For those of us with disabilities, it is very common to feel like we’re alone. That we’re the only ones with the conditions, that we have. The power of a mentor with a disability like ours, it can be life-changing.~Jeff Wissel
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After a 3-month hiatus we are back and I’m eager to introduce you to Jeff Wissel our March 2023 Man In Motion. Jeff is the Chief Accessibility Officer at Disability:IN a leader in the disability inclusion and equality space. Jeff’s story is relatable to everyone as we all have something we’d rather keep under wraps. When the something is a disabilitiy we can do ourselves a real disservice by hiding it. Jeff shares with us how he found power in embracing his inner voice and you can too.
Following are Jeff’s story via YouTube and in transcript form. Enjoy! ~Steph
Beyond Sight Magazine Cover
Meeting Jeff Wissel
I am excited and honored to be this month’s Bold Blind Beauty’s Man In Motion. Hi everyone. My name is Jeff Wissel. I’m a white male in my mid fifties. I’m of average height, average weight, and I have a little bit of brown hair still remaining. My pronouns are he and him. My wife Carla, and I have been married for 25 years. And we have two wonderful daughters, age 20 and 16.
I’ve had the opportunity to have a 28 year long career with a leading financial institution. In much of that time, I served as a certified financial planner. For the past 14 months, I’ve had the opportunity to serve as the Chief Accessibility Officer at a leading nonprofit called Disability:IN
In my current role I get to work with hundreds of our corporate partners to assist them in establishing and enhancing their accessibility and disability inclusion efforts. I am proud today to say that I am legally blind with a degenerative eye disease called retinitis pigmentosa or RP. I’m proud to say it because I spent much of my life hiding the fact that I had vision loss and that I became legally blind later in life. I did not have my inner voice and I did not know what to do other than to try to fit into some mold like everyone else and hide my vision loss.
I’ll talk a little bit about my childhood and then quickly go into my working career and then later in life. My, my hope is that some of what I share, lived experiences and learnings might be helpful for some of you listening and hopefully you’re able to find your inner voice and, embrace your vision loss as your greatest strength a lot quicker than I did.
So I mentioned my wife and I have been married for 25 years. I have amazing family support with my spouse, my kids, my family, and on the personal level, everything was wonderful. On the professional level, it wasn’t until later in life that I really found my inner voice, and I’ll share that in a little bit.
Quickly, growing up, I was born with vision and for many years, up until I was probably seven, I didn’t really realize anything was different. I remember riding my bike and running into a rusty chain that I didn’t see, it was dusk time. And I remember in high school playing, um, softball and ended up losing the softball visually, and it, I was played outfield.
Receiving The Diagnosis
Different things like this happened, and it was when I was 21 years of age, I was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa or RP. And I realized that, you know, at that point that things were gonna be different. The ophthalmologist shared with me that I would most likely lose the rest of my vision. He recommended that I stopped driving at 21 and he said, oh, by the way, there’s a $2,000 tax credit for being blind.
I’m sure he was a super nice guy and had great bedside manner, but like most stories that I hear when we’re diagnosed, we don’t always remember that. We just remember the diagnosis, which is a little bit hard to swallow. I was an actor for a good part of my life, meaning I tried acting like I was fully sighted even though I was experiencing vision loss.
When I was a kid, like I said, things didn’t really seem that different, but it when I was about 20, in my twenties, I started working for the financial firm and everything was paper back then. Paper documents and all the charts and graphs and so forth, it was before the internet. So, fortunately, when I first started, I was, had enough vision that I could read that, those documents and so forth and do my job, but not as effectively and effective, efficiently as others.
Cuz it took me a little bit longer to, to focus and, and get the information. As much as I could I tried to do everything on the computer. I started with a high contrast, you know, the reverse contrast to dark background and white text shifted to magnification, and that worked for a while. And then about 20 years ago, ended up just using the screen reader. I gave up struggling to, to use what vision I had, to try to read it. I just became very effective, efficient, and competitive in using the screen reader.
For 20 years, I was a phone representative as a certified financial planner working with our clients. I had a dual headset. In one ear I would hear my computer reading everything to me, that’s what a screen reader does it reads what it sees on the screen, and then the other ear was the customer. So I’m placing trades, moving money, trading options, selling stock short, all kinds of really cool stuff. At the same time, hearing a computer talking to me and hearing the customer and carrying it on a conversation, like everyone else. And I don’t think a customer ever knew that I was legally blind using a computer, to do that.
For all those years, I really tried hiding my vision loss. I felt my vision loss was a weakness and it was a vulnerability. We know that it’s human nature to hide our vulnerabilities. We also know that one out of four or one out of five people throughout the world have some form of a disability.
