For Ester Benjamin, darkness, caused by vision loss, descended when she was sixteen.  Nearly 30 years later, light finally burst through when she stood on stage with her new boss, Van Ly, at the 10th annual Breaking Barriers award ceremony.

Ester’s story starts as a young girl growing up in Russia. Back then her vision was fine; she played and studied with school friends and planned her future. 

Slowly, what she once saw turned hazy 

She tries to hide her impairment, she says.  But everything she looks at appears blurred.

“We lived in a small town that didn’t have the technology to determine what was wrong,” Ester says. 

It wasn’t until her family relocated to the United States a few years later that they received a diagnosis.  Ester – and her brother as well – had full-blown macular degeneration, an incurable genetic eye disease and leading cause of blindness.  Its unstoppable progression left her unable to clearly make out people, pets or even cars as she crosses streets.

Refusing to admit, even to herself, the degree to which this disabled her, Ester studied at college to become a registered nurse. 

The problem was not the class work, she recalled, but her inability to see the exams.  She took the RN standardized test again and again, finally memorizing not only the answers but the questions as well.  The fourth time, with the entire test glued into her memory, she was able to recognize enough words in each question to match them to the multiple-choice answers and pass the exam.

Short-Lived Victory

“Even though I got my diploma, my license, I couldn’t find work,” Ester says, “because when giving medicine or injections I was afraid I’d hurt someone.”

So, for a time, she found social service work.  But the agency that employed her closed.  So she babysat, cleaned houses, whatever she could do to support herself. 

Finally, she found her way to Catholic Charities Catholic Guild for the Blind

Here, to help reenter the professional work world, she took free classes in typing, spelling, computer and work-readiness skills.  Most important, she says, she worked one-on-one with Catholic Guild for the Blind Employment Coordinator Anthony Severo. 

“Oh my God, he was amazing,” Ester says. “Mr. Severo is like my godfather; I don’t know what I would do without him.”

Anthony helped her land an internship with two financial advisors.  The experience went so well they wanted to hire her part-time.  But part-time would not pay her bills.  Moreover, Ester realized she wanted to use her skills to help others.

Center for Independence of the Disabled

So she and Anthony regrouped.  They searched online for jobs, ultimately targeting and landing an interview as a housing specialist for the Center for Independence of the Disabled in New York (CIDNY). 

CIDNY turned out to be perfect match. 

CIDNY is a non-profit organization founded in 1978 (as) a national network of grassroots and community-based organizations that enhance opportunities for all people with disabilities to direct their own lives.Its staff and board include social workers, lawyers and other professionals, most of whom are people with disabilities. Along with their professional credentials, the staff all has a strong belief in self-determination and bring valuable life experiences and insights to their work.

“Needless to say, CIDNY was unfazed by Ester’s visual impairment,” Anthony says. “When it came to providing adaptive technology they asked what she needed and procured it.  They don’t just talk the talk; they walk the walk.”

Moreover, the job, helping elderly and disabled people move from nursing homes to independent living, proved an empowering match not just for Ester but for those she serves.

Lives Transformed

“It’s a wonderful, completely new and different feeling,” Ester says. “Instead of feeling depressed by my vision loss, I use it as an asset to better understand and help others.”

The job, of course, provides far more than an emotional boon.  It also allowed her to break out of poverty. Instead of scraping by on limited disability entitlements, she now earns $45,000/year and independently supports herself.

The job match works so well that Anthony successfully nominated Ester’s employer, CIDNY Director of Consumer Services Van Ly, for a Breaking Barriers award.  Together they stood on the podium at a Baruch College conference hosted by the Computer Center for the Visually Impaired on April 21 to receive this honor.

“All these years I’ve been very dependent on other people,” Ester says.  “Now I’m independent.  I can make my own decisions; it’s so different mentally, emotionally and physically. 

“That’s how I always wanted it.”