The Columbian (Vancouver, WA.).
Friday, March 24, 2006.
By AMY MCFALL PRINCE Columbian staff writer.
Michael Hooks knows you can't teach ambition. And since he's passionate about helping people who have it, the former teacher made a career shift to put them in his path.
He helps people reach their goals of becoming doctors, writers, and Web designers, to name a few. The difference is he works with people who are legally blind, and so is he.
About six months ago Hooks left his teaching career to open Next Level Assistive Technology, which helps people locate technology to overcome boundaries created by their impaired vision or develops it for them.
Vancouver is home to the Washington State School for the Blind, and as such, has become a magnet for services to help the visually impaired. Still, Hooks stands out.
His clients say it's his ability to teach and inspire that has made the real difference in their lives. He understands what it takes to succeed despite a disability.
"Society usually expects less of people who are blind or visually impaired. You're going to have to work harder and get past that," he says.
Hooks, 35, was born with juvenile retinoschisis, a disease that causes eyesight to worsen throughout childhood. His central vision is affected, so he can see only at very close range. It's possible his vision could deteriorate more.
Knowing his vision would steadily decline, Hooks set high standards for himself and was determined to learn how to use Braille as well as technology that could help him overcome his poor vision.
The journey led him to Northern Illinois University where he earned a master's degree in assistive technology for the visually impaired. It was there that he first came up with the idea for his business.
But his initial career path took him in another direction. He spent seven years teaching social studies and technology at the Washington State School for the Blind.
As a teacher, Hooks didn't allow students to accept defeat.
"He made me cry," said former student Renae Goettel, who is now a student at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas. "I thought I was trying as hard as I could. Being a teenager, you want people to feel sorry for you because you're blind, and he didn't buy that."
Ultimately it was Hooks' experience with students like Goettel that eventually convinced him that his first instincts about his career were right.
"I wanted to do more," he says.
Hooks said he knew opening an assistive technology business would connect him daily with bright, ambitious students as well as career-minded adults. "This way I get to touch more people," he says.
Nevertheless, the job change forced him to once again shoot high and take a risk.
By focusing on the blind, his potential client list would be only a small percentage of the population. Meanwhile, his wife's working career was on hold. She took a hiatus from teaching to spend more time with their daughter.
Determined to make the business work, Hooks dialed up contacts at state agencies throughout the West to increase his chances of receiving referrals. He also decided to focus the business on people who have low vision. That expanded his potential client base to aging adults. He's betting that helping people read newspapers, pill bottle labels and computer screens will sustain him.
So far the formula is working. One of his first big breaks came in the form of a pioneering medical student.
Shortly after he opened his business, the Oregon Commission for the Blind asked him to create software that would enable a blind naturopathic medical student to look up diagnostic information on a device similar to a PDA.
Hooks then showed 41-year-old Chris Cooke how to use it. "It levels the playing field for me," she says. "I have the same information as my sighted peers."
Even though Hooks' victories come one by one, they're just as satisfying to him. Chances are he'll never work with another blind doctor again.
"What I'm trying to do is say, 'You're blind, you have the intellect, the desire, why are employers not hiring you?'" he says.
"I have clients who want to work so badly, they just don't have the right tools."
Sunrise Fletcher, 58, didn't know tools existed that could help him regain past independence. He has long been legally blind, but in the past few years his degenerative condition worsened to the point that he had to stop using a computer.
Hooks taught the Skamokawa man how to build and maintain Web pages for the bed and breakfast Fletcher and his wife operate.
Over the past few weeks, Hooks has visited Fletcher's rural home several times to install software and train him.
"Michael is such a good teacher," Fletcher says. "He really knows his job, so he knows when to stop, when is too much."
Hooks says he learned those skills in the classroom.
"I don't think I would be as good at this if I wasn't at the school working with blind students every day," Hooks says. "Just because you're blind doesn't make you an expert. You have to understand people and understand what they're going through before you can teach them."
In some cases former students are now potential clients.
He helped Goettel, now 21, line up technical training in Texas, where she's attending school. With the skills she learned, she's started work as a sports reporter for her college newspaper and landed a public relations internship with the San Antonio Spurs' NBA team.
While she knows Hooks' business will be helpful to her future, she says he's already given her the best assistance by providing an example.
"It's great to see someone who has a visual impairment be successful. He made it through college; he made it through grad school, and in his personal life, he's been successful, too," Goettel says. "I can see how my disability will be an obstacle, and I can see a way to get around it."
Amy McFall Prince can be reached at email@example.com or 360-759-8019.
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