There’s a survey that Disability:IN does. We had 415 companies take this survey last year. And the companies that answered the question around self-disclosure showed that less than 5% of employees on average self-disclosed disabilities. I was one of those, like many of you might be. I didn’t disclose because I didn’t know what the repercussions would be and all these other things. And again, I just didn’t have my inner voice.
Strength In Mentorship
What changed for me was about eight years. I was introduced to a colleague at work who had lost her vision 20 years ago due to diabetic retinopathy. She became a vice president and had this successful career at my company, and that was the first person now in my professional circles that I had who was blind, low vision like me. She became my friend and became my mentor.
Her name was Alicia, and she helped me to embrace my vision loss as my greatest strength. Because of this relationship, we would tell our colleagues about this person that I met from our Boston office. I live in Ohio and she’s blind and she’s doing all these really cool things and I’m legally blind.
And when we would tell our colleagues that story, they would share their story of how they’re either directly or indirectly impacted by disabilities with us. Well, after about three months, Alicia said, Jeff, you should start an employee resource group for our colleagues with disabilities. And I thought for a moment, and I thought, Alicia, you’re asking me from going from the poster child of covering an invisible disability to starting this employee resource group and publicly outing myself as being legally blind.
But I did because it was working for us and when we would tell our colleagues, they felt like relieved that they were able to share this story with someone in all places at work. So we started this employee resource group, started with six of us, and at last count there were 6,500 active members of this employee resource group.
Power Of The Inner Voice
Colleagues were finding their inner voice and learning how to embrace their disabilities as a strength and not a weakness or a vulnerability. Because of that experience, we looked at what our customers were telling us and found that our customers were sharing their stories of how, you know, there might have lost their hearing and now their spouse has to call in and get the information.
All these different stories kind of tell a theme, and we ended up building a business case on this, presented it to our senior leadership and launched an enterprise-wide office of customer accessibility.
I went from being an individual contributor on the phones for 20 years. I knew we had senior leadership because we would get a memo that would say, make sure your area’s clear, cleaned up because so-and-so’s coming into to the regional phone center next week to now being a leader in the accessibility space at my company and presenting to our board of 21 senior leaders, four presidents of divisions and executive vice presidents on enterprise strategy around accessibility and disability inclusion.
I had the opportunity to work with lots of companies at that time also who used us as their vendor and, and found, you know, what their efforts were and how they were trying to enhance accessibility and realize that there are so many employees who have various disabilities in the general public.
As customers, we know so many customers have disabilities, and this incredible opportunity to become more inclusive and to make sure that accessibility is part of everything that we do. Now, as Chief Accessibility Officer, I have this opportunity to help hundreds of companies and to be on the journey with them.
We’re Stronger Together
The point of all of this that I really like to try to get across is:
For those of us with disabilities, it is very common to feel like we’re alone. That we’re the only ones with the conditions, that we have. The power of a mentor with a disability like ours, it can be life changing.
When we find our inner voice, we start to bring a diversity of thought to the table. We’re empowered to share our insights. We have to find alternative ways of doing traditional things that’s innovation, that’s creativity. That’s what employers want us to do as employees, is to be innovative, be creative, and to bring that diversity of thought to the table because it helps us to create better products and services that are more inclusive in that encompass our entire customer base, not just 85% excluding the 15% of the population that has various disabilities.
So I encourage each of you to:
- Embrace your vision loss as a strength.
- Find information about vision loss.
- Embrace the blindness/low vision community.
- Build your network.
- Know that you’re not alone, there’s strength in numbers.
There’s lots of us out there in leadership positions, in all types of roles and so forth.
When we find our inner voice and share it and share our stories, we empower others to share their stories and to bring their diversity of thought out. I am honored to be this month’s Bold Blind Beauty’s Man In Motion. And I’m grateful for this opportunity to share a little bit about my personal life, my journey with vision loss, and to encourage each of you to share your stories.
We are all mentees. We’re lifelong mentees cuz we are on a learning journey. But all of us can be mentors as well. And to help each other find our inner voices and to bring that diversity of thought to the table. Thank you for this opportunity and have a great day.
Connecting With Jeff
- Website Disability:IN
- LinkedIn @JeffWissel
Join Our Community
Like what you’ve read and want to chat about it? Join us in the Bold Blind Beauty Facebook group.
- Header, Beyond Sight Magazine Cover and YouTube Thumbnail are identical and shows Jeff Wissel posing while standing and holding his white cane for the camera. Per his description he is a white male in his mid fifties. He’s of average height, average weight, and has a little bit of brown hair still remaining. Jeff is wearing a suit jacket over a white button up. Text on the cover reads “Beyond Sight March 2023 | Men In Motion | Jeff Wissel.”
- Video description: Jeff is talking directly to the camera while sitting in an office chair with white earbuds in his ears. He’s wearing a suit jacket over a white button-up.
- Jeff holding his folded up white cane.