Virginia Jacko - Blind Visionary

In December 2000, Virginia Jacko found she was rapidly losing her sight to retinitis pigmentosa, a condition characterized by retinal damage. The discovery prompted her to take a three-month leave from her executive position at Purdue University and enroll in Florida’s Miami Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired. Although she fully intended to return to her work at Purdue after her vocational-rehabilitation program, life soon set the finance expert on a completely new path.

Within four years, Jacko advanced from student to president and chief executive officer (CEO) of Miami Lighthouse. In her book, The Blind Visionary, written with entrepreneur Doug Eadie, Jacko uses the concept of blindness as a metaphor for those of life’s challenges that narrow a person’s vision and constrain his or her sphere of action. Jacko met with ABILITY’s Molly Mackin to discuss what inspired her to tell her story.

Molly Mackin: You seem to have a sense of ease both as a CEO, and as someone who has mastered life after losing her sight. It’s impressive.

Virginia Jacko: We all have certain traits and talents that make us who we are. I know this sounds corny, but as a result of my blindness I now have more vision, in some ways. Sight can be a distraction. For example, if you’re at a restaurant, you start to look around, check out what people are wearing, see who’s sitting with whom, or see if you know anybody there. But if you can’t do that, your other senses are heightened: your sense of taste, your sense of hearing.

Sometimes people ask me if it’s okay to say something like, “I’ll see you again.” I tell them, “Oh I say that all the time.” It’s just that I see you in a different way than you see me.”

Mackin: Your book sheds some light on some of the advantages of being blind. For example, you say that during meetings you don’t have to look at people’s negative body language. That resonated with me. Once I see someone disagreeing with me, even if the words aren’t coming out of their mouth, their body language can totally trigger doubt in my own mind.

Jacko: You’re right. I haven’t recently seen anyone roll his eyes at me. (laughs)

Mackin: I imagine you’re probably not too caught up into fashion, either.

Jacko: I love fashion. Sometimes people say to me, “Do you miss driving?” and I say, “No, I miss seeing what women are wearing!”

I still try to be fashionable. I’ll ask my secretary, Sharon, “What are you wearing today?” and she’ll say, “Oh that grey suit with the brown stripe in it.” I’ll ask her what kind of blouse, and she’ll tell me it’s the one with ruffles in the front. Then, if I go shopping, I might ask if the store has any blouses with ruffles in the front. (laughs)

I was in a style show once. All of the participants were lined up with their dogs, waiting their turn. Donna Shalala, the former Secretary of Health and Human Services, went ahead of me, down the runway. I walked up the steps, and I stood there for a minute. I thought, “You must be crazy, Virginia,” and yet I instructed my dog: “Forward.”

I’d already counted that I had something like 80 steps to walk, so when we got to 80, I told my dog to turn and, as I made the turn, I was so thrilled that I hadn't stepped off the stage that I raised my hand and gave the audience a big smile and a wave. They gave me a standing ovation.

Mackin: Reading your book made me more aware of all the ins and outs of living with sight. I found myself wondering how I would cope if I lost my own sight. You talk about spilling things in the kitchen and navigating that experience, but I really sensed you were entering a new world, instead of leaving one behind, when you became blind.

Jacko: That’s a great insight. Someone recently said to me, “What was harder: losing your vision or becoming totally blind?” When you lose your vision, you don’t want people to know, at first. You hide it. Of course, this can be applied to a lot of different situations, not just to loss of vision. You want to be something that you can’t be, but it’s an impossibility—so you’re frustrated, on edge, nervous.

Once you learn you’re totally blind, and you’re no longer trying to see, you say, “Okay. I’m just going to do things differently. I’m going to use my other senses. That’s a huge relief.

Mackin: And maybe even a little exciting. Every task becomes an adventure. In the book you tell a story about the first time you walked into Walgreens by yourself, which was something you thought you’d never do again. Once you did it, you had renewed confidence that you would be okay.

Jacko: I remember like yesterday the exhilaration I felt when I got to Walgreens. It was a feeling of, “I did this. I actually did this.” And then I built on that feeling. That’s not to say that I’m not fearful sometimes. But one of the takeaways of my book is never to let fear win. Of course, that’s a struggle for everyone, because having fear is part of being a human being. But the key is to not let fear win.

