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Colorado Quarterly Magazine 

"Rewriting the Myths, Redefining the Realities"

 

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Voices from Colorado's Disability Community by Homer Page

Judy Neal: A Leader with Vision

On October 15, 2001, Judy Neal became co-director of the Disability Center for Independent Living (DCIL). Ms. Neal is blind. She lost her vision over a 12 year period from 1983 to 1995 as the result of a virus carried birds. She is an articulate spokesperson for the independent living movement.
Ms. Neal is committed to the philosophy and action of the independent living movement. I visited with her a day after her 52nd birthday. She was reflective about her live. Here is what she had to say.

The Colorado Quarterly: Tell us a little about your background.

Judy Neal: I was born on the way to the hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. My birth certificate lists my fatherís occupation as a farmer and my motherís as a housewife. We were a foster care family so I grew up around a lot of other kids. I had normal vision, except for being nearsighted. I loved to read and draw.

I went to college, married, and had a daughter. I worked in publishing. I did graphics and development work before I lost my eyesight. 

TCQ: What was it like to loose your eyesight and become a person with a disability?

JN: I say I lost my eyesight. I still have my vision.

I lost my eyesight in stages. I caught a virus which caused hemorrhaging in the retina of my eye. I lost most of the sight in that eye in 1983. I gradually lost the sight in my other eye until 1995, when I had to accept that I could no longer function as a sighted person.

When I look back, I realize that my husband could not handle my disability. He withdrew. I remember
going to the doctor and having to drive home with my eyes dilated, because he wouldnít get involved.

I would have my daughter with me. It was really dangerous for me to be driving. Soon after that we were divorced.

My work was print intensive and I was forced to give it up, even though my employer was helpful and understanding.

I would read two or three books a week. I had to give that up. I really missed it.

I grew up with relatives who had disabilities. At that time there were still a lot of people around who had polio so I was accustomed to people with disabilities. I struggled with learning new skills, especially cane travel, but I never felt that having a disability was a negative thing.

I have found a new career, learned the skills of blindness, and I still read two or three books a week. I just listen to them on tape.

TCQ: You have obviously adjusted very well to your blindness. What was the transition like for you?

Ms. Neal: Well, as I said, I have been around persons with disabilities all my life and that really helped. When I lost my sight in 1995, I became a consumer with an agency for the blind in Memphis. They helped me in making the adjustment to blindness, but the best thing that they did was to tell me about a job opening at the Memphis Center for Independent Living. I applied for the job and was hired to be the program director. I learned that I could do meaningful and productive work even though I was blind.

I organized a support group for woman with disabilities. I think that was the best thing I did while I was at the MCIL. Every one of us who participated in the group has left Memphis for positive reasons. The group helped us to get on with our lives. It was a spring board that I needed to make the transition to a new community and to a new career. 

TCQ: You are very active in the disability community. How do you feel about your participation in this community?

Ms Neal: I have found a home in the disability community. Within a week of going to work at MCIL, I attended an ADAPT meeting. I have made many friends at ADAPT actions. I have been inspired by the spirit that I have encountered in ADAPT.

I enjoy being a part of a community where people are proving everyday that they can be happy and successful in spite of what others may think. I am proud to be a member of the disability community. 

TCQ: What brought you to Denver?

Ms. Neal: I came to Denver a little over a year ago to work at Atlantis. We had a grant from the City to work with youth who have disabilities. When that grant ended, we were awarded funding to work with older blind persons who are in nursing homes. Each of those grants were short term so when they ended I was fortunate enough to connect with DCIL.

TCQ: How did you happen to move from Atlantis to DCIL?

Ms Neal: Well, I knew my grant was coming to an end so I was looking for a job. I went to the ADA celebration and just happened to stop by the DCIL table. I learned they had an opening for the directors position, so I applied.

I learned that there was a lot of support from within for Carol Reynolds. When I was offered the job, I asked if it might be possible for us to have co-directors. The board agreed and it has worked out very well.

TCQ: How do you divide responsibilities?

Ms. Neal: We collaborate on most issues but perhaps I take the lead in program development and fundraising and Carol leads in work with the staff. I want to work on teaching the philosophy of independence. Each of us is committed to building a truly great independent living center.

TCQ: What are the elements of an independent living philosophy?

Ms. Neal: I believe it begins with a desire to be independent. Then one must control the services that one needs. Finally a person with a disability must not become dependent on an agency for his or her social life. A person needs the skills and confidence to integrate into the mainstream society. Our services need to set people free. 

I lost a lot when I lost my sight. One of the things that I have missed the most has been driving a car. I miss the convenience and the freedom to just get away. I would go for a drive in the middle of the night when I needed to clear my head. I canít do that now. Independence means letting go of those things that you canít do, and finding alternatives. Now I travel with a cane and use the buses. I am finding that there is a rich life that goes on on the buses. I want to write about it. I used to read several books a week. I still do but now I do it with talking books. I have a new career and a new community. I have built a new life that is even better.

Independence means building a rich, good life. We talk a lot about getting people out of nursing homes, but if they donít have a life in the community, they will end up back in the nursing home. I want our programs at DCIL to help people build meaningful lives. 

TCQ: What are your future goals?

Ms. Neal: My first goal is to build DCIL into a really fine IL center. Carol and I are in for the long haul. I want to spend at least the next five years working on this goal.

After that, Iím not sure, but I have always wanted to write. One of my goals is to tell the story of the disability community. A friend of mine is going to travel to ADAPT chapters around the country. He will be ending up in Washington for the ADAPT action. I am going to help him keep a journal of his trip. 
TCQ: You are a very positive person. How have you stayed affirmative in spite of all that you have experienced?

Ms. Neal: Actually I believe that my life is better because of my disability. I have become a stronger person. I love what Iím doing. I have made so many good friends and I have genuine purpose in my life. I have faced challenges, and I have overcome them with my own effort and the help of my friends. I am positive because I have a lot to be positive about.

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