By Lerae Olesen
May 2, 2017
My name is Lerae Olesen, and I am currently serving as President of SDAB. I am a South Dakota native, born in Sioux Falls at what was then called Sioux Valley Hospital in 1955. Because I was a premature baby, my lungs weren’t fully developed, and I was given too much oxygen in the incubator. My optic nerve was damaged, resulting in total blindness. This was the situation for lots of babies born in the 1940’s and 50’s. While I’m sure my parents were quite devastated to have a blind child, we have all realized that things could have been much worse in that I could have sustained additional disabilities.
I attended the Sd Scool for the Blind and Visually Impaired at its then new location in Aberdeen for all of my grade school and high school years. While there, I learned to read and write braille and to use a typewriter, enabling me to do all of the academic work necessary for my education. I also learned skills of blindness, such as using a white cane and doing daily tasks without vision. I made many friendships with other students, some of whom are lifelong friends, and who are also members of SDAB.
Music has always been a very important part of my life. While at school, I sang in the chorus and took piano and guitar lessons. The ability to play by ear was helpful to me during my schooling as well as for jobs I would hold. A music education major at Augustana University was my first step into college life. Even though I completed my BA degree, teaching in a public school was not my desire. I worked in 2 nursing homes in Sioux Falls for several years, doing music activities with the residents. In 1985, I left my job at Good Samaritan Village in Sioux Falls to pursue a music therapy equivalency degree at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. Following my music therapy internship in Wisconsin, I worked in Rochester, MN for almost 10 years as a music therapist in two nursing homes.
In 1999, following the elimination of my position and some computer training, I moved back to Sioux Falls where I soon obtained a job as a telephone relay operator for the deaf, using a computer combined with a braille display in order to read and relay to the hearing person what the deaf person had typed. I held this job until June of 2013, when the SD Relay Center closed. This closing was due to technology, ever changing, allowing the deaf to communicate more effectively with hearing people via video relay, fax, email, texting, etc. While I was sad to lose my job,I couldn’t help being glad for the advances in technology for those we were helping.
Throughout my life, wherever I have lived, I have strived to be involved in activities with both blind and sighted friends. After I lost my Relay Center job, and following several job interviews, I began volunteering one morning each week in the office at my church while the staff members are in their meeting. I answer the phone and, take messages, and greet those who come into the office for one reason or another. I also have joined a water aerobics class two mornings each week and participate in a weekly Bible study for women. My goal is to make sure that no more than two days pass by without my going somewhere or someone coming to my apartment. The grocery delivery man, the Schwan’s delivery man, and the piano tuner all are counted as person-to-person contacts.
As someone who has been blind from birth, I’m sure my perspective is a bit different from someone reading this post who is sighted or is losing vision. I don’t want to pretend that I have not had frustrating times in my life related to transportation, getting things read, losing things in my apartment, or feeling like everyone else around me has something I don’t have. The South Dakota Association of the Blind is a consumer advocacy group. Also, it is a supportive group for its members and friends. In life, whether blind, sighted, rich, poor, or somewhere in between, we need to reach out to one another, both to receive and give help, in the lessons we’ve each learned in life. That give and take makes everything easier for us all.