When Self-Advocacy Creates Change That Benefits Everyone
Kristen Steele is a trailblazer.
The 21-year-old paved a smoother road for those without vision by changing massage-therapy exam protocol, writing policies and procedures, and proving herself as a competent, independent contractor who makes house calls to the elderly and the ill in rural Nebraska.
Kristen, who lives in Council Bluffs, Iowa, near the Nebraska line, forges through life with passionate determination. She finds the support she needs to be her best and passes her knowledge along so others can be their best.
She has helped those without vision to pursue massage therapy careers, including Connecticut resident Danielle Senick. They connected through a Facebook page for people with Leber congenital amaurosis (LCA) and soon will connect in person at the second LCA Family Conference presented by Sofia Sees Hope in Philadelphia this weekend, Friday, July 26, to Sunday, July 28.
Kristen, Danielle and those living with LCA or other rare inherited retinal diseases (IRDs) will gather at the conference, which offers myriad opportunities to engage in thoughtful and interactive exchanges of knowledge, ideas and viewpoints on research, future treatments, advocacy, and people sharing their stories.
Doctors diagnosed Kristen with LCA as an infant, although her clinical diagnosis of LCA-CEP290, also known as LCA10, came years later in middle school.
She began reading Braille at age 3, and since first grade, has used a BrailleNote, a mini tablet-sized personal digital assistant with input through a Braille keyboard.
Struggling in school and having trouble with teachers adapting to a blind student, Kristen’s mother quit her job in the accounts receivable department at a medical supply company.
Her mom would pull up her assignments on the computer and tell her what she was missing and what she needed to go forward with the work.
“I had straight As but it was hard to find someone competent enough and willing to adapt,” Kristen said. “My mom, still to this day, is in LCA groups with parents of blind children. She still tries to help out other families and reconnect and advocate.”
A friend of her pharmacist-dad helped her with geometry and algebra by making 3-D shapes with rubber bands, detail that enabled her to visualize and understand the problems.
“That worked. It was just the extra time and energy,” Kristen said. “I didn’t let anything stop me. Sometimes I’d be up ’til midnight doing papers. I spent countless hours. I had to do it because I couldn’t let myself fall behind because of someone’s ill-preparedness.”
Kristen graduated ahead of her class in December 2014, with plans to become a high school English teacher. That changed during a semester at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where a public-speaking assignment to interview a person in her chosen field led to a blind English teacher in Indiana.
“She did a really great interview, but she told me to think twice about it.”
Working from 6 a.m. to midnight, it took double time to grade papers. The teacher, then 48 and named Teacher of the Year, said she’d never married or had children because her job took over her life.
“She also mentioned she has a lot of students texting in class, throwing spitballs. They threw a backpack at the window, broke the window, and they were laughing, thinking they played a cool prank on her.”
Choosing her path and fighting her fight
Kristen decided her passions aligned more with the medical field, given her parents’ work, and her interest in the healing arts. Also, her grandmother, who had dementia, had recently died, and she thought more about geriatrics and helping the elderly.
She reached out to a blind friend who is a licensed massage therapist and researched massage therapy schools, finding and rejecting one because of the difficulty in accessing its curricula. She ultimately enrolled at Midwest School of Massage near Omaha. The school turned out to be a perfect fit, pairing Kristen with an instructor named Les Lundberg, who had a background in exercise physiology and physical therapy.
“He cared. He wanted to put in the extra time to make sure I had a quality experience.”
Using a skeleton as tall as Kristen, her teacher went over each of the body systems and muscles, reviewing each individually on the skeleton, on herself and then on the instructor to make sure she understood the techniques.
“It was a really nice blend of anatomy and physiology.”
After completing the 1,000-hour course in February 2017 on anatomy, physiology and pathology, plus 200 practice massages, with a 4.0 grade point average, she studied for the Massage and Bodywork Licensing Examination, known as the MBLEx.
Before taking the exam, Kristen took on the Federation of State Massage Therapy Boards because it would not administer the test in Braille. She would have to take the four-hour test with a hundred multiple-choice questions using a human reader, a volunteer likely unfamiliar with medical terms.
“The exam cost $195 and I didn’t want to pay the price more than once and I didn’t want to fail.”
Through the National Federation for the Blind, Kristen found a blind lawyer in Iowa and they sued the Federation of State Massage Therapy Boards.
Eight months later, they reached a settlement agreement, making Kristen the first to advocate for and pass the MBLEx in Braille.
“I took the exam and passed on the first try, but I was debating over this whole time, was it worth it? I could have been licensed and working.”
In the end, she knew it was worth it.
“I wanted to create this advocacy for anyone else pursuing massage therapy and let the boards know it should be in Braille.”
Kristen now works with others, including Danielle, who was diagnosed with LCA-CRB1, also known as LCA8, and who is finishing massage therapy school and getting ready for the MBLEx.
