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New Beginnings at LAB

August is generally a month when life slows down. We bask in the sun at the beach, vacation with our families and do our best to get every last bit of fun out of the waning summer days. Here at LAB, however, we’re always looking for ways to keep things vital and exciting. We might be 90 this year, but we still like shaking things up a bit. So we decided to depart from the tradition of the August doldrums, and instead turn it into yet another excuse to have a party (with great food, of course), and some of our best friends and most loyal supporters in attendance.

What were we celebrating? On this day, August 22, 2013, we took the time to recognize the accomplishments of Joe LeBlanc and Alex Moore, who successfully graduated from our Vocational Opportunities in Communications Education (VOICE) program and the LAB partners in offering this program the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind (MCB) and the Talking Information Center (TIC). In addition, we were honored to have as our guest, in his first appearance before a group of his future constituents, the newly appointed Massachusetts Commissioner for the Blind, Mr. Paul Saner.

A lively crowd was on hand to congratulate the graduates and to meet the Commissioner. Guests included staff from the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind (MCB), the Talking Information Center (TIC), the LAB Board of Directors and staff, and several LAB adult program clients.

For Alex and Joe, this day symbolized the end of a challenging 12-week class that focused on many aspects of the communications field. The overall goal of the class was to assist students in enhancing communications skills that are ultimately transferrable across many occupations and jobs. During the three-month class, Joe and Alex got a comprehensive overview of radio broadcasting: how to book guests, research program topics, conduct interviews in a professional manner, and how to edit those interviews and form them into a final, polished product. During their time in the VOICE program, both students completed fully edited and interviews ready to broadcast across the state on TIC. Now that they have successfully completed VOICE, they will have a toolbox of skills at their disposal, skills that can be transferred to any number of vocations.

In addition to cheering for Joe and Alex’s success, the audience was anxious to meet and hear from the man who was inspiring so much buzz in the community. Who is this new Commissioner? Does he have the experience and understanding of blindness that is required for such an important position? To answer these and many other questions, Paul Saner stepped up to the microphone and introduced himself.

The youngest of five, Paul grew up in Northampton, MA. At age four, he was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative, hereditary eye condition. “My mother noticed that while I was very rambunctious during the day, at night I became rather docile. That led to the RP diagnosis. I’m the only one in the family to have RP,” Paul explained. “My vision was never a significant issue until my early thirties, with one exception: the night blindness. Frankly, high school and college years were tough years because I didn’t choose to disclose that I didn’t see at night. So I was socially not as involved as I would have in retrospect liked to be. I, to my good fortune, met my wife in graduate school. In 1991 at the age of 36, I was declared legally blind. . . I was not ready when I was declared legally blind, and I think very few people are without seeking the support and services of MCB and the extraordinary number of nonprofits in Massachusetts, including the Lowell Association for the Blind, that help leverage MCB’s efforts.. . I did immediately seek services, and I particularly got involved in support, and I sought out mentors, older people that were very successful as blind people.”

Paul’s diagnosis of legal blindness occurred during a period of transitions for him. His resume is long and impressive. His first professional position was with a small real estate company servicing investors who were purchasing interests in limited partnerships. The company grew from 11 employees when he was hired to a whopping 500 by the time he left in 1985. In 1990, he took a job at Bank Boston and stayed for ten years, departing in 2000 as a managing director in the real estate corporate structuring group.

As the new decade began, it became clear to Paul that he needed to enhance his communications and independent living skills, since his central vision was deteriorating markedly. To this end, he attended the Carroll Center for the Blind’s Technology Center, where he learned touch typing and the use of screen reading and magnification software. In addition, he took classes in daily living skills.

Not one to sit on his laurels, Paul immediately put what he had learned into practice, not only in his own life but to help others. He became a volunteer teacher at the Carroll Center, passing on his own knowledge of touch typing and adaptive computer skills to many of the students. He hosted a retinitis pigmentosa support group in his home, became President of the Massachusetts affiliate of the Foundation Fighting Blindness, and eventually joined the national board and the executive committee.

Paul also freely contributed his sharply honed corporate and management skills to the nonprofit sector, serving on the Commission’s rehabilitation council as well as becoming the Chair of the Perkins Braille and Talking Book Library’s Consumer Advisory Board. In addition, he recently resigned from his position as Vice Chair of the Carroll Center’s Board of Directors in order to free up his time to assume his new position of Commissioner. In Brookline where he resides, he has served on the Board of the Brookline Community Foundation and is a representative at town meeting. Last but not least, he is on the Board of the Metropolitan Waterworks Museum and was instrumental in its inception and founding in 2011.

Without question, Paul brings an impressive skill set to his new role as Commissioner. Now all that is left to wonder is what his goals will be during his tenure. Paul’s answer is both definite and humble: “I’m not coming into this job with a specific agenda of this has to change, this has to go, this has to be added. So I’m going to be, over the next couple of months, laying out a longer term vision for the agency. I’m obviously aware of demographic trends and limited amount of SR (Social Rehab) funding for elders losing their vision, so that’s a particular area of interest for me. I obviously have been a successful byproduct of the vocational rehabilitation side of MCB. That’s vitally important work that we’re going to continue. I have been made well aware over the last couple of weeks of some of the new initiatives of the agency like the VOICE program, like the internship program. . . The bottom line is that MCB is here to support the thirty thousand blind folks in the Commonwealth, and I intend to do just that.”

As the event came to a close, the mood was buoyant. There was much to celebrate as we acknowledged Alex and Joe’s accomplishments. And there was also much to look forward to in the upcoming months, as Paul Saner learns about his new position and carefully implements improvements and enhancements.

We hope to invite him, as well as all of our other friends and supporters, back for another celebration of accomplishments in the near future. We are currently seeking applicants for the next VOICE class, to be conducted later this fall. If you are interested in learning if this program is right for you, contact your Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor. We hope to see you soon!

Suzanne Wilson

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