Achieving FIRE With A Visual Impairment #Achieving #FIRE #Visual #Impairment Welcome to Lopoid
One of my goals on Financial Samurai is to share different perspectives. Roughly 15% of the world’s population (1+ billion), lives with some form of disability, of whom 2-4% experience significant difficulties in functioning. This is the minority group I’m most passionate about fighting for in this extremely competitive world. My hope is that more awareness will create a more loving and compassionate society. – Sam
My name is Adam. I run the website BlindLuckProject.com where we discuss all things FIRE (Financial Independence Retire Early) and how to make your own luck despite the odds.
Financial Samurai has asked me to share my story of how I went blind and still achieved financial independence at age 32.
I’m sharing this story to spread awareness about:
Visual disabilities.What it was like to slowly go blind in my young adult years.How I went about successfully finding engaging work.Seeking reasonable accommodations when needed.What my retirement looks like
I will also review my thought process at various stages of my path to financial independence. Hopefully, sharing what I’ve learned along the way can inspire other blind individuals, people with other disabilities, and anyone facing adversity in their lives.
While every situation is different having a strong process to evaluate opportunities at critical times is important. You can do this!
Admitting There Is A Problem With My Vision
Let’s start from the beginning. When I was a kid, I actually had better than perfect vision (20/10). In middle school, my brother started having trouble seeing in the dark. After bouncing around doctors’ offices, we were both diagnosed with a condition called retinitis pigmentosa. It’s a genetic degenerative eye condition that starts with night blindness, then progresses to tunnel vision, and eventually total blindness over many years.
At the time of the diagnosis, I was 13. Other than a bunch of medical students being very interested in looking inside my eyes, I didn’t really think I had a problem. I was still playing sports, and other than running into things from time to time, I thought I was fine. I told myself if I just ignored it, it couldn’t be real.
Fast forward a few years. I had plans to be a pilot! I had heard that many pilots started in the military to get training and flight hours, then transitioned to commercial planes after their military service. During the intake assessment, I asked the Air Force if having night blindness would be a problem.
“Um YEAH! A BIG problem!” the recruiter said.
So my pilot career was over before it started. This incident brings us to my first lesson.
When faced with a problem, don’t give up. Find your best available option!
My grades were good, and I’d been accepted into several great universities. I figured If I was never going to fly a plane, I should probably get a degree and go from there.
Taking Things One Step At A Time Before Going Blind
Going through college while losing my night vision was interesting…
At that time, I had stopped driving at night. While walking around campus at night, I fell into plenty of bushes, ran into street signs, spilled beer at parties, and even hit a biker with my car. (Don’t worry. He was fine!)
It was becoming apparent that as my eyes got worse, my life would be a long string of adjustments. What was easy just a few months ago, such as driving at night, was now a serious liability.
I graduated from college in 2010 during the Great Recession with a degree in Construction Management.
News Flash: There was basically no construction happening in 2010.
In fact, not many people were hiring much of anyone unless you had 10+ years of experience. I worked part time at the university library and eventually got a job sweeping the floor of a large welding shop.
I also helped the quality department with data entry. Not exactly a great start to financial independence or early retirement! But I figured this was better than moving back home. (You’re starting to see the stubborn side of me here!)
It was a hard time, but this experience taught me a lot about frugal living. Amazingly, I was able to stay out of credit card debt. Plus, I demonstrated my work ethic to my employer. (I was working seven days a week at that point.)
As the economy improved, I was promoted to a project manager position. I ran projects of all sizes. My first jobs were simple railroad and pipeline bridges. I then got into military hardware and R&D. Things were going pretty well! I was saving money, I bought my first house, and the economy was starting to pick up.
Then the wake up call happened!
On my 26th birthday, I had to turn over my car keys. I’d been struggling to drive to and from work. My employer had been kind enough to let me flex my hours so I could drive in daylight. If I needed to go to a job site or vendor, I grabbed an intern to drive me so I wouldn’t have to drive in unfamiliar places.
But it had gotten to the point where it just wasn’t safe anymore. This was possibly the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. In America, driving is freedom- a rite of passage into adulthood. And in a car-centric world, many people saw it as a requirement.
Learning To Ask For Help As My Vision Faded
At first, I was embarrassed, ashamed, and felt unworthy. I was a man. I was supposed to be strong and independent. Unlike my 13 year old self, I couldn’t just ignore it anymore. I realized, ready or not, going blind was coming.
