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Janet LaBreck - commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration

As commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration, Janet LaBreck oversees programs that help people with disabilities find employment and live more independently. Prior to that role within the US Department of Education, she headed up the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind, which served more than 30,000 people. ABILITY’s Chet Cooper and Lia Martirosyan were in the nation’s capital to talk with LaBreck about the Obama Administration’s vision for cultivating the workforce of the future. At times, LaBreck’s husband, Russell, joined in the conversation.

Cooper: Have you been to the CSUN Conference (International Technology & Persons with Disabilities Conference) in California?

Janet LaBreck: I have not. I had hoped to go last year.

Cooper: If you had, you would’ve met Stevie Wonder.

LaBreck: I know! Interestingly enough, I just finished reading his book, which focused on his mom and his disability. It’s a powerful story, absolutely incredible. When I was commissioner in Massachusetts, I sent folks to CSUN because we always wanted to stay at the forefront of what was going on assistive technology-wise. For a state agency, we had one of the largest technology programs in the country.

Cooper: Maybe you’ll go to CSUN next year.

LaBreck: I really want to make it, especially if Stevie goes. You did an article on him.

Cooper: Yes, after CSUN, we met him at his home in LA.


LaBreck: I was at a Massachusetts Association for the Blind event where they gave him the Vision Award a few years ago. He was there, but it would have been inappropriate to act like a fan. Plus he had such a huge entourage. He can be hard to get to. A friend of mine who went to the Perkins School for the Blind toured with Stevie Wonder for quite a while. He even sounds like Stevie. So Lia, you’re an opera singer?

Lia Martirosyan: That’s what they tell me.

LaBreck: How long have you been singing?

Martirosyan: I’m classically trained, and I’ve been doing it for the past five years, which is still a relatively short time for the genre. Definitely a lovely journey.

Cooper: Last year when we attended the WWW (World Wide Web) and W4A (Web for All) conferences in South Korea, they invited Lia to sing in 2015. It will be in Florence, Italy.

LaBreck: That’s wonderful.

Martirosyan: Indeed.

Russell LaBreck: Have you been there before?

Martirosyan: No, and I’m going to bring my stretchy pants.

(laughter)

LaBreck: So you can eat all day.

Martirosyan: Exactly.

Cooper: Tell me more about your educational background.

LaBreck: I went to public school first, but when I started losing my vision, they decided that I would get a better education if I went to Perkins School for the Blind. And I got an absolutely wonderful education. I was also musically inclined, and started singing at Perkins. Beverly Sills, the late opera singer, invited me to New York. I went for a visit, and then she wanted my parents to hand me over to her to train, and my mother was like, “Are you kidding me? There is no way!” So I continued to train, but not under her.

Martirosyan: Too bad.

LaBreck: I know. But I still had my glory days with singing and I loved it. The first time I ever went to an opera, Beverly Sills took me. It was in New York, and it was fantastic.

Martirosyan: Which opera?

LaBreck: I don’t even remember. It was at the Met. It might have been Aida. And it was a totally different world, totally foreign to me, and very interesting. So I have a great appreciation for opera and opera singers; it’s a difficult craft to master.

Martirosyan: Do you still belt out some notes around the house every now and again?

Russell: I try to get her to sing, and she will not do it. I don’t know why; I gave up trying a long time ago.

LaBreck: I was never meant to be a public singer. I did it at school because it was fun, but that was it. Russell: When we met many years ago, there was a soul band similar to the Temptations. And one of them heard her sing, and wanted her to join. We had some talks around it, but she totally convinced me that that wasn’t the route she wanted to take. She really wanted to work in the disability field. We started to get more serious about our relationship. I said to her, “Look, that’s not my world, but if you want to go off and do your thing, I’ll support you.” It was funny how we had that conversation. It almost scared me. I was thinking Whitney Houston.

LaBreck: No, no, not even close.

Cooper: Janet, when did you start to lose your vision?

LaBreck: It probably started going early on in my childhood, but it was never detected. I was in the classroom and I would have difficulty seeing the blackboard and reading from a book. Although I do distinctly recall a time before that when I was able to lay a book in my lap and see the print with no problem at all. I first started having difficulty seeing at nighttime, but I wasn’t aware of it because I’d be out playing with the other kids and the minute it would start to get dark, I started to miss things. I would miss a ball that I normally would have caught. Or I wasn’t able to hit the ball when I normally would have been able to.

