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Peter Slatin, His life and work

Peter Slatin

Founder and President of Slatin Group LLC.
They provide education and training to the hospitality and tourism industry on service to consumers with disabilities.

Peter grew up in Buffalo, NY, attended college at SUNY New Paltz and in his senior year moved to New York City for an independent study arts program through Empire State College, graduating in 1976 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Painting. He obtained a similar Masters degree from Hunter College in 1980.

He had a series of terrible part-time jobs after grad school but found a path as a proofreader at a printing house in Brooklyn.  As a blind person, he could not drive a cab or wait tables and needed another way to earn a living while painting.  He was still able to see enough to read, though, and loved to write.  He found a job proofreading at Time magazine and then Forbes, which is where he wrote and published his first article after ten years as a proofreader and copy editor.

What is the nature of your disability?

I have two eye diseases that combine to make my vision unusable most of the time. Although I was born legally blind with retinitis pigmentosa (RP), I did not know that until I was 18, even though my childhood eye doctor diagnosed me; he never informed me or my parents. RP destroys night vision and peripheral vision and can completely take away all sight.  As a result of not understanding what was happening to me as my sight diminished during my childhood and teens, I could not explain my poor performance at sports, my clumsiness or slow reading speed. Once I learned that there was an organic cause for this, though, I began working to adjust my thinking so I wouldn’t blame myself for these lower-than-average behaviors.

I was told there was neither a cure for my condition or a way to  predict how much sight I would lose. The arrival of a second condition in my early 40s, macular degeneration, which destroys central vision, made the very small field of vision I had left, unusable. I now see only light and shadow. It turned out that my older brother had RP as well and he adjusted more quickly than I did to blindness – he had more sight than me well into his early 30s but then lost it all much more quickly and was blind by his ealy 40s. I first considered myself to be blind rather than low vision when I reached  48 and could no longer read books to my then 10-year-old daughter.

When did you become interested in helping people with disabilities?

The summer I turned 20, years after I learned I had RP,  I worked at an agency for the blind in Buffalo and met a range of blind people. Some were clients there and were very talented and capable; others were barely able to speak. Some worked there and helped other blind people, and one woman in particular, who also had RP, impressed me because she was so kind and patient with everyone.

I did not choose to go into social service.  In 1997,  I was invited on a trip that changed my life: I went cross-country skiing in Wisconsin for one week with a group of 200 people, half of whom were blind or low vision. We were paired with sighted guides who taught us how to ski or guided those of us who already knew how. I didn’t know and it was hard and painful for me to learn, but I loved meeting so many other blind people  – and about  a dozen wheelchair users – who were brave, confident, smart, accomplished – or just folks. I saw I didn’t have to be ashamed of being blind and could continue to grow as a blind person and also just as a person.

Because my guide was patient and nonjudgmental despite my poor sking form and knowledge and helped me to become much better in just one week, I saw that accepting help was really important and necessary; I also saw the pride she and other guides felt in giving help without expectation of reward other than enjoying our company and the pleasure of doing something they loved, skiing. I later became a board member of this organization and have missed only 5 of the annual trips since 1997. Even then, I continued my work as a journalist, which I became in 1988 when I published my first article.

I saw a need over the years as I traveled for non-disabled people to learn how not to fear disabled peopl, and how to help them without being condescending, insulting or afraid. They needed to learn acceptance of us just as we needed to learn acceptance of our own limitations but also that these are only physical limitations and not social limitations. Poor behavior by others can limit our ability to participate in society. In 2012 I had to leave my job as an editorial director at a research firm. I decided right then to create the kind of training program that would address this lack of understanding and awareness and thus help people with disabilities  participate fully in society.

Tell me more about your work and the program you developed  to market to hotels. Why hotels?

First, because I had traveled extensively and that is where I experienced much of this uncomfortable and demeaning behavior. Second, in my work as a reporter, I had come to know some hotel owners. A couple of these men were open to the idea of providing this training to their employees. I did that and then used those contacts and word of mouth to find other hotel owners to hire me. This has not been easy because the expense of paying for this training will not immediately give the hotel owners a rise in revenue and I have to convince them of the long-term value of the training. I set this up as a business rather than a non-profit charity because hotels and other businesses need to see people with disabilities as consumers like everybody else, not as charity cases. This may not have been the soundest business decision for me but I feel it was the right one. I have trained thousands of hotel employees across the United States, both in person and through distance learning courses I developed with a business partner who is an expert in instructional learning. During the pandemic, as hotels have closed, I have begun looking to conduct my training in corporate settings so that companies can both feel more comfortable hiring people with disabilities and also providing customer service.

You’ve managed to take your disability and show others that you can still live your life, go to college, and have a successful career.  What advice would you give a young person who is blind and may not realize the future can have a lot to hold for them.

The most practical advice I have may surprise you: it is to learn Braille. I learned it when I turned 60 and I love it, but I am a very slow reader. However, the most successful younger blind people I know are those who are proficient at Braille. I think that, along with the practical ability to read on your own, this very independent feeling helps you develop a strong sense of self and confidence in your abilities to learn and grow.