So as the clever problem solver I was, I decided to take a taxi to and from work every day. (I had strategically bought my house close to work). Uber hadn’t expanded to my city yet (2013). (It’s pretty nice today that you can call a ride and it’s there in a matter of five minutes.) The taxis in my area were less than reliable. They were often late, smelled bad, and had grumpy drivers who demand tips.
I was standing in the rain one day when an acquaintance working at the same facility stopped and asked if I needed a ride. And thus, the carpool was born! Turns out it’s easier to find a carpool than you think. You offer to buy someone a tank of gas once a month, and people will line up to give you rides!
Furthermore, I was saving a ton of money by not owning a car. I learned this not driving thing wasn’t so bad after all.
Embracing Reality And Making The Most Of It
This period is when my savings rate really started to increase. I was saving over 20% of my income. I even took on a family friend who was going to a nearby community college as a roommate to make a little extra money (and help with running errands around town).
At this point, I fully understood and accepted that my eyesight wasn’t going to make it to age 65. I don’t like to leave things to chance, so I set the goal to save $1 million by age 40.
It was an ambitious goal, but I had already saved a bit of money. I figured if I increased my earnings and got more aggressive with investing, this was an achievable goal. If I didn’t make it to a million, at least I’d be better off than saving nothing at all.
Facing Discrimination At Work
Now at this point, it was getting pretty obvious to my coworkers and boss that I had some vision issues. Nobody really asked me much about it, and I was too ashamed to talk about it (or even admit it to myself really).
In hindsight, it was nothing to be ashamed of. But that’s wisdom earned the hard way. I was grateful for my job. I worked hard and made the company a lot of money. But eventually, I ran into some issues regarding my pay.
From 2010 to 2015, the economy had significantly improved. Business was booming, and college graduates with my degree were getting job offers for $70 – 80K with no experience. I, on the other hand, was still making only $58K per year.
That was significantly less than the other more “senior” project managers at the company. Furthermore, I was running about 40% of the company’s projects and bringing in about 65% of their profits. Turns out I was pretty good at this line of work. I’d proven myself with measurable results. It was time for me to discuss my compensation with management.
I outlined my responsibilities and how much revenue I managed for the company. In addition, I included the fact that I had brought in $2.1 million profit through the doors in the past 12 months. I asked to be fairly compensated.
Their answer? NO!
In fact, I didn’t get a single penny. I was told in no uncertain terms that I was lucky to even have a job. One of my coworkers overheard the conversation and was pretty upset at how I was treated. As was I.
Now I don’t know if I was discriminated against because I was the youngest manager in the firm or if it was because I was going blind and they felt like I was stuck there.
After all, who would hire a blind guy?
Looking For Employment While Going Blind
It was time to find a new job! Now maybe you’re thinking I should have sued that company. But, I disagree. Did I have a case? Maybe. In fact, I’m sure any lawyer I talked to would say I did.
But did I want to work for a company that didn’t treat me fairly?
Did I want to spend possibly years sparring with them in court?
Would the settlement, if any, even be worth the time, energy, and stress?
Probably not. I decided the best course of action was to find a better place of employment and just move on.
I secretly started looking for a new job. This was a really scary prospect. I had come to depend on one of my coworkers to help me out when I was struggling.
What if the new job didn’t work out?
Searching For Long Term Disability Insurance Benefits
As someone going blind, there are a lot of jobs I simply couldn’t do. If I tried something new and it didn’t work out, it’s not like I could have just picked up a job driving trucks or Uber or anything with dangerous equipment. There were a lot of limitations. A job change was a big risk.
But I knew I needed a better plan for my future. While I was researching companies, I ran across a benefit I’d never heard of before: Long Term Disability Insurance (LTD).
What the heck was this?
I did some more digging. Long term disability (LTD) insurance is a policy that pays if you can no longer work due to a disability. So there I was- going blind and finding out there might be something that could help protect me should my eyes get worse. I went to our HR department to ask if we had an LTD policy. Nope. We didn’t. Then I got to thinking…
I can buy car insurance. Can I buy this long term disability insurance? I did some Google searches. It turned out that I could! But there was a catch. (There always is!)
If you have a preexisting condition, the insurance company will either exclude that condition from the policy or just refuse to insure you. Since I was diagnosed at age 13, I was essentially uninsurable. I don’t blame the insurance companies.
Employer LTD Coverage For Preexisting Conditions
Why would they want to insure a risk that was basically a guarantee?
However, there was another way to get LTD coverage. If you are hired by a company that has LTD, you are automatically enrolled. If you work full time through the exemption period, you are eligible. Most plans have a separate waiting period for preexisting conditions that is different from the standard exemption period, but there was still a fighting chance!