First steps down a career path
Massage therapists often work as independent contractors and Kristen’s first contracted job led her to a brand-new company.
“They were accepting and very welcoming at first,” she said.
She honed her massage therapy technique on a hospice patient with dementia. The patient essentially was non-verbal, meaning Kristen learned the woman’s massage therapy needs from her client’s physical responses. The woman also could not hear well and indicated her soreness by holding out her arthritic hands and feet.
“If they can’t form words, I need to pay attention to what they are doing and how they’re reacting.”
Her next client did not have dementia and could tell Kristen where she had pain on her shoulders and back from bedrest.
“She helped me with the verbal side of crafting my technique.”
Kristen also wrote the company’s new policies and procedures for its massage therapy program.
Her employer, while pleased with her job performance, tried to have her sign a written contract that she couldn’t read because it wasn’t in Braille. Her mother came with her to read the new contract, but the company initially did not produce it.
“They finally spilled it. ‘We need to lower your rates.’ ”
She brought the case to the Nebraska Department of Labor and told officials she never looked over the contract because she can’t see.
“That went south quick. We won.”
She applied for a job at another company.
“The interview went OK. They just didn’t believe in me, that I would be able to find transportation, find the patients. They didn’t have the confidence that the blind could do it.”
She took a job at a physical therapy clinic in Council Bluffs but left because of few hours and low pay.
Kristen also began accumulating Continuing Education Unit (CEU) hours to help her stand out as a job candidate in a field of sighted massage therapists.
She lighted on a program called “Comfort Touch: Massage for the Elderly and the Ill.”
Comfort Touch™ instructor and licensed massage therapist Mary Kathleen Rose never had a Braille reader, so her course materials were not available to read by Braille.
Kristen ordered a print copy through Bookshare.org, an online library for people with visual disabilities. Bookshare scanned the book on a Monday and uploaded it by Friday, and she began the class.
“I was the first one to put these materials into Braille that are sold on Amazon and everywhere throughout the country. … That was the first ever CEU class that I took, and it was really cool because Mary Rose did a video of me reading in Braille the Comfort Touch™ textbook. I had adapted these course materials and paved the way, and for my turn (on the video) she wanted me to read ‘Adapting to Change,’” which deals with loss, aging and change.
In a 2017 North America/Caribbean Region Onkyo Braille Essay Contest, in which Kristen placed second, she detailed her advocacy for Braille in a piece called “Shining Through Darkness.” She recalled in the essay her Comfort Touch™ teacher saying after hearing her read: “Your reading . . . it’s just like everyone else.”
She also wrote in the essay: “Remaining literate despite being blind is not difficult; consistent practice can equal or surpass the fluency of print readers with eloquence and grace.”
Expanding her personal and professional horizons
Kristen also earned certificates in hot-and-cold stone therapy, aromatherapy, Reflexology, advanced dementia processes, and she is a licensed massage therapist in Iowa and Nebraska.
She familiarized herself with Aira and Seeing IA, visual interpreter services. She sent her resumé to Aira and worked with a trained professional who formatted and polished her draft into what Kristen called the perfect resumé.
“It placed my disability on the back burner, and it gave me the upper hand when you have sighted massage therapists and they’re interviewing without any of these advanced certificates.”
Between her resumé and an initial phone interview, Kristen felt she would be judged equally as a sighted person before showing up for an in-person interview.
After seeing a familiar job posting in May 2018, she sent her resumé to the company where representatives a year earlier did not believe she could do the job. She received a call back in an hour and did a phone interview.
During her in-person interview, Kristen demonstrated Aira – using a phone and wearing glasses connected via Bluetooth to a hotspot – and called an agent, displaying her ability to navigate a client in-take process and get around the office. Or, as she said, “I took Aira for a spin. I walked around the office, read people’s name tags, saw suite numbers.”
The company hired her the next day and she’s currently thriving there as a massage therapist specializing in geriatric care.
As an independent contractor, Kristen travels to clients and returns using a door-to-door shuttle service. Initially her mom helped, then she used Lyft and Uber, but that became expensive, prompting her to develop her own transportation service, which she jokingly calls Kristen’s Transportation Fleet. She contracts with drivers who get her to clients based on a negotiated fee.
So, what does this 22-year-old do when she’s not busy working and enhancing her skills?
She loves working and playing with her beautiful guide dog, a golden retriever named Corvette.
She loves to shop at a gigantic mall billed as the largest shopping area in Iowa.
“I like reading. I’d like to write a non-fiction book, kind of a memoir someday about my life and my work with comfort care.”
And she drives.
“I like to drive. My mom sits in the passenger’s seat. We go on the back roads. It’s so freeing.”
As Kristen said, quoting Helen Keller in her reading for the “Adapting to Change” video:
“What we have once enjoyed, we can never lose. All we love deeply becomes a part of us.”