Also, don’t be afraid to ask for help, but only when you need it. Don’t be ashamed to accept that help. Everyone, whether they have a disability or not, requires help from other people to survive and get through life. This one may sound trite, but finish high school and go to college if you can. Don’t settle for something because someone else tells you you can’t do what you want. Your parents will be concerned about your safety, and they have a right to be, and it will be up to you to tell them and show them that you are a responsible, independent person. This is not easy but it will make all of you much happier. Speak up for yourself when you feel someone is misunderstanding you or underestimating you, but if you are angry, try to keep that in check; explain logically and carefully why they are misunderstanding the situation.  Finally and most importantly, advocate for yourself at every step of the way. NO one else will do it for you, even those who love you the most. They can certainly help you, but you must take the lead. There are many barriers out there and even if you fail to overcome one, there are other directions to go in and you can always be proud if you give it your best. Remain flexible, though, so you don’t get stuck.

You’ve traveled and written about your travel experiences from the perspective of a person with a disability.  What are some of your most memorable, or perhaps, most surprising trips you’ve taken?

My wife is from Aruba, and I have been there and to the Caribbean many, many times. I have always been treated well even when it has scared my in-laws to see me go swimming by myself or to take a walk by myself. As my vision waned, though, I have asked for help  and found that people are eager to provide it. People do not seem to be afraid to speak to me like they do sometimes here in the U.S. and are instead curious and direct. However, because the Americans with Disabilities Act that guarantees legal rights here in the US for us does not exist there, many areas are off limits for wheelchair users, and websites are often inaccessible for blind people who rely on screen reader software. That’s a problem here in the U.S., but it is much bigger overseas.

In 2019, I traveled to Ethiopia and Kenya and was disturbed because most people who thought they were helping me would grab my cane and try to pull me along with it, which is not helpful at all.  Still, I found that if you treat people with respect, even when you correct them,  you will be respected in turn. When you travel, remember those people are there to help you but they also have lives quite separate from their jobs.

The reason I was in Ethiopia was to attend a convention of the Africa Blind Forum. One night, all 400 attenees from countries all across Africa went to a huge restaurant run by the Ethiopia Cultural Ministry. We ate, sang and danced, and when I realized that I was sitting so far from home with so many accomplished blind people of every age and race, I was overcome with happiness. I also realized that the blind people who attended this conference were all people who had had to advocate fiercely for themselves to become educated, to break through social stigmas, to work, to beat the low expectations that society wanted to weigh them down with. And for every one of them, there were many more back home who had much success but were unable for all sorts of reasons to attend, and I felt sad about that and angry that so much was in their way.

What can our government do to help people with disabilities have more access to technology so they can live more independently?

There are so many things. The first is to actually put more enforcement and education behind the Americans with Disabilites Act so that companies, education systems,  banks, etc. all understand how valuable people with disabilities are and that anyone can find themselves in a situation they might not have imagined an instant earlier. A law without sufficient enforcement is, well, just insufficient. Government needs to provide more incentives for hiring people with disabilities and more resources for educating us. There is no excuse for someone being denied an education today for any reason. Without that, employment is impossible. These incentives should be in place for purchasing assistive technologies and retrofitting inaccessible spaces, whether for wheelchair use or for assistive hearing infrastructure. For the blind, as I said above, I firmly believe that Braille is key too. This includes electronic Braille, which is a huge advancement. This is how blind people can learn and work on par with or more proficiently than their sighted peers. Text to speech technologies are wonderful, but they are not an adequate replacement for Learning to read on your own. That’s the best thing we can all do for ourselves, and Government must recognize, encourage and support it wholeheartedly.

Share a bit more about your thoughts on disability

I love doing what I do and am always refining it. I am always surprised by how little people really know about disability – and then I will meet someone with a profound understanding of it because it is present in their family. Still, disability remains a mystery to many people and even for the disabled, there can be a huge learning curve because they have spent their lives in a culture that does not value – and that even devalues – their disability.

Almost two years ago, I turned my practice as a writer into writing about disability for, and that has helped me to examine, explore and clarify my understanding of it. I now spend so much of my time with other blind and disabled people that it is sometimes surprising to find myself with only non-disabled people, such as a group of  my wife’s friends or my work colleagues from my 30s and 40s or friends from college.

I have had a hard time learning to be patient and fight with my own impulses to move more quickly than I should, both physically and in conversation or action. I do believe the world around me is more accepting and less fearful of diability than it was a decade ago because more disabled people are speaking out and being present.  Younger generations born here after the passage of the Americans with Disabilites Act in 1990 also see disability differently, just as they see race and gender differently. This is a positive trend, but waiting for generational change just isn’t enough.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

I love to read books on Bookshare, which uses an electronic computer voice rather than a recorded actor’s voice or a professional person. Electronic voices are so impersonal that I feel that I am actually reading on my own, not hearing anyone interpret any words for me. I also like to practice Braille; walk with my guide dog; and keep in contact with friends all over the country and now even in Africa. I spend a lot of time writing as well. And I love to eat. I am also excited about the possibility of traveling again. The pandemic period is the only time in many, many years that I have spent more than a month at home without getting on an airplane. I am also on a few nonprofit boards of organizations that work with blind people, which lets me feel in touch with the day-to-day challenges that people with disabilities face all over.

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