Financial Samurai has a great article on the different types of disability insurance policies and what to look for.
With this in mind, I refined my search for jobs that had the following.
Paid $90K per yearOpportunity to growLarge enough company to accommodate me in the future as my vision got worseHad long term disability insurance
I applied for around 50 jobs, interviewed with ten firms, and received four job offers. Finally, I accepted one.
I believe honesty is the best policy, so I disclosed that I was disabled during the application process. (All applications have a checkbox asking if you are disabled. It doesn’t ask about the nature of your disability, just if you have one. It’s usually right next to the box asking if you are a veteran.)
What Works When Interviewing As A Disabled Person
In a phone interview, I wouldn’t bring your disability up such as being blind unless it impacts your ability to do a function of the job. For example, if the job posting states you need to be able to drive and you can’t, you need to tell them.
Sometimes it’s a deal breaker and sometimes they’ll work with you. However, if you don’t disclose your disability, they will figure out you can’t do the job. Then you will likely be let go. It is not discrimination to fire someone who can’t do a job they said they could do.
My main focus in a phone interview is how I can help the company solve the problem they are hiring for. Remember, this company could be paying you hundreds of thousands of dollars over the course of your employment. They have a need they want to solve.
Focus on that and how you can be that person. It is too early to ask about benefits at this time. That will come when you counter the written offer they give you.
In Person Interviews
It is important for you to show up in the manner you plan to show up every day for work. In my case, my eyes had deteriorated to the point that I used a white cane for safety when walking in new places. So I showed up to all the interviews with my white cane. When asked, I simply explained that I mainly used it for safety, and I could still read and navigate my surroundings.
Of the four offers I received, two didn’t have LTD benefits, which was one of my requirements. One offered me $95K, but I’d have to relocate out of state. The other offered $85K plus bonuses. I would have had to move, but it was still in state. Therefore, I took the job and negotiated a month off before starting.
This new job was as a supply chain manager for a large aerospace company- a job I’d never done in an entirely new industry. This was a huge risk for me, but I had the core skill sets of being good with high value contracts and experience managing people and vendors. I knew that If I worked hard enough, I could figure it out as I went.
Definition Of Legally Blind
Did you know? The definition of legally blind means when your best corrected vision after glasses or contacts is 20/200 or worse. In other words, you can only see something from 20 feet away what someone can see from 200 or more feet away can see. But that still means you can see.
9 in 10 people who are legally blind have some light perception. Some can even read. Here are 10 more fun facts about blind people.
Reasonable Accommodations For Persons With Disabilities
This is a somewhat broad and open ended statement. What may be reasonable to one firm might not be reasonable to another. Furthermore, I’ve spoken with many people who feel that this reasonable accommodations act entitles them to far more than it actually does.
What does the law say?
“A reasonable accommodation is any change to the application or hiring process, to the job, to the way the job is done, or the work environment that allows a person with a disability who is qualified for the job to perform the essential functions of that job and enjoy equal employment opportunities. Accommodations are considered “reasonable” if they do not create an undue hardship or a direct threat.” (Source: ADATA.org)
This is a pretty wordy and broad definition. Basically, it means that if you are qualified to perform a job, an employer is expected to make simple changes to assist you in your ability to safely and effectively do that job. It does not mean dramatically changing the job description or helping you outside of the workplace.
In my case, I didn’t ask for any reasonable accommodations when I was hired. In fact, I managed my new surroundings pretty well. However, as my eyes got worse over time, I eventually asked for a few simple things to assist me in performing my job more safely and effectively.
These accommodations for my visual impairment were:
A backlit keyboard so I could see my keys more easily.A safety partner to walk with on the occasions I needed to walk out onto the shop floor.A CTV screen to read printed material.A screen reader software to read documents to me to help with eye fatigue.Small adjustments to my schedule so my new guide dog could get breaks.
As I became more senior in the firm, I was also able to delegate some tasks to individuals that worked for me, such as doing inventory and reviewing large documents. I continued doing most of the contract negotiations and used my expertise to help train the team as needed.
None of these accommodations asked for my job description to be changed or for assistance outside of the workplace, like getting a ride to work. (I was a pro carpooler by this time! You should try it! it’s a huge money saver.)
If you find yourself asking for accommodations, make sure to keep them specific, work focused, and reasonable. I’ve found that most people are more than willing to help you; they just don’t know what you need. If you can clearly identify your struggle and identify an actionable solution, you will probably have success in your accommodation requests.