Mackin: One of my favorite parts of your book is when you describe visiting a restaurant in a department store. You had been told you wouldn’t be allowed to bring your dog into the restaurant, but you walked in, anyway, and sat down as if nothing had happened.

Jacko: That was a very high-end department store, so when I told the president of the establishment about that embarrassing experience, the business wanted to brush me off onto its attorneys. But when I said, “This is not a litigious matter, but it could become a public-relations matter,” that’s when they thought, “This could really affect us. What if she puts something nasty in the newspaper?”

I suggested the restaurant implement a training program, which they did almost immediately. At the time, I was thinking, I’m kind of an old horse. But what if I had been a young girl on a date? That would have been so mortifying. Maybe I improved the lot for the next person.

Mackin: You changed the perspective of the manager and the hostess, I’m sure.

Jacko: (laughs) I have to keep my head, because stuff like that can be really annoying. But if one can think of the proper steps to effect change, it can all work out.

Recently I was at my apartment building, walking by the pool, which is a pet-free zone. Someone had left a dog tied up there. It lunged at my guide dog, which lurched sideways, and I almost tripped and fell into the pool. I found out who owned the other dog and brought up the issue. Of course, the dog’s owner didn’t like that at all.

We had an intense discussion about the rules and, in the end, I told the woman I’d get management to send her a letter. I felt so invaded that she would even argue with me about a situation like that! She ended up calling me, apologizing and promising not to bring her dog to the pool again. I tried to end the whole thing on a good note. You’ve got to keep things in perspective while you’re being an advocate for yourself.

Mackin: Pet rules can be tricky.

Jacko: You know, some people get bogus certifications for guide dogs, or they get guide dogs even if they don’t have a disability. But those dogs don’t have the same intensity of training. My guide dog is totally under my control when we’re in public. If you have an animal that is assumed to be a certified guide dog but doesn’t act like one, you’re ultimately affecting the rights of people who actually do have a disability.

Mackin: When the job posting for CEO of Lighthouse opened up, your counselor had told you that you’d never be considered for the slot. Then, when you were chosen, someone quit on the spot. How did you feel about that?

Jacko: People sometimes resent me because I’m a very confident person. I think sometimes they want to patronize me, and sometimes I let them get away with that a little bit. Maybe they’ve never been around a blind person.

Sometimes auditors come to our office for big meetings, and never talk to me at all. They talk to the other board members. I have such a strong financial background that I get a little personal pleasure from letting them totally discount me before showing them I know as much as they do. That always surprises them.

I can read an Excel spreadsheet on my computer, which is something they don’t expect. Or they’ll say, “I’ll send this information to your chief-financial officer. He can read it to you.” And I’ll say, “Send it to me; I’ll read it.” So they leave knowing a blind person can do more than they assumed. ..... continued in ABILITY Magazine click here to order a print copy or to subscribe Or get a free digi issue with a "Like" on our Facebook page.

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Excerpts from the Quincy Jones Issue Oct/Nov 2011:

Susanne Bruyère, PhD — Creating Possibilities at Cornell

Virginia Jacko, CEO — Blind Visionary

Quincy Jones — Renaissance Man and More

David Zimmerman — Sharing the Spotlight

Michelle Sie Whitten — Things Are Looking Up

Still Swinging — An Inside Look at Adaptive Golf

Workout DVD — First You Get Off the Couch

Humor Therapy — Coupons Are For Suckers

Articles in the Quincy Jones Issue; Humor — Coupons Are For Suckers; Ashley Fiolek — 2011 Women’s Motocross Champ!; Sen. Tom Harkin — Working For More Jobs; Cinderella — A New Spin on an Old Tale; Still Swinging — An Inside Look at Adaptive Golf; Susanne Bruyère, PhD — Creating Possibilities at Cornell; Virginia Jacko, CEO — Blind Visionary; Meet the Biz — Actors Training Actors; PAWS/LA — The Sick and Elderly’s ‘Best Friend’; Quincy Jones — Renaissance Man and More; Michelle Sie Whitten — Things Are Looking Up; Workout Dvd — First You Get Off The Couch...; The Old Guard — A Change is Gonna Come; OCD — From Pain to Published Author; ABILITY's Crossword Puzzle; Events and Conferences... subscribe

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