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Staff Profile: Meet LightHouse Deaf-Blind Specialist Sook Hee Choi

Staff Profile: Meet LightHouse Deaf-Blind Specialist Sook Hee Choi

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 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.”

A smiling Sook Hee Choi holds award from Northern California Association of the Deaf-Blind


Employment Immersion Graduate Ria Baylen Hired By San Francisco Unified School District

Who says that Braille won’t be useful in a job search? Ria Baylen’s smile is as contagious as is her enthusiasm for her chosen field. Ria is deaf and low vision. With a strong desire to “help and teach people” professionally, she got an A.S. degree in Human Services at Napa Valley College. After studying braille, adaptive technology and mobility training to prepare her in case her vision decreased, and to “learn what it takes to be independent”, she started interning and contracting at various blindness agencies, including the LightHouse, transcribing and teaching braille and adaptive technology.

After gathering work experience over several years, Ria knew she wanted to find a steady, permanent job with more hours, but she needed some help figuring out how to make better headway in a difficult job market. So she got the okay from her DOR counselor Suzanne Tierney to participate in the LightHouse Employment Immersion program.

With the help of the program, Ria learned how to craft a solid resume, tailor it to prospective employers and use the Internet to make fruitful connections. She also made great strides in conquering her tendency to freeze up during interviews because she felt unprepared for the questions and began to use the skills learned in the program to communicate more clearly and with purpose.

Ria Baylen She particularly appreciated the opportunity to “listen to blind role models and guest speakers talk about their experiences as they move up the ladder and get where they are now. During the class I learned I have the ability, the dedication and patience to teach and help others achieve their goals.” And that’s where Ria’s braille skills made a difference.

We congratulate Ria, who accepted a full-time position last month with the San Francisco Unified School District as a Braillist. She now works with teachers, preparing materials for blind students in braille and other formats. “It’s great – I’m doing what I love and I’m able to afford living on my own!”

There’s Still Time to Enroll

Are you ready to snag that great job and earn enough to have a home of your own? Or are you looking for work for the first time? The next Employment Immersion class begins on January 7, and there’s still time to enroll. It’s a small investment of time – just eight weeks will get you up-to-speed with the latest job-search methods, plus one-on-one counseling and interview practice in a warm, encouraging environment. For more information, call Kate Williams at 415-694-7324 or email her at kwilliams@lighthouse-sf.org.

Deaf-Blind Gather in Unique Enchanted Hills Session

For over thirty years the LightHouse has offered a session at Enchanted Hills specifically for campers who are Deaf-Blind. This year 26 campers attended, most from the Bay Area, making it the largest such gathering in California in 2013.

In addition, 30 volunteer SSP’s (Support Service Providers) helped out with intensive communication assistance. [Support Service Providers are specially trained professionals who enable people who have combined vision and hearing losses to access their environments and communicate. Source: http://www.aadb.org/information/ssp/ssp.html.] SSP’s make sure every announcement or instruction between camp staff and camper is communicated to the camper via tactile sign language.

All the campers were able to enjoy recreational activities such as swimming, boating, games, archery, crafts, hiking, parties during the evening and a presentation on the latest in accessible technology. But because Deaf-Blind people are often isolated due to communication and transportation barriers, the most valuable part of this camp session is that it gives Deaf-Blind campers the opportunity to speak to others using American Sign Language.

Says LightHouse Deaf-Blind Specialist Sook Hee Choi, “Everyone enjoys the camp. Campers meet new friends and also talk with old friends, catching up with news. People who are sighted and hearing take this for granted, but for Deaf-Blind campers, this can only happen when they are physically present and able to touch each other through tactile sign language.”

Volunteer Angelica Medina-Boersma using tactile communication with a Deaf-Blind camper during a nighttime social

Professional Hip Hop dance instructor Christiane Crawford teaches hip-hop moves to Deaf-Blind campers and volunteers, including Angelea Palmer and Mark Mellenger, Brianna Quintana and KimYao, Tony So and Don, and David Powell

Deaf-Blind camper Rick Joy chats with volunteer Suzanne Tierney, who is a Bay Area DOR Counselor

Deaf-Blind Telecommunications Program Receives Flood of Interest

Although the LightHouse has been providing training and support to persons who are deaf-blind for over twenty years, we’ve recently taken on our biggest initiative yet. The new program helps deaf-blind individuals receive equipment which will give individual’s accessible means to connecting with friends and family via texting, email and telephone.

Response for this program has been overwhelming, in a good way. We have received to date 98 approved applications from persons who are deaf-blind throughout California, and we are now working on ensuring all applicants receive an assessment to match equipment with their specific needs and skills. For some this equipment might be a computer with enhanced monitor and magnification software to access email; for others it may be a note taker with braille display, an iPhone with portable braille display or an IPad for texting.

For most, the solution is easy and straightforward, for others creative solutions are engaged, and in some cases, we find that there still is not the right technology for the individual. What we do know is that individuals with good braille reading and writing skills have more options, and can get their equipment sooner – how’s that for incentive to learning braille! Once the technology is determined, funding also pays for limited training on using the communication aspects of the new the new device.

This successful start to the program could not be accomplished without  Sook Hee Choi, the LightHouse Deaf-blind Specialist, and our partnership with the Southwest office of Helen Keller National Center, specifically Cathy Kirscher and Ilona Mulvey.

If you are a deaf-blind Californian (age 15 and over), and low income, you may qualify for this pilot program (eligibility is established by the FCC). Please email dbeinfo@lighthouse-sf.org to receive an application. If you are a new applicant (applications received after December 21st), it is important to note that due to the demand, there is about a 1-2 month wait to fully process new applications, complete equipment assessments and finally receive equipment.  This wait for free equipment however, does not stop you from applying and we look forward to hearing from you!