Fred Fulkerson, 48, an IPFW student, has been blind since birth. Since moving to Fort Wayne 12 years ago, he has found a role using his personal experience to help others with disabilities. He now works for The League, a non-profit organization that equips people with disabilities to live independently.
When Fulkerson came to Fort Wayne, he got in touch with the League in order to see what services were available to him.
The League is an independent Fort Wayne organization founded in 1950, according to their website. It began specifically to help those with vision impairment. It has since expanded to include services for those with many types of disabilities, Fulkerson said. It has state funding, with both salaried positions and volunteers.
“We try to teach people to learn how to live as independently as possible to keep people out of nursing homes,” Fulkerson said.
When he first found the League he started volunteering answering phones, then when he got a full time job he stayed in contact. He used to joke: “you got a job for me yet?” All the while never knowing he’d end up working with the league.
But after the Senior Blind Services Coordinator retired, Fulkerson received a call.
“I got out of class and I got the phone call, I’m hardly ever left speechless but I didn’t know what to say,” Fulkerson said.
Previously, he had been washing dishes at Steak n’ Shake.
While working his full-time job at The League, Fulkerson is a returning adult student majoring in interpersonal communication with a minor in organizational leadership expecting to graduate in December. He is married and has an 8 year old stepdaughter.
Since he started at the league almost two years ago, he found most of the people he serves are low income.
“I love my job, it’s really rewarding even on the stressful days,” he said.
Fulkerson has an assistant to help him get to the 11 different counties that The League services.
“We’re not gonna let people fall through the crack,” Fulkerson said.
He has a counterpart who works in South Bend.There are many organizations in other parts of the state, but there are some rural spots that fall through the crack, Fulkerson said.
The Senior Blind Services Coordinator position helps those who are 55 and older regardless of the severity of their visual impairment.
“Some of the things I teach are just how to pour a drink, or arrange cabinets (so someone won’t grab a can of soup when she wants a can of peaches)” Fulkerson said.
As a part of his job, Fulkerson gives presentations to spread awareness of The League’s services, because they serve people at every age and walk of life by providing adaptive technology and resources to enable independence such as: interpreters for schools, canes, braille books and other donated goods.
Fulkerson partners with mobility instructors for his presentations. Together, they demonstrate skills such as using a cane to enable those with vision impairment to navigate new places. He usually brings along a blindfold and cane so that sighted people can try and see what life is like with vision impairment. He even has glasses that show what different eye diseases do to eyes to give people a firsthand experience with the struggles of those with vision impairment.
“I’m known as the gadget guy,” Fulkerson said.
He uses his iPhone and computer regularly, but he said it was hard when he first started using them He encourages people to make use of all the new technology since he knows how much adaptive technology can improve the life of a person with a disability.
“It changed my world,” he said.
Screen reader technology has opened up many resources for those with impairments, Fulkerson isaid. However working with seniors can be frustrating with him can be frustrating because they resist new adaptive technology and some don’t want to learn.
“We can’t make people do things, we just put the suggestions out there,” Fulkerson said.
The League also has an Independent Living Skills Coordinator, to help teach skills to disabled people of all ages. The League works to get people into employment and vocational training.
Most recently The League also launched a in-home health care service, to enable people to keep their independence.
“Even though they have a disability, don’t let it stop them,” Fulkerson said.
The change in demographics with baby boomers aging has impacted the numbers of people The League serves. Fulkerson said that the number people of coming because of macular degeneration is going up.
There are three support groups at the league per month and five in outlying areas such as Lagrange Decatur and Auburn.
“[We are] trying to reach out all the time trying to serve as many people as possible,” Fulkerson said.
Support groups help people to see how others cope with their disabilities, said Fulkerson.
“You still gotta live, you might as well be happy,” Fulkerson said.
Besides helping those with disabilities directly, The League works to bring awareness to issues facing individuals with a disability and gives referrals for those who need additional care or help.
Fulkerson said there is even an Information Referral Coordinator, who can look up information for funding, transport, and other services that people might need, but also that they advocate for sidewalks and other things that impact those with disabilities.
Growing up outside of Fort Wayne, Fulkerson used to get tactile maps, ones that people can feel, and could walk for blocks without assistance, but since Fort Wayne has many areas without sidewalks people are left use the bus system, which adds cost and time.
“You go in a big circle just to get where you want to go,” Fulkerson said.
Care transit, the curb to curb, service offered in Fort Wayne as an extension of Citilink allows disabled people to schedule rides 48 hours out and $2.50 a ride one way but the timing can be unreliable. He said he schedules his rides early and sometimes that barely enables him to arrive on time.
“Get these issues known,” Fulkerson said.
Fulkerson encouraged those who want to get involved to write letters to city officials, especially to those on city council who could handle issues such as sidewalks and other accessibility issues. He said it was empowering for him as a representative of The League to have visited a forum with candidates for public office and encouraged those running for office to help those with disabilities.
“Once it’s out there – it’s an issue,” Fulkerson said mentioning the old adage, “the squeaky wheel gets the grease”.
“Now that I represent people with disabilities, I have learned what I can do about it,” Fulkerson said.
The League also hosts luncheons so that future donors can come and meet with The League CEO and learn about the services they offer the community.
“Once people know they can’t ignore it anymore,” Fulkerson said.
Fulkerson said that he always had all the support he needed at IPFW.
“Julie (the director of Services for Students with Disabilities) and student services, they have been more than awesome,” Fulkerson said, “Reading braille in spanish … I made it through.”
Services for Students with Disabilities works with The League and now has a braille embosser to aid students.
Fred Fulkerson will be part of an event sponsored by Services for Students with Disabilities for disability awareness month from 11 to 12 p.m. March 2 in Walb 114.
Fulkerson will speak about the services provided by The League in Fort Wayne as well as his own experience of living with a disability and attending IPFW.
A mobility instructor will also speak about working with staff, faculty and students to become accustomed to campus and learning the general location of buildings and how to get around safely. Light refreshments will be offered.