Going Blind: Planning For The Future
Over time, my vision continued to get worse. I was already considered legally blind when I started working at the new company. I had limited peripheral vision of around 10 degrees field of view. Legally blind is 20 degrees field of view or less.
Thankfully, I’d been a saver since day one. And with this new job, I was able to max out my 401K plan and save some money in a taxable brokerage account. I also had a fully funded emergency fund of 3-6 months of expenses which would come in handy when it was time to retire.
I was becoming much more financially secure, but I still hadn’t saved up the full million I had hoped to have by age 40. It was becoming apparent I was running out of time. And quickly. I wasn’t going to make it.
Increased Vision Challenges At Work
In 2019, when I was 31, my eyesight started deteriorating quickly for unknown reasons. I could no longer read out of my left eye. Meanwhile, the tunnel vision in my right eye was so bad I couldn’t see an entire word on the computer screen. I actually got lost at work several times and had to have help finding my office.
My color vision was shot too. While I could still tell some colors apart, I couldn’t tell you if something was pink or orange, green or blue. I had also completely lost the ability to see yellow (which is inconveniently the color of highlighter pens).
I was getting slow at my job, unable to keep up with the huge amount of data I was expected to process. Large Excel worksheets were problematic for a screen reader, and charts were hard.
How do you know what the chart says if you can’t see the relationship of a data point to the axis?
I was beginning to go blind and starting to make mistakes…. Lots of them…
Periodically emailing the wrong person with sensitive dataMaking mistakes on reports that were sent to corporateAnd struggling more and more with vendor meetings in which I was expected to represent the company
People noticed, and the company bent over backward to try and help. They hired a summer intern to help with data entry. I delegated more responsibility to my employees and moved into more of a team coach/consultant role where my deep experience in contract negotiations and military customers could be leveraged by multiple departments.
A Difficult Conversation With My Boss
Eventually, my boss and I had to have a conversation. I explained to him I was struggling and working ridiculous hours to try to keep up. I was making mistakes that cost the company money and was becoming a financial liability and not the asset they had hired.
He agreed with me and said he’d noticed but didn’t know how he could help me do my job given the new limitations I faced.
We worked out a transition plan. I would stay on for an additional three months to train my replacement. I’d be available for consulting should issues come up in the future where my expertise and history on a project might be helpful. This happened in September of 2019.
Plan B: Retiring Blind
By December 18th, 2019, I was placed on a medical leave of absence, and the disability claim process was started.
How much do I make in retirement? You might be thinking…
If you didn’t hit your $1 million goal, how on earth did you retire?
Well, that’s where plan B kicked in. I had my main plan to save up a million but hedged my bets by ensuring the company I worked with had the LTD insurance policy. As a result, I have several income streams in retirement.
Long Term Disability Insurance (LTD): $2,000/ MonthSocial Security Disability Insurance (SSDI): $2,600/ MonthOther Income: $1,000/ month (investment income, Ebay, other)
This works out to be an annual income of $67,200 per year, much of which is not taxable. It’s a very livable amount for an individual. I own my own home with a monthly mortgage payment of $1,200/ month.
Through frugal living, I am still working toward saving that $1 million goal. I add around $20K to my investments every year. I’ll probably be closer to 50 by the time I hit my goal, but that’s okay. I have the income sources listed above secured.
This might sound like a lot of money to some people. Most people assume someone on disability benefits doesn’t make very much. They’re right.
Most people on SSDI only make an average of $1,358/month in 2022. Also, some individuals who are disabled never worked at all and are on a different program called SSI (which pays up to $886/month in 2022).
My case is certainly above average for LTD and SSDI benefits. Keep in mind that when I retired, I was making over $110K per year and had been paying into the systems for 16 years. (My first job was when I was 16).
These programs are a form of insurance to protect you in the event your ability to earn wages is compromised. The more you can make while working, the better off you’ll be should you ever need to utilize these safety nets.
Final Thoughts On Going Blind During My Career
I hope sharing my experience of going blind, how I navigated employment, and the resources I found useful at various stages of vision loss has been helpful regardless of where you are on your journey. If you’re at the beginning, I’ve given you a pretty good road map to start your process.
Thanks to Financial Samurai for hosting this guest post! If you want to learn more, check out my website BlindLuckProject.com where we discuss all things financial independence and how to make your own luck despite the odds.
Readers, do you have a disability that makes getting a job harder or doing your job harder? If so, please share your experience!