Lennox Allen is a 43-year-old African-American Moscow resident who was born with a low-vision disability “with a long Latin name,” ectopia pupillae.
Essentially, the pupils in his eyes are seriously off center.
Allen said he “can see colors and shapes and certain types of print just fine. Anything outside of 3 feet, I’m really messed up, for lack of a better term. I have to wait for the bus to get literally in front of me to know if it’s the right bus to catch.”
For the most part, he said, he does “pretty well.”
Allen attends a low-vision support group offered twice a week at Gritman. He volunteers at the Disability Action Center answering the phone and routing calls, and also volunteers with the Idaho Literacy Council when he can.
He’s done “pretty well” most of his adult life, but he’s finding that’s not good enough anymore.
One big motivation for becoming more self-sufficient, Allen said, is that “my girlfriend and I, we talk about getting married. I want to have enough money to put toward that.”
He said for years he has listened to family members advising him,
“ ‘Don’t even bother trying to work, just sit back and collect the money.’ Instead of using my mind and thinking for myself, I listened to them. But now that I have someone in my life, I want to change all that — get a job, bring in some money, do what I want to do. Be able to show her that I can provide for her.”
But that’s not easy.
Allen recently found out that his birth defect potentially could be corrected by surgery. Still, he’s ambivalent about the prospect of surgery, both because of the risks involved and the cost. He’s pretty sure the doctor has said that it is not necessary to correct his condition unless he develops cataracts.
While Allen said he believes the obstacle to surgery is medical rather than financial, he also said if Medicaid were “willing to support the bill for all of it, then I’d think: ‘Let’s do this.’ ”
While Allen receives Social Security Disability Income and said Medicaid is “very sufficient” for his overall health needs, concerns about costs are all too real for him.
Originally from Pittsburgh, Allen moved to Clarkston about five years ago to live with his girlfriend, but ended up having to come up to Sojourners’ Alliance in Moscow after a conflict with one of her relatives. After a year at Sojourners’, a transitional housing facility for homeless adults and families, Allen moved into a hastily arranged roommate situation which proved untenable when he started to feel unsafe. He felt lucky to be able to move back to Sojourners’ in August after living briefly in a Moscow hotel and then “a trailer park for a good part of last year.”
Now, Allen has arranged to move to Independence Hill Apartments on West A Street, which he describes as a complex for low-income people with developmental disabilities.
He has not seen his girlfriend, who works as a home health nurse in Clarkston, since moving to Sojourners’, but he hopes he will be able to following his upcoming move to Independence Hill.
“I talk to her and text her every day” Allen said. “I keep her up to date so she knows (what’s happening) and doesn’t get worried.”
Allen finds dealing with poverty “humbling.” He said he reflects daily on where he’s from and how he can get back into a better situation.
“Most people don’t think about what steps or channels they need to go through to get from poverty to well off,” he said.
Growing up in Pittsburgh, Allen said his father worked as a bricklayer and did various odd jobs, and his mother cleaned offices before staying home to be with him and his siblings. He said “as far as I could tell growing up, if there was financial stress, (my parents) weren’t showing it.”
So, he has goals for himself, some more concrete than others.
Any day now, he expects to begin the residential vocational-rehabilitation program run by the Idaho Commission for the Blind in Boise. He flew to Boise to tour the facility in mid-December.
This 11-week residential program offers “training on everything from everyday living skills and some job skills,” as well as orientation and mobility training. Allen has a fold-up cane which he uses for nighttime travel, but otherwise gets around without one.
He said the Boise program will train him “how to answer the phone, dial the phone without looking at it, knowing what buttons to push, typing on a computer or typewriter without being able to see it.” He said he will use a computer that will “let me hear what I’m typing. It’ll read what’s on a webpage for me.” Additionally, he expects to “go through a workshop, like a wood shop deal you’d do back in high school.”
He hopes training will somehow lead to a job.
Allen, who smiles easily, describes himself as “a people person, very friendly and outgoing.” He’d like to find a customer service job, perhaps one that involves using typing skills. “I want to be flexible. I want to be out in the flow, helping people find various things, or out and about, like at a Wal-Mart, or answering questions.”
Earlier in his life, he said, if he had completed college, “I would’ve wanted to pursue something in the way of computer science or just computers in general.”
So, in the meantime, Allen deals with his limited budget. While he buys some of his food from grocery stores or convenience stores, “most of the time I go to the food banks and get whatever is donated.”
“Right now I’m putting myself on a limited budget,” he said.
His goal now that he is out of Sojourners’, he said, is to “establish an apartment, work on getting a job. Once I get the job I’m hoping to set more money aside.”
He said he does fairly well in terms of managing his money.
SSDI is, he said, “enough to get me by to do what I need to do in terms of food, clothes, my personal things in my daily life. If every once in a blue moon I want to treat myself to a meal out or a movie or a CD, it’s enough to do that, as long as I’m aware of how much I have and how much I’m spending.”
Allen finds challenges in getting around in Moscow, and that’s related to finding a job.
“Even though you have a small town, there are only two buses that both go in the same direction,” he said. “There should be at least three, and more frequency.”
The buses run from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m.
“It would be nice to extend that a little while, at least until maybe 10 or 11 at night,” Allen said. “Especially for someone in my situation, if I can’t walk to where I need to be, catching a bus to come back, that would be the biggest hindrance.”
After completing the ICB program, Allen said, “hopefully I can come back here (to Moscow) with the necessary skills and apply for a job,” returning to the apartment at the Independence Hill complex as planned.
Allen has not held a paying job since high school, when he was last in a vocational rehabilitation training program.
After Allen graduated from high school, he said he tried the local community college but didn’t feel ready and stayed for only one semester.
After the ICB program, he said, “If I feel that I’m ready to step back into it (college), I would jump at the chance to do that. I would take it upon myself. I know this would be the biggest stepping-stone of my life.”
He can imagine himself being able to hold down a job and also return to school — “ready to pursue what was out of my grasp all this time” — but, if he had to choose, a job would come first.
Still, he said, “Every time I try and make an attempt at wanting to work, some (employers) didn’t want to take a chance on that because of my vision.”
Mark Leper, director of Disability Action Center Northwest, where Allen volunteers, said people with disabilities “are the most underpaid and unemployed group in America.”
Leper said while the Americans with Disabilities Act “guarantees nondiscrimination,” in reality it has not made a dent in the employment of people with a disability.
Allen acknowledges there are limitations on earnings that may potentially affect his ability to continue collecting his SSDI once he gets a job, though he is not specifically aware of the details.
Social Security, Leper said, has “disincentives that significantly impact people’s ability to get a job. Unless they can get past a certain point and get benefits, they can’t afford to take that chance. After a nine-month trial work period, you lose your Social Security.”
Leper said this results in people “artificially limiting their hours or being afraid to accept employment because of what may happen.”
“That’s reality, and I’m about to step into it,” Allen said.
He said he hopes sharing his story will inspire others.
“Instead of looking at what I can’t do, I go the opposite route,” he said. “I like to try and prove people wrong. I can prove to people that despite you having a disability, you are able to still get out there and do what everybody else does. You may do it slower, you may do it differently, but you still get out there and do what you can and you try. I may need to tell people I’m not able to do this — but before I say that I need to get out there and at least try.”
He said he finds having his disability “rewarding, the best of both worlds. I get to bring a little bit of the sighted to the blind, and a little bit of the blind to the sighted.”
Judy Sobeloff is a Moscow freelance writer.