The journey to full-time employment can be filled with roadblocks -- especially if someone has a disability. According to a 2013 employment survey published on DisabilityStatistics.org, only 40.2 percent of working age people with visual impairments are employed – an alarming figure for a society with access to adaptive technology, and with various employment programs in place.
For Andrea “Dre” Hernandez, who was born with albinism, a hereditary condition characterized by the absence of melanin in hair, skin, and eyes, knowing it would be tough to get a job with a visual disability did not hold her back from pursuing a career and living independently.
“My vision is 20/200. I’m nearsighted and have been legally blind since birth. I also have albinism, and everyone with this condition is visually impaired,” said Hernandez.
In addition to problems with her vision, Hernandez is also extremely sensitive to the sun. She is miserable during the summer months and can feel feverish from sunburn.
Despite her limitations, Hernandez lives on her own and gets around on public transportation -- her smart phone being the best access tool via apps for the visually impaired.
Hernandez’s fierce independence is a result of the hands-off approach her family took when raising her in San Jose, California. She says, “I don’t think anyone really cared. They didn’t help me. They didn’t seem concerned. They didn’t try to do anything to help me. It wasn’t talked about, so I had to learn to figure everything out on my own.”
However, when Hernandez began to display an interest in women as a teen, her family did have something to say. “I came out when I was 13. My mom didn’t handle it well, saying it was a phase. My sister didn’t take it too well, either, but after awhile things got better.”
But while Hernandez’s upbringing may have not been the most nurturing, through reflection and self-discovery, she developed an appreciation for the healing arts.
“I love the concept of healing through touch. I also think about the internal pain that people suffer from, and I like to help ease someone’s anxiety. Massage therapy is good for that,” said Hernandez.
Determined and driven, Hernandez enrolled at Carrington College in San Leandro to pursue a certificate in massage therapy -- a quest that tested her in every way possible. She says, “I did really well academically, but the books were in very small print. So, I got lots of migraines, and headaches almost every day, because I’d try to focus when reading. I had to get it done. I sometimes got behind because I wasn’t able to work as quickly as possible.”
Money also became a problem for Hernandez during her massage course work and she would have dropped out if a friend had not lent her a few hundred dollars to pay for school. Hernandez also attributes her success to her instructor Kerry Matthews, who always tried her best to ensure things in the classroom went smoothly.
Hernandez now works at Massage Envy in Fremont -- a job she landed right after completing her training, and a place that has proven to be very supportive. Her colleagues help her out with tasks when needed and her workstation did not need any major accommodations. Also, clients are respectful of her condition and sometimes find her story cool.
In the future, Hernandez would like to work with people with mental disabilities. She shares, “Eventually, I want to work side by side with a psychiatrist and people with mental health issues. People don’t think about internal pain very much, and I’m a strong believer that massage helps from the inside out. I want to help people ease their anxiety so they can open up and let go of their pain -- both emotional and physical.”
Belo Cipriani is a freelance journalist, the award-winning author of Blind: A Memoir and Midday Dreams, and a spokesperson for Guide Dogs for the Blind. He was voted “Best Disability Advocate” in the Bay Area in 2015 by SF Weekly. Learn more at BeloCipriani.com.