Mike Nicol has blue-tinted sunglasses, slicked-back hair that drops below his ears, a blue-and-white button-down shirt over light black jeans, and a relaxed style. He looks like a country-western singer.
As manager of assistive and information technologies, Keystone Blind Association, he's not always the easygoing guy he appears to be, however. Sometimes, as an advocate for the blind, he has to kick a little butt. It's something he knows about, being legally blind himself.
"You, right there," he said, pointing to me in the chair across from him, "are a shape. That's all."
Born and raised in Uniontown, Pa., Nicol lost his vision to retinitis pigmentosa, a disorder that is usually inherited.
"I stopped driving when I was 30," Nicol said. "I almost hit a child. It scared the hell out of me."
Career: At 36, in 1982, as his vision further deteriorated, he left his job as an industrial electrician with Rockwell International. Although the company didn't terminate Nicol, his position was phased out and Rockwell didn't find him another slot. Nicol didn't fight it.
"It was time. I left because I felt I was putting myself and others in jeopardy. Also, I was going through a divorce," he said. As it turns out, he wasn't yet ready to fight.
Shortly thereafter, an electrical engineering consulting position with a Cincinnati company became available. The interviewer arranged to meet Nicol at a Uniontown restaurant. Because Nicol knew the place, he entered without his white cane and "didn't think to tell [the interviewer] I was legally blind."
The interview progressed nicely, chit-chat following interview questions, until Nicol was asked to fill out a form.
"Gladly," he said. "But I need assistance."
"What?" the interviewer asked.
"I'm legally blind."
"You ain't working for us." The interview was over.
On the alert: Though he accepted the answer then, Nicol dispels such ignorance today, pursues discrimination cases, and helps other visually impaired people overcome work-related problems. "All of us are advocates here," he said of Keystone, which has offices in Sharon and Meadville. "We're fierce about it. We can be aggressive."
The blind must be, he said, pointing out that their numbers are low -- just 1 percent of the entire disabled population -- and competition for funds is great. "So we have to use what we have to get attention -- our big mouths."
His KBA computer learning center is used to train the visually impaired. Computers are loaded with voice recognition and magnifying software. A CCTV (closed circuit television) works like an overhead projector, magnifying anything placed beneath it onto a television screen. "You can use it to read or sign a check," he explained, then demonstrated its capacity to make a single word fill the screen. "This is a great thing for [elderly] people with macular degeneration."
Experiences: Nicol is intimately aware of the problems disabilities present. His wife Amy is blind, deaf and has mobility problems. Crowds make it impossible for her hearing aids to work well, so she avoids them, Nicol said. Music in restaurants hampers hearing, too. Blindness makes it tough for either of them to order off menus. They sometimes ask waiters to read the choices.
"Don't get me wrong. She doesn't stay home," he said. But going out presents its own irritations. Finding transportation can be difficult. Waiters are sometimes thoughtless, asking the Nicols' dinner companions what Nicol and his wife want to order. Once, when he and Amy went to dinner by themselves, a waitress croaked, "What the hell are you doing out on your own?"
He uses the opportunities to educate, not scold, which is often his tack when helping many of Keystone's 700 clients get or keep jobs. Nicol tries to educate employers as to what the blind are capable of. Obviously, quite a bit.