Toby Clark stops by the LightHouse one afternoon to grab coffee with a friend who he met at our 30% and Growing blind professionals meet-up. The friend has been taking cooking classes in the 10th floor Teaching Kitchen and ushers Toby into the pre-function area with a piping hot plate of pasta parmigiano (“It comes with a warning: I might have gone a little heavy on the pepper”).
Toby works around the corner as an attorney at the federal courts, and he’s recently started to regularly attend 30% and Growing.
“It’s a very open and supportive environment,” says Toby. “You connect over shared experiences. So that next time someone asks, again, “Has your hearing improved?”, you can internally roll your eyes but also find the strength to carry forward so that you don’t become embittered by that experience. Instead you can stay positive and even add a little humor into the mix.”
But long before Toby was networking with fellow blind professionals, he was struggling with the uncertainty of a rare retinal disorder and being cycled through doctors offices for various (and often inconclusive) tests. As his eyesight changed, his mood began to decline and he was started to grapple with depression.
As an attorney, Toby’s work requires that he do a significant amount of reading. He was getting constant migraines from the strain of trying to read legal documents and fine print. He had improvised a few adaptive techniques on his computer, but he felt like his progressive condition was a moving target. He was constantly scrambling to improvise new ways to see.
But everything shifted when a friend asked Toby, “Have you heard of LightHouse?”
A year ago, he connected with LightHouse psychological services counselor Connie Conley-Jung for an initial session. She laid out a path for him, showed him the available resources and told him how to get connected with Department of Rehabilitation.
“Connie was great,” says Toby. “It helped to talk with someone who gets it. It was the first time in all that floundering and trying to figure out how to do things on my own that I felt like there was a map forward, both personally and professionally. And it included both internal and external resources. There’s also a great atmosphere here and started to understand that people really care and it’s just an open and welcoming place. And that combined with the quality of services I’ve received it’s just kind of a no-brainer.”
And that was just the start for Toby at LightHouse. Now, he’s completed more counseling sessions with Connie, a Changing Vision Changing Life Immersion Training at Enchanted Hills Camp, orientation and mobility with specialist Katt Jones, technology training and is beginning to dip his toe into braille lessons with braille instructor Divina Carlson.
“Now even as my vision continues to decline, I have that skill set waiting there and I have those resources ready,” says Toby. “Just knowing there are skills that I’ve learned and continuing to learn, like Braille, it’s a longer path but it’s building that foundation for going forward.”
The CVCL session he attended had a particularly strong impact on him, because it was the first time he was surrounded by other blind and visually impaired people, with a whole spectrum of sight and experience with adaptive techniques.
“We were there sharing all our different and shared struggles, our successes, tips and tricks,” says Toby. “You end up cheering for everyone and wanting everyone to succeed and it really felt like we, as a group and including the staff as well, had made progress towards this overall goal of ‘Let’s make our lives better, let’s be there for each other.’”
There, he was emboldened by a mobility exercise that involved navigating the woods at EHC blindfolded with a cane.
“It was really scary but kind of exhilarating at the same time,” says Toby. “And when I got back from the immersion I really started using my cane on a regular basis. I think it removed an emotional barrier, because I’d just think ‘Oh you were blindfolded and walked through the woods and somehow found your way back!’ I was like, “I can make it through the city.’”
And Toby has been making it through this city every day, as well as far off ones: he’s just returned from visiting Switzerland and Paris with his husband Chad, and they have a trip to Yellowstone coming up.
When he’s not perusing Parisian boutiques or visiting friends at the LightHouse, he’s acting on stage, and in short films and commercials. Losing his vision has made him a director’s pet though: he memorizes all his lines before the first rehearsal. “Directors love that,” he says, laughing.
These days, Toby uses Zoom Text, Jaws and NVDA to access his acting scripts and legal documents. And who knows, after a few more braille lessons, he might be reading braille scripts — so he can go back to procrastinating like the rest of us.
To learn more about LightHouse programs, visit lighthouse-sf.org/programs/ or call 415-431-1481.