Standing next to an open loading bay with sunlight streaming in at the Cintas Corp. warehouse in northeast Oklahoma City where he works, Norman resident Peter Broussard, Jr. says he can only see the blurry outlines of shapes in front of him.
He has lost most of his vision as a result of Usher Syndrome, a genetic disorder that is one of the leading causes of deaf-blindness. Broussard inherited the condition from his grandfather, who also was deaf and blind.
Speaking with sign language through an interpreter, Broussard said he is able to see blurry figures, light and dark, but his peripheral vision is almost completely gone.
“It’s like I’m looking through a tunnel,” Broussard said. “I can tell there is a light to the side of me.”
Broussard, 27, was born completely deaf and is legally blind, but has been able to find work with Cintas cleaning floor mats with the with the help of the Oklahoma Department of Rehabilitation Services. The job helps him support his wife and two sons, ages four and six months. A smile spreads across his face when he talks about his job.
“I love it here,” he said.
Broussard is originally from Crowley, La., but moved to Oklahoma with his wife a three years ago. He knew he wanted to work to support his family, but applying for jobs on his own proved challenging.
“Filling out applications, it was hard explaining my disability,” he said.
He turned to Joan Blake, a specialist on deaf-blindness with the Department of Rehabilitation Services, to help find work. Blake helps deaf-blind clients throughout the state find jobs. It’s a challenging job with a low success rate, she said.
Her current caseload includes about 30 deaf-blind clients statewide. She’s lucky if she is able to help two or three people find jobs each year.
By the time deaf-blind people turn to the Department of Rehabilitation Services for help, they typically are feeling discouraged and frustrated, Blake said.
“They have skills, and they want to work,” Blake said. “It can be a challenge finding an employer who feels safe hiring someone with a severe disability.”
In Broussard’s case, he didn’t have a dream job in mind, Blake said.
“He just wanted to be able to support his family,” she said.
When the Department of Rehabilitative Services helps place one of Blake’s clients in a job, the agency provides ongoing support for about three months to help with the training process and also to help make the workplace safe and accommodating to the person’s disability. Making a workplace accessible for a person with a disability typically costs less than $500, she said.
At Cintas, Broussard wears special work clothes with strips of reflective tape so forklift operators in the warehouse can see him better. There also are lines of tape on the floor so Broussard knows where he can walk safely.
Broussard and his coworkers communicate using a few signs, but mostly through writing and text typed out on a smartphone.
“It’s great having him here,” Braden Echard, production manager for Cintas, said of Broussard. “He’s here every day. He’s got a smile on his face, and he does everything that’s asked of him to get the job done.”
Blake recently nominated Broussard to be a spokesman for Helen Keller Deaf-Blind Awareness Week, which runs through Saturday.
Broussard hopes other employers will consider hiring a person with a disability.
“Just give us a chance — let us show you what we can do,” he said.