TULSA, Okla. – “I don’t fly a plane. Although I may be driving before long,” Rob Hill said. While somewhat joking, the fact of the matter is Google has been test-driving the driverless car, which is perfect for Hill because he is completely blind.
This attitude of you-never-know is strong in Hill. He has the degenerative eye disease retinitis pigmentosa, which cost him his sight in 1973. However, he didn’t let that stop him from working full time for the last 32 years and doing community service and advocacy work for causes he strongly believes in.
Hill, 67 years old, retired on May 31, 2012 from 211 Helpline in the Community Service Council as a social worker in Tulsa. Along his path to retirement, Hill learned and experienced many things that a man with 20/20 vision wouldn’t have even dreamed of doing.
“I graduated from Northeastern State College in 1968 and went to graduate school in Tulsa. My field was psychology,” Hill said. “I didn’t actually finish graduate school because my vision was dropping enough and the reading load was so much greater than it had been. I just couldn’t keep up.”
After dropping out of graduate school, Hill volunteered at Hissom Memorial Center, a state institution for people with severe developmental disabilities.
“I got started there as a summer intern while I was still a student. They hooked me, I really enjoyed the kids. One of the things I tried to do was provide a big brothers service to the boys - taking individuals out on the campus, just to have a walk around and give them special attention.”
While on duty one day, Hill spoke with the vocational rehabilitation counselor assigned to Hissom about having to drop out of school and needing a job. The counselor referred him to a job opening with Department of Institutions Social and Rehabilitative Services, now known as DRS' visual services division.
“I sat across the desk of Jerry Dunlap, the associate director at that time. He said you have the qualifications to be a rehabilitation teacher,” Hill said. “You have a college degree and interest in social work and you’re legally blind.
“That was the beginning of my rehab because I had never been called blind before. That ride back to Tulsa was the longest bus ride I had ever had. I was contemplating who I was and what my future was.
“I knew intellectually I had a progressive condition but it wasn’t a part of me yet.”
That was 1972 and visual services sponsored Hill’s training at the Arkansas Enterprise for the Blind, now known as Lion’s World or World Services for the Blind in Little Rock, Arkansas. There he learned how to do things as a blind person so that he could teach those skills to his clients and in the near future, use them for himself.
Hill set up the Weatherford, Okla. rehabilitation teacher position and was there for three years. Being born and raised in Tulsa, Hill longed to return home, which he did after resigning from visual services.
While in Weatherford, Hill began volunteering at Hotline in Tulsa on the weekends.
“It was a crisis line, reassurance line, kind of thing for those who may have gotten confused on drugs or suicide that kind of thing. I was trained in that kind of work.
“I did that until 1981, they changed their function to be a strong information and referral service, combined with the crisis intervention stuff. I went on staff in 1981 as a service specialist, full-time paid employee.
“I needed to have some equipment to work with. I needed to have a way to make notes about the calls to keep statistic and that kind of thing,” Hill said.
Now knowing from working at visual services the types of services he was eligible for “I approached rehab (visual services) and they provide some equipment – a typewriter, a scanner text recognition device, braille writer, which was great, some other gadgets too.
“They enabled me to take that job and be successful with it. In addition to having cooperation from the staff to take my type written notes and put them in the statistics format that we were using. They were very willing to accommodate me in that way.”
Years later, the organization decided it was time to computerize the work. Hill again called on visual services.
“I got screen reading software so I could continue to do what I was doing. Once again, with some real accommodation from the employer, the screen reading software needed some major modifications in order for it work effectively and efficiently with the databases.
“One of the staff members took on the duty of learning how to program my speech technology so that I could use that database more efficiently.”
And with the ever changing nature of technology and some years later, the organization upgraded its databases again. The new software was supposed to be compatible with Hill’s screen reading software. It wasn’t. This caused tremendous anxiety for Hill.
“One of the IT guys took on the job of learning how to program my software. He worked at it and developed some effective and efficient ways for me to use the keyboard and do my job. Without those guys I couldn’t have done the job.”
“The modifications made it work. I will never forget the kindness they showed.”
For 32 years, Hill paid into the Social Security system instead of drawing from it. When asked why he worked when the government would have taken care of him, he said, “A monthly check gives you only the satisfaction of having an income. It doesn’t give you the satisfaction of being a productive person.”
Hill also encourages employers to look to the blind and disability community as a viable resource for new hires.
“I would certainly hope than employer would see that disabled people can work. Blind people can work and maybe might not be a bad idea to look at that universe of potential employees, especially knowing that they have back-up from the agency (DRS) and other services too.”
With the help of visual services and 211 Helpline’s willingness to accommodate Hill’s needs, he was able to stay on the job and be a valued employee and retire to a life of leisure his way.
“Well I am looking for something to do as a volunteer but I am not looking very hard just yet but I will be. I have some advocacy ideas. Most of what I have in mind continues with area of social action or social work.”
Hill’s service in volunteering started at Hissom Memorial Center and Hotline. It has continued throughout the years with advocacy issues with American Council of the Blind. He was a delegate for the Democrat party state convention. He has also sung in the Tulsa Oratorio Chorus, just to name a few of his community activities.
When it comes to traveling, whether for an ACB convention or to Europe to sing with the chorus, Hill is up to the challenge. He has been to Europe several times.
With the support from various groups and his never ending drive, Hill was able to have a long successful career. He would like anyone who has a vision impairment or disability to know about services they are eligible for.
“I didn’t know about visual services and what they could do for me. If I had an accommodation I would have finished grad school,” Hill said. “When I was working and someone called in about a need and have it come up that they had a vision problem. It was awfully hard for me not to jump in there and start proselytizing for visual services. If you don’t know about it, you can’t use it.”
It is fitting that the last thing Hill saw was a fireworks display because he’s lived his life as bright explosion of gung-ho.