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'When you lose your sight you have to reinvent yourself’

Advocate for the blind urges more young people to work with visually-impaired

Dolores Hanley McDiarmid, center, a public awareness project manager for Lighthouse of Broward, helped organize an annual Mass and reception Nov. 19 for local persons with disabilities, held at St. Gabriel Church in Pompano Beach. Here she meets with Doris Mancebo of St. Vincent Parish in Margate.

Photographer: TOM TRACY | FILE PHOTO

Dolores Hanley McDiarmid, center, a public awareness project manager for Lighthouse of Broward, helped organize an annual Mass and reception Nov. 19 for local persons with disabilities, held at St. Gabriel Church in Pompano Beach. Here she meets with Doris Mancebo of St. Vincent Parish in Margate.

FORT LAUDERDALE | The world could probably use more people to follow in the educational and vocational footsteps of Dolores Hanley McDiarmid.

A self-described cradle-Catholic and professional advocate for the blind and visually impaired in South Florida, McDiarmid is a New Jersey native who grew up in South Florida, attended Catholic schools here and went on to earn advanced degrees in visual disabilities as well as pastoral ministry at Florida State University in Tallahassee and St. Thomas University in Miami, respectively. 

She is a contributor to the archdiocese's Let's Talk blog. She also found a rewarding career helping people with disabilities through positions with both the state of Florida and, more significantly, the Fort Lauderdale-based Lighthouse of Broward, a community resource for the visually impaired where McDiarmid serves as a public awareness project manager.

“I went to Madonna Academy (now Chaminade-Madonna College Prep) and then, after earning a bachelor's in teaching children with learning disabilities, I started to consult God about what I should do,” said McDiarmid, echoing an ongoing theme of seeking God while making major life and career decisions.

She has also been a driving force in promoting the inclusion of the visually disabled in local parish and liturgical life and she helps organize the annual White Mass event in Broward County, held most recently at St. Gabriel Parish in Pompano Beach.

At Lighthouse, she helped foster a local interfaith-oriented spirituality group for the blind.

“A lot of people in Broward who are vision impaired come together for regular socializing but I didn’t think we did anything spiritually with them, so I suggested an interfaith day for the blind,” McDiarmid said. “The people said they want to do one of these once a month, so we know we hit on something. The clients have blossomed, and it far exceeded my expectations.”

The intersection of faith and vocation/career is just one of several themes that prompted McDiarmid to collect her thoughts on working with the visually impaired and disabled — and how they transformed her own life — in her new book, “Moved by the Spirit: A Call to Work with People Living with Blindness and Visual Impairments” (Paperback Press).

A member of Blessed Sacrament Parish in Fort Lauderdale along with her husband John, McDiarmid is concerned that seemingly fewer young people are choosing educational coursework related to working with the disabled and visually impaired — especially in an age in which people are living longer and dealing with visual problems associated with old age.

 

Dolores Hanley McDiarmid, left, poses after her book signing with Maria Isava from Mary Help of Christians Parish in Parkland. They attended St. Thomas University's Pastoral Ministries Program together.

Photographer: COURTESY PHOTO

Dolores Hanley McDiarmid, left, poses after her book signing with Maria Isava from Mary Help of Christians Parish in Parkland. They attended St. Thomas University's Pastoral Ministries Program together.

Job security

“We see fewer people coming in, but if you love this field and this work you will be able to take care of yourself and have some job security: What other job can you do that you help give people back their life and transform people?” she said.

“People are also living longer and as we age the eyesight starts to change so we have people coming to us in their 90s and even over 100 years old, so how we work with them will be different.”

“When you lose your sight you have to reinvent yourself and move forward with your life,” McDiarmid said, noting that she wants more eye care specialists and medical personnel to refer elderly patients who need life skills training when science and medicine are not able to make them visually whole again.

In “Moved by the Spirit,” McDiarmid writes about the field of orientation and mobility, a little known profession, and answers many questions about people living with blindness — questions collected from many years of presentations in schools and other community settings.

Several of her community projects educating the public about blindness and people who are blind are included, and readers are encouraged to implement similar projects in their own community.

“I have no idea what to expect from this book and no expectations, and I know God will move me to where it is supposed to go,” McDiarmid told the Florida Catholic, noting that she originally thought of waiting until retirement to pen a book but breaking her foot last year prompted her to seize the opportunity to write.

 

Back to school

Speaking at a book signing event Jan. 8, McDiarmid credited the faculty at St. Thomas University for helping her re-tool her career along the way and for connecting faith and working with disabilities as a lifelong vocation.

“After my 50th birthday, I had a serious conversation with God and reminded him I was not getting any younger, and that if there is something else he wanted me to do he better communicate that to me sooner rather than later,” she said.

“At the age of 52 I found myself back in school at St. Thomas,” she continued, “believing I was entering a new chapter of my life and leaving my work with the blind and visually impaired behind. But I was wrong.”

Her mentor at St. Thomas encouraged McDiarmid to keep all her options open while doing the coursework. It was in a class, Determining Ministerial Roles, that she began thinking about people with visual impairments and their special spiritual needs.

That introduction to spirituality has helped clients adjust to living with their blindness and move forward with their lives.

“They learn about the value in networking with one another as well as with people in the community. They support and encourage one another. They are cheerleaders for each other,” she said, adding:

“I would like to propose that there are benefits of people practicing their faith in the workplace and in daily life. Faith traditions can vary but we do share commonalities such as putting our creator first in our life and then behaving in a manner that is pleasing to our God.”

Dolores Hanley McDiarmid wrote

Photographer: COURTESY PHOTO

Dolores Hanley McDiarmid wrote "Moved by the Spirit" as a way of collecting her thoughts on working with the visually impaired and disabled - and how they transformed her own life.

Corrected: This article has been modified since it was first posted to note the correct university attended by Dolores McDiarmid. It was Florida State, not Florida Atlantic. 

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