About 70 percent of blind people are unemployed, but one local organization is working to change that.
Marilen Decena-Whisler teaches Braille at Junior Blind of America, a nonprofit school for blind adults in the View Park-Windsor Hills area southeast of Baldwin Hills.
The school specializes in helping people who were born with vision but lost it as adults — something that Marilen understands firsthand.
When she was growing up in the Philippines, Marilen was 7 or 8 years old when she was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a rare disorder that causes people to gradually lose their vision.
Marilen eventually lost all her vision and had to learn how to walk with a cane, which made her feel scared and ashamed.
"It's like, I'm weak — now I couldn't even hide that weakness," she said. "It's in the open — people could see it. It's not like there's anything I could do."
Marilen won a scholarship to study in America. Eventually, she trained at Junior Blind of America and now teaches other students, like Ronnie Chism.
A former forklift operator from San Bernardino, Ronnie's autoimmune disease cost him his vision a few years ago. He knows he needs to learn new skills to support his family.
"Now it's a transition," Ronnie said. "I have a family, I have a daughter. I'm trying to learn everything I can to adapt so I can still be useful even without vision."
At Junior Blind of America, 25 students at a time spend six months living on campus learning life skills and training in adaptive technology so they can eventually get jobs.
Most of the teachers at the school also lost their vision as adults. Allison Burdett, the director of rehab and employment services at the school, said that by sharing her story, Marilen has inspired hundreds of students.
"The students can relate to what she's gone through in her past and understand on the other side of training, there's a brighter future," Allison said.
Marilen said she hopes to show her students the can overcome any obstacle.
"It's a choice we make to be happy," she said. "Do you want to be happy, or do you want to brood over things we can't do anything about?"
And for students like Ronnie, that can-do attitude is pushing him to never give up.
"Now that I see people like Marilen here teaching, very educated, smart, knows what she's doing and has been through it — that's what I focus on when I'm chasing my own dreams and goals," he said.
To learn more about Junior Blind of America, click here.