notes pursued a career in visual merchandising, but I approached it as an art form that the “mind’s eye” can see.

I loved combining product and environment to encourage a sale, develop the “flow” of merchandise in the store, and highlight certain trends in strategic locations. Also, with Stargardt’s, peripheral (or side) vision is often well developed. I can “see around the blind spots,” so to speak. I often say I see the world a bit tilted in comparison to others, but in artistic expression, isn’t that an advantage?

Dare I say, “I was made for this career”?

Tell us about SightConnection. What services do you offer?

SightConnection in Seattle, WA works with individuals, families, and communities to restore, maintain, and enhance the independence and well-being of people with impaired vision. Founded as a private, nonprofit agency in 1965, SightConnection is the Northwest’s leading vision rehabilitation agency – our services range from a low vision clinic to counseling to mobility training to educational services.  Our approach is interdisciplinary. We strongly believe that losing vision does not mean losing independence!

The SightConnection Store is the retail division of SightConnection. We have more than 400 products for living with vision loss, such as talking clocks, labeling and marking products, helpful lighting, magnifiers, braille items, and kitchen adaptations and supplies. SightConnection helps folks all around the world remain independent! Our store is located in the Northgate area of Seattle and provides one-stop shopping for clients coming to our low vision clinic.

But more importantly, anyone can shop for products on our web site or by calling our office for a catalogue. Our mission is to ensure that tools for independence are readily available, no matter where you live. What is unique about SightConnection is that the proceeds from our sales support the programs and services that our agency provides in the community.

My job as Retail Operations Manager requires that I stay informed about new product development and be up-to-date with all up-and-coming product research. It is such an exciting time! Many companies are now working to develop products to support individuals, like myself, with low vision. Recognition of our unique challenges is finally being acknowledged by society!

I often tell our customers that there is nothing they cannot do – just as my family said to me at age 12. Whether a customer wants to cook her favorite cake or read the latest romance novel, we have the products to help with those tasks. I am always researching new products and trying them out myself to see if our customers could benefit. 

Recently, a gentleman from San Francisco called to thank us for making our store’s products available on our web site. He was able to order a closed-circuit television (CCTV) for his mother who lived thousands of miles away. To know that my work is also affecting others outside my community is very rewarding. My staff is highly knowledgeable and a great resource about adaptive aids. I relate to our customers and have first-hand knowledge of products – I use them every day! 

Is there a story you’d like to tell about a customer who benefited from your services?

I have such empathy for our customers because I understand the struggle. The difference is that I’ve had years to adjust. One particular story, about a woman named Mildred, comes to mind:

Several years ago, on a sunny day in Seattle (they do happen), Mildred asked her visiting daughter to drive her to “that place in Northgate for the blind” because she wanted a new pair of colored lenses that fit over her regular eyeglasses to shield her eyes from the sun. While discussing the various options and advantages of each, as well as which fit her “style” best, Mildred spotted our display of magnifiers.

As is often the case, the drugstore variety just “wasn’t doing it” for her anymore. After about an hour of one-to-one time with Mildred, I learned she would benefit most from a prescription-strength magnifier. This surprised her daughter. Like so many people with low vision, the severity of Mildred’s condition wasn’t apparent to her family members. 

Following my recommendation, Mildred made an appointment with our agency’s Optometric Physician. After her functional low vision evaluation, Mildred not only found the perfect magnifier, but also met with our independent living specialist to discuss innovative ways to remain independent in her home, such as marking the most frequently used buttons on her microwave with raised “bump dots.”

During the next few months, Mildred learned about local support groups, educational presentations on macular degeneration hosted by SightConnection, free directory assistance available to visually impaired folks, and other adaptive aids to make her life easier—and enable her to become less dependent on her children. The number of helpful resources that were available surprised her

Recently, Mildred’s daughter contacted me again, saying she was coming to town and wanted to see me. She had surprised her mother with a new CCTV for her birthday and asked me to meet with them to train Mildred to use it. After fussing with the machine for an hour or so, Mildred stopped and turned to me, with tears in her eyes, saying, “I haven’t read a newspaper in two years, Joyce. Thank you so much!” This is what motivates me to promote the products available through SightConnection.com.

How can our readers learn more about your agency’s services?

To learn more about SightConnection, ot to purchase independent living aids and products, visit our web site at http://www.sightconnection.org. Readers can also call 1-800-458-4888 for a catalogue.