The transition from childhood to young adulthood can be a difficult time in any young person’s life—but for those with limited resources, or a lack of information about what resources are available, the transition can become overwhelmingly difficult. For many students who are blind or have low vision, especially those facing cultural adversity, the information and resources regarding next steps towards a productive and successful future after high school simply are not provided. Most of the support given to students who are blind or have low vision and their families is offered through the public-school system. However, because there is a limited number of TVIs (teachers of the visually impaired) and other qualified VI educators in public schools, resources can be limited and are often stretched between school districts, making the actual time a blind or low vision student spends with these VI educators and mentors very minimal. Of these students, many are first generation American, introducing the additional difficulties of struggling with language barriers. These students are constantly having to balance learning to adapt to American culture in their schools where they are receiving an education, maintaining homelife culture within their families, and navigating this new world of blind culture and building their adaptive education and independence skillsets.
LightHouse Transition Program Specialist Ann Wai-Yee Kwong runs programs made up of trainings and informational workshops—some of which are offered in Spanish to support the blind and low vision Spanish speaking community—for young adults and their families to prepare for their futures and the transition from childhood into adulthood. Ann’s education and professional experience coupled with her own personal experiences as a blind woman who emigrated from Hong Kong as a child make her highly qualified in this area. Her unique brand of passion and empathy stemmed from her own transition experience makes her the ideal mentor to help pave a successful path towards furthering education and employment for our youth.
Growing up as a blind, first generation Chinese American in Los Angeles, Ann had little knowledge of what resources were available to her outside of what public school is legally obligated to provide.
“I had never heard of the landmark legislation, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), nor learned about disability history,” Ann shares.
Historically, in many cultures across the globe, disabilities of any sort have been portrayed in limiting and negative terms. Blindness is often equated through language as a lack of knowledge. Phrases like “the blind leading the blind” create harmful societal expectations and stereotypes, many times leading to a lack of self-worth or self-confidence within the blindness community.
“It was not until I went to college that I discovered many of my peers with disabilities also shared, for the first time, the experience of feeling empowered as we cultivated disability community and found pride in our identities. Subsequently, although the ADA has provided many educational rights and opportunities for persons with disabilities, there remains a great deal of work around shifting the negative societal perceptions of disabilities as well as in employment, where the employment rate of persons with disabilities, 19.3%, continues to lag far behind that of non-disabled persons, 66.3% in 2019, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.”
This motivated Ann to build a career educating youth who are blind or have low vision about what blindness resources are available and how to make the most of these opportunities. She knows that understanding your options and developing healthy, positive social and personal ideologies about what it means to be blind are essential in working towards a successful future.
Over the years Ann has partnered with various blindness advocacy groups, government agencies like the Department of Rehabilitation (DOR) as well as many VI educators. These partnerships have catalyzed her passion and informed her work with youth who are blind or have low vision, which then molded and inspired the programs she has started at LightHouse.
“The Youth Employment Services (YES) program and curriculum is based on research, best practices, and the nationally recognized Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA). I strive to provide meaningful work-based experiences for youth to fill the gap for employers, creating a talented pool of future professionals.”
While creating equal opportunities and building a dynamic skillset and experience for blind and low vision youth is the mission of the work Ann does, for her, it is the social and emotional growth that is the most rewarding accomplishment.
“The best part of my job is building trust with my students and watching them build that confidence, because that is transferable. Once you instill that confidence in someone, that can’t be taken away,” Ann believes.
“My most rewarding experience while working at LightHouse is the genuine sense of community and family, we are able to build, especially during the YES Summer Academy when staff and students spend four full weeks working, learning, and living under one roof. This heartfelt sentiment is also expressed by our students, and I had not previously felt this in other blindness programs in my prior work, making this unique to LightHouse.”
The work Ann and the Youth Programs department is doing is starting to change the misconceptions of the lives people who are blind or have low vision can live, for both the blind community and those who are sighted. Ideas for new groundbreaking programs and plans to grow and expand the reach of Youth Programs is constantly underway.
Ann is continuing to further educate herself in the field of education, leadership, and advocacy. She is currently working towards her PhD in Education at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her growing knowledge and passion are packed into every LightHouse program she runs and is reflected in the future of every student she mentors. Because of incredible mentors like Ann Wai-Yee Kwong, the future of kids everywhere who are blind or have low vision is bolder than it’s ever been.
To learn more about our transition programs for youth, contact Ann at AKwong@lighthouse-sf.org or by phone or text at 415-484-8377.