Michael Cooper became a consumer with the South Carolina Commission for the Blind (SCCB) when he was eight years old. He was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a rare genetic disorder that results in the breakdown of cells in the retina, which is the light sensitive tissue in the back of the eye. It causes the field of vision to narrow and difficulty seeing at night. A progressive condition, the area of central vision gradually becomes smaller and peripheral vision diminishes.
While he was in middle school, Michael said he had some challenging times in the classroom, and that he felt his best when he was playing in the gym. His mother encouraged him to be active and play sports, and as a result he developed a keen interest in health and fitness.
Michael also received valuable support from SCCB and his former counselor.
“My counselor, Liz Lewis, was blind,” he says, “and she was an inspiration to me.” She helped him obtain resources, such as a magnifier and large print books, that were invaluable to him in middle school and high school.
During high school, he participated in SCCB’s Summer Teen Program and Student Internship program (SIP), in which he completed an internship in Exercise Science at Pivotal Fitness Center in Columbia, SC.
These experiences helped Michael decide to attend the University of South Carolina Upstate, where he pursued a bachelor’s degree in Exercise Science. SCCB helped him with tuition assistance, and also provided counseling and guidance. As part of his studies, Michael completed internships with Trinity Health & Fitness and Nautilus Fitness Center, both in Spartanburg.
After graduating from USC, Michael said that he “had a hunger for more knowledge about how exercise affects the human body,” and wanted to expand his understanding of “how to help the body recover after exercise.” This led him to enroll in the Clinical Massage Therapy program at Midlands Technical College, where he received his state license in Massage Therapy and Body Work in addition to a certification in Personal Training.
Michael says that learning massage was easy for him. He felt comfortable using his knowledge of anatomy and physiology to guide his hands to find tension and stress points in joints.
Michael’s initial attempts to find employment were unsuccessful, however, and he began to question his ability to be a massage therapist, and wondered if his visual impairment would hinder him in finding a career. Michael returned to SCCB to seek assistance in finding another form of employment. However, every time he came into the office, all he would talk about was fitness. He would offer advice on healthy eating and suggest exercise plans. It was clear to his counselor and supporting staff that he had both the passion and skills to help others be healthy. So they began working with him to increase his self-confidence and help him find opportunities that would be a good match for his skills. He also received benefits counseling at this time.
Around this time the Katie & Irwin Kahn Jewish Community Center (JCC) in Northeast Columbia posted a position for a Fitness Associate. The JCC was close to Michael’s home and the job duties were ones that Michael was familiar with performing. Although the position was filled at the time Michael applied, the JCC collaborated with SCCB to provide an internship for Michael to learn more about the position and for the JCC to learn more about Michael. He started in March of 2019.
Michael was excited and committed to be a success in the field of physical fitness. He asked his family to drop him off as early as 4am to make sure he was on time for the first shift. He used assistive technology he received through SCCB, such as a handheld magnifier and ZoomText, to perform his job duties at the JCC. In the gym, he helped maintain and clean equipment, provided guidance in the proper use of different types of exercise equipment, and offered suggestions to clients about the most effective work outs. He even used assistive cutting aids, which he learned about in SCCB’s Home Management courses, to make fruit-infused water for the clients every morning.
At the end of the internship, in June 2019, Michael was offered a permanent position as a Fitness Associate at the JCC. As he became more acclimated to his role, the JCC transitioned Michael to become a part of the Massage Therapy team.
Although the pandemic caused some changes in Michael’s work schedule in 2020, he found a way to continue offering services to the JCC’s clients. Michael proposed offering chair massages as a way to provide therapeutic treatment while implementing safety precautions for COVID-19. This service was approved by the Fitness Director and became a new service offered at the JCC.
Reflecting on his experience with SCCB, Michael expressed his appreciation for the assistance he received in high school, with going to college, and in helping him find employment.
“SCCB staff believed in me,” he says. “When a counselor makes a connection with a consumer and you don’t feel like just a number,” he says, “that is when SCCB shines.”
Congratulations to the following staff, Kelly Jochim, Jessica Matthews, Melva Butler, Carla Donaldson, Brittany McKenzie and Cynthia Harned, for achieving a perfect score on the Quality Assurance (QA) second quarter Quality Review report!
The 2021 Student Internship Program (SIP) will provide an opportunity for six SCCB consumers who are post-secondary students (in 2 or 4 year degree programs) to participate in an internship related to their major. It will begin with a three-day virtual orientation from May 19 - 21, which will include workplace etiquette, self-advocacy, resume writing, interview skills and mock interviews. Then, between June 1 and August 6, the students will intern at Freeway Music in Columbia, Orangeburg County Department of Disabilities and Special Needs, SCCB’s Assistive Technology Department in Columbia, ABC Academy Daycare in Saluda, Courage Center in Lexington, and the Richland County Public Defender’s Office in Columbia.
The Virtual Spring Senior Camp will be held Friday, May 21, from 10am to 2pm. About 20 seniors are anticipated to attend, and will participate in networking opportunities, social time, and an interactive game. Helpful resources will be provided, with a focus on new offerings from the Hadley Institute for the Blind and Visually Impaired for short recordings, podcasts, and other options. There will be a discussion about independence and relying on one’s abilities.
For more than 30 years, SCCB has partnered with the National Federation of the Blind of South Carolina to offer this event.
The 2021 SCCB Summer Teen Program will feature two activity paths: the Independence Track, which will help students prepare for future internships, and the Worker Track, which will provide an internship experience for eligible students.
The program will take place from June 21 through July 31. The first week will be held virtually for both tracks. After that, activities and events will be held at different locations in Columbia. The final week will be held at Rocky Bottom Retreat and Conference Center of the Blind in Pickens County.
Students on the Worker Track will have internship/work experience opportunities offered by Carolina Wildlife, edVenture, and other partners.
SCCB’s Summer Teen Program offers Pre-employment Transition Services workshops in conjunction with Successful Transitions.
The annual Children’s Summer Camp, hosted by NFB Successful Transitions, is for children who are legally blind, aged 12 and under. It will be held at Rocky Bottom Retreat and Conference Center of the Blind in Pickens County from June 26 to July 1, 2021.
Activities will include canoeing for kids at Table Rock, virtual story hour with the state library service, technology day (courtesy of Vispero/Freedom Scientific, who will demonstrate various types of assistive technology), Braille activities, independent living activities, and more. Many of the senior and junior counselors and administrative personnel will be legally blind individuals.
SCCB partners with Successful Transitions to help promote this event and provide other resources.
The following comment was recently received from a consumer
who received SCCB’s Older Blind services:
It was my lucky day when a friend gave me your telephone number. I called and [the counselor] made an appointment to come and meet me. She offered suggestions, making my house easy to move around in. She gave me a telephone, a package of bump dots, and some other odds and ends. She made me an appointment for an evaluation. I received several sizes of magnifying glasses, an address book, and other stuff.
I’m so thankful for the Commission. It has given [me] more freedom. I use everything you have given me. I have had several visits with [my counselor] and found her to be very helpful. I feel I can call her any time.
—Former SCCB Consumer