Note: In the next months we will feature profiles of staff members, particularly those that come in contact on a regular basis with our community.
For more than a decade Sook Hee Choi has been one of the most valued, appreciated and enthusiastic members of the LightHouse Rehabilitation Staff. Sook Hee, who is deaf, leads the Deaf-Blind Program at the LightHouse. A native of South Korea, she holds professional degrees in both Orientation & Mobility from San Francisco State University and Rehabilitation Teaching from Florida State University. Last year she was a deserving recipient of an Outstanding Achievement Award at the Northern California Association of the Deaf-Blind’s 50th Anniversary Event in Oakland, CA, in recognition of her dedication to her field. While Sook Hee was touched and surprised to tears by the award, all of us knew how deserving she was and continues to be.
Sook Hee’s experiences have informed her determination to provide a high-level of service here at the LightHouse. Growing up deaf in South Korea had its challenges. She explains, “My family treated me just like my other siblings, but when I was young, my parents did not let me go into stores because the store owners treated me badly, saying I brought them bad luck. This was stereotype – I believe people have changed by now. But I didn’t realize my deafness could get in the way of my finding employment. I could not get a teaching job right away after graduation from college. I had to fight to get a job.”
“Upon obtaining a degree in Deaf Education,” she says, “I worked as a teacher at Aewha School for the Deaf in Seoul, Korea for four years. I wanted to learn more about Deaf Education in depth, so I came to the USA. I did not know American Sign Language at all and knew little English. I studied and studied. While at San Jose State University, I met several deaf-blind people who communicated freely via tactile Sign Language.”
These experiences led Sook Hee to the LightHouse in September 2001. “When I joined the LightHouse,” she says, “my job was more like a client support specialist. Most of my clients who wanted to learn braille or Orientation and Mobility had to work with a hearing instructor and a Sign Language interpreter, which was time consuming and [in]efficient. I wanted to provide one-to-one direct training.”
“We have witnessed many of the clients evolving from feeling helpless to obtaining employment, leading an independent life, and/or becoming part of the community again,” Sook Hee says. By using her education, she continues, “I have been able to walk my clients through the rehabilitation process. Some of them had never imagined that they would be able to use public transportation. [Now] they take the BART train, bus, and walk to LightHouse and other places.”
Sook Hee is especially proud to help administer the National Deaf-Blind Equipment Distribution Program, through which 180 people received telecommunications equipment in 2012. “Some of the recipients had never used a phone or computer and had no way to reach out to friends, family members, or even the community,” Sook Hee says. “After receiving the equipment and training, they are able to contact people they want.”
Sook Hee admires the fortitude of our clients. “They face many obstacles that sighted and hearing people take for granted. Simple tasks such as going to a grocery store to buy food may be daunting. However, they do not let their vision and hearing loss prevent them from leading an independent life. I have high respect for them.”
She also appreciates the effort of her colleagues. “Sometimes people wonder how a deaf person works at an agency that serves blind people. Fortunately, some of our staff have learned Sign Language and can communicate with me, and I can communicate with blind staff via email, texting and writing on hand. We all work together and I appreciate the staff being so flexible with me. Also I have to plan ahead at all times. I have to coordinate both the interpreter and client’s schedule with my own.”
In her spare time, Sook Hee enjoys reading and traveling. “Last year I traveled to Korea, India, Thailand, Hong Kong and the Philippines,” she says. “I will go see the world again. Although I am very busy with my work, I do enjoy every moment with my family – my husband who is totally deaf-blind and our 4 year-old son.”