Kurt Weston began his career in the 1980s as a fashion and commercial photographer. Living in Chicago, he scored sought-after jobs with cosmetology giant Pivot Point International and noted art studio Stephens, Biondi and DeCicco. His work appeared in glamour magazines and beauty publications throughout the world.
Then, Weston began to notice opaque spots (called “floaters”) swirling in his vision as he snapped photos of the models. After months of brushing off the symptoms, he finally had them evaluated—they were the beginning of an AIDS-related vision disease called cytomegalovirus (CMV) retinitis. Though most people with CMV never develop CMV-related diseases, the commonplace virus can cause severe illness in those with compromised immune systems. Weston became legally blind in 1996, eventually losing all vision in his left eye and all central vision in his right.
Shortly after his diagnosis, Weston moved to southern California to be closer to his father and brother. Before the advent of modern pharmaceuticals, AIDS and its complications often produced a rapidly progressive illness. Given a diagnosis of six months to live, Weston thought he was coming out to California to die. Miraculously, his health returned through the use of new breakthrough protease inhibitor drugs, but his sight could not be restored. It seemed Weston’s career as a photographer was over.
With his health improving, he began to explore his community, getting involved with a local nonprofit support program called Asian Pacific Crossroads. When the organization decided to put together an art calendar to raise money, he agreed to shoot some photography scenes. It was then he realized he could still take pictures, aided both by magnifying devices and by his own intuition from years of photography experience.
Excited, Weston began to seek out services that would train him to use visual assistance products. He attended the Braille Institute, a network of five regional centers throughout southern California that provide educational, social and recreational services to people who are blind, and eventually came in contact with the California Department of Rehabilitation’s office in Anaheim, California.
Several years later, on the opposite coast, in September of 2001 Don Katz, a graduate student at New York University, fell ill to a severe case of spinal meningitis that left him comatose for several weeks. When he eventually awoke, he was blind and temporarily paralyzed. After six months in the hospital and hours of rehabilitation daily, Katz’s mobility had returned, but his sight never did. Shortly thereafter, he relocated to Orange County, California, and contacted the Department of Rehabilitation for help in negotiating his life with vision loss.
The mission of the Department of Rehabilitation (DOR) is to assist people with disabilities in getting work for the first time, help them return to work or retrain for a new career following the onset of a permanent disability, and assist them in retaining their jobs once they’ve been hired. The Department of Rehabilitation can help by providing vocational counseling, referrals to community agencies and support for vocational training. Typical services include financial assistance for higher education, help in identifying and acquiring adaptive technology, and assistance with job development and placement—including help with resume writing, interviewing skills and strategies for discussing disability with a potential employer.
Within the larger agency of the Department of Rehabilitation, a specialized division known as the Blind Field Services works specifically with clients who have partial or total vision loss. As Teri Hershberg, a counselor in the Blind Field Services, explains, “Due to the unique and comprehensive needs of people with sight loss, our division provides expertise which we feel surpasses the knowledge of the general counselor.” In fact, the majority of the counselors who work in the Blind Field Services division, including the manager of the division and the deputy director, are blind or have some vision loss themselves.
Through the Department of Rehabilitation and the guidance of Hershberg (his counselor and also his former instructor at the Braille Institute), Weston was able to attend classes at Junior Blind of America in Los Angeles, where he learned mobility skills and became familiar with assistive technology. He later received a grant through the Social Security PASS Program (an acronym for Plans for Achieving Self Support—a program permitting beneficiaries to set aside money for equipment or training needed to reach their individual goals), allowing him to purchase types of photography equipment that could be used more easily by a person with vision loss.
Since then, Weston has displayed his photographs in museums across the United States, including an international show at The Kennedy Center in Washington DC. He is currently working on his master of fine arts thesis at California State University-Fullerton, where he maintains a 4.0 GPA. Weston views the world as if it were an Impressionist painting—his left eye can see some light but no form or shapes, and his right eye has only slight peripheral vision. He explains that his Blind Vision series is a “visual autobiography of the psychological and emotional impact sight loss has had on me as a visual artist.”
Similarly, Katz has used the services from the Department of Rehabilitation both to enhance his daily activities and to launch a new career. Culinary arts have always been an outlet for creativity for him—before his injury he pursued a college major in hospitality management at San Francisco State University, with a concentration in restaurant management, and later went on to receive his master’s degree in food studies. With help from the Department of Rehabilitation’s Homemaker Program, he obtained computer technology such as Freedom Scientific’s JAWS program, which reads information from the computer screen aloud, and Pulse Data’s BrailleNote products, personal data assistants designed for people who are blind. These technologies have helped him both personally and professionally, and he currently owns a thriving business in Irvine, California, called the Symposium Wine Bar.
Both Weston and Katz credit much of their success to Teri Hershberg and the services they have received through the Department of Rehabilitation.
by Jessica Tappin
For more information on the California Department of Rehabilitation, visit www.dor.ca.gov
For readers residing outside California, you may locate your local department of rehabilitation by looking in your state government listings.