NEWCASTLE, Okla. Concern about losing her remaining vision once held Sonya Cochran back more than her deaf-blindness, a condition many associate with American author, lecturer and humanitarian Hellen Keller.
Governor Kevin Stitt issued a proclamation recognizing Cochran as the official spokesperson for Helen Keller Deaf-Blind Awareness Week.
Oklahoma Department of Rehabilitation Services, which hosts the annual event June 21 through 27, asked her to accept this honor for a second time.
Cochran previously served as DRS spokesperson in 2017.
At that time, she was looking for a job with assistance from the Deaf-Blind program staff in DRS’ Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired division.
Cochran has Usher Syndrome type II. The condition combines hearing loss with progressive vision loss due to retinitis pigmentosa, which leads to retinal deterioration and severe tunnel vision.
“I had very low confidence at that time and also was concerned about losing my sight and becoming blind,” Cochran explained. “How am I going to be able to find transportation, do things to my house, cook, take care of the bills and work – (and handle) all the independent living skills?”
Cochran’s SBVI team includes Vocational Rehabilitation counselors Stephanie Butler and Mark Morgenthaler, and Deaf-Blind Specialist Jeri Cooper, who is a rehabilitation teacher and also a deaf-blind person herself.
Other SBVI staff who helped Cochran become successfully employed include Rehabilitation Teacher Ani Seversten, Orientation and Mobility Specialist Liz Scheffe and Assistive Technology Specialist Dan Shepard.
SBVI provided cutting-edge technology to bridge communication gaps, including hearing aids and a Bluetooth™ Phonak ComPilot device, which connects to her hearing aids and uses a microphone to make conversations easier to hear.
SBVI paid for travel and intensive training at the Helen Keller National Center in Sands Point, New York. The center is the only comprehensive national program in the U.S. exclusively for youth and adults who are deaf-blind.
When Cochran returned to Oklahoma, her son Trey Cochran put in a good word for his mom where he worked at Walmart Supercenter in Newcastle.
Cochran was hired as a deli associate in October 2018. She works 32 hours each week.
“I was very excited when I got this job,” she said. “SBVI helped with transportation and on-the-job training through Dale Rogers Training Center in Oklahoma City.”
The agency also temporarily provided a Support Services Provider from Sight-Hearing Encouragement Program to guide and provide visual and environmental information customized for people who are deaf-blind.
“At first, everyone at work was bringing me the ingredients to make subs, wraps, salads and other items, but I felt like I could do that too. Now I do most everything, except printing stickers with sell by dates and clocking in and out because that text is too small.”
“I really have a great team here at Walmart like my manager Barry Barger and supervisor Lynn Whitney,” Cochran said. “I am also very grateful to Services for the Blind and DRS for helping me get the training, equipment and job search help to adjust to my vision and hearing loss, and find this great job.
The good feelings are mutual at Walmart.
“Sonya is very reliable, very hardworking – and our deli has never stayed so full with sandwiches and salads,” Lynn Whitney, bakery and deli departments production supervisor, said. “She will clean up the back room and scrub the walls if she doesn’t have enough to do.”
“There have been some challenges, but there are challenges for everyone,” Cochran said.” I just do my best and keep going.
“Having a job is important so I can be more independent and have more income to afford the things I need like transportation and home repairs. Plus, working longer increases the retirement (income) I can draw when the time comes.
“But I want to give God the glory because I wouldn’t be able to do this without him,” Cochran said. “I am thankful that God blessed me with a job.”
For more information about DRS, Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired, and Deaf-Blind Services, phone 918-551-4900 or visit http://www.okdrs.gov/independence/deaf-blind.
An estimated one million adults have combined vision and hearing loss in the United States, according to population estimates by the Helen Keller National Center. HKNC also references a Community Research Institute study that puts that number as high as 2.4 million.
In 2019, DRS served 82,787 Oklahomans with disabilities with career preparation, employment, residential and outreach education, independent living programs and the determination of medical eligibility for disability benefits.
DRS helps job seekers with disabilities face barriers to employment, such as inaccessible worksites, lack of transportation or specialized equipment, and employers’ reluctance. The agency also assists employers in finding qualified workers with disabilities and provides career counseling, training, job placement and other services to build skills and qualifications needed in the workforce.