Cooper: That sounds like an excuse for missing the ball.

LaBreck: (laughs) Exactly! I would say, “OK, we’ve got to stop playing because it’s getting dark,” and the kids listened to me, which probably prolonged the fact that I was having trouble. In elementary school, if they said, “Read what’s on the blackboard,” I would say, “I can’t see it,” which they perceived as acting-out behavior. Finally there was someone who was perceptive enough to recognize that I had a vision problem. She said, “We need you to go see the school eye doctor.” And when the eye doctor did the examination, he said, “Yeah, there’s definitely something going on, but I don’t think glasses will help.” My parents began a two-year pilgrimage to see specialists. We are originally from the Berkshires, and my parents would drive down to Boston to the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary. It seemed like every time I saw a different doctor, they had a different diagnosis or they weren’t even sure what the diagnosis was. Nobody could label it. They asked that we be a part of a study, and brought all six of us siblings in for examinations. That was when they realized that four out of the six of us were dealing with the same issue, but they didn’t know what to call it or what it was. Four out of six children! After about two and a half years, they diagnosed it as a rare form of retinitis pigmentosa. They had never seen it in that many family members. So we became interesting, I guess.

Cooper: The poster family.

?LaBreck: Yes! The poster family. They studied us for quite a while. At some point, I had to say, “It is what it is. We now have a diagnosis. The prognosis is not good. So what’s next for me? What am I supposed to do?” The doctors said, “You’ll never be able to work. You should just go to a special school,” which is what I did, but I never accepted the idea of giving up on going to work. I used to think, “There’s got to be something I can do. I don’t know what I can do, but I’m going to find it.”

Going to Perkins for me was the best thing that ever happened. As challenging as it was to be taken away from my family at 12, and to live there for seven years without family support, it was for the best because Perkins had a different level of expectation, and they helped me discover skills and things I could do. That’s when I learned about singing, and when I learned that I had athletic abilities and enjoyed track and field. My brother and I were there together. We traveled and we both became multiple award winners in track and field events up and down the East Coast, and around the country. I probably would not have ever been exposed to those opportunities if I had stayed in public school, because they just didn’t have the expertise. We didn’t have technology then. It was still very, very new. It sounds like I’m talking about prehistoric times, but we’re only talking about the ‘70s.

Cooper: I wouldn’t know. I wasn’t born then.

LaBreck: (laughs) It was crazy. The experience at Perkins gave me an opportunity to think about my life and plan it out in a way that I probably would not have been able to do if I hadn’t gone there.

Cooper: Did you ever try the Paralympics?

LaBreck: No. We competed in the Eastern Athletic Association for the Blind, and we went around the country competing against other schools for the blind. Then they expanded it to competing against public schools in general competitions. My brother did wrestling and I ran track and field. Once we turned 18, we aged out of that circuit, and by that time I was already thinking about college and moving on with my life.

Cooper: Where’d you go to college?

LaBreck: The University of Massachusetts Boston for undergraduate, and then Springfield College for graduate school. My undergraduate degree is in human services and my master’s is in rehabilitation counseling.

Cooper: Kind of fits.

LaBreck: (laughs) Fits perfectly. But, this was not the plan....

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Excerpts from the Austin Basis Dec/Jan 2014-15 Issue:

Janet LaBreck — Modern Day Commissioner

China — Weihong Li

Senator Tom Harkin — HIS Legacy, OUR Equal Rights

Austin Basis — CW's Beauty & the Beast

Special Olympics — Patrick McClenahan Leads #LA2015

Articles in the Austin Basis Issue; Ashley Fiolek — Never Halfway!; Humor — Oh, Life; Geri Jewell — Tis the Season to Remember; China — Braille, My Twist of Fate; Janet LaBreck — Modern Day Commissioner; Senator Tom Harkin — HIS Legacy, OUR Equal Rights; Special Olympics — Patrick McClenahan Leads #LA2015; Austin Basis — CW's Beauty & the Beast; Long Haul Paul — A Distraction from Beyond; Bad Boys — EEOC Sues Dillard’s for 2 Million; ABILITY's Crossword Puzzle; Events and Conferences... subscribe

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CIA Janet LaBreck - commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration