Braille Monitor                                                    December 2008

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Blind Aide Raises the Bar of Expectations

by Jordy Yager

Stacy CervenkaFrom the Editor: The following story appeared in the Wednesday, September 24, 2008, issue of the Hill, a staff publication serving Senate and House employees in Washington. Stacy Cervenka is an active member of the National Federation of the Blind. Here is the text of the profile:

It seemed like a regular Capitol tour: Statuary Hall, the old Supreme Court, the Capitol Rotunda, where John Trumbull’s paintings, commissioned in 1817, hang, depicting the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the surrender of General Burgoyne and Lord Cornwallis. The only irregularity to the tour was that it was unusually good, said one of Senator Sam Brownback’s (R-Kan.) sightseeing constituents. Well, that and the fact that it was given by an aide to Brownback who is legally blind.

Stacy Cervenka, twenty-eight, has been visually impaired her entire life, but the condition has not stopped her from becoming Brownback’s newest legislative assistant and one of the best tour guides in the office. The Minnesotan first came to the senator’s office as an intern in 2004, and the senator hired her full-time eighteen months later. “My first day as an intern I was thinking that I would probably have to raise the bar of their expectations,” Cervenka said. “I thought, they’re probably not going to expect me to do much. They’ll probably have me licking stamps or something.”

Instead she was immediately sent to retrieve a chart from the printing and graphics department for a presentation Brownback was to give on the Senate floor. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve only been here an hour; I don’t even know where that is,’” she recalled.

But she stepped up to the task, completed it, and has continually gained the trust and reliance of Brownback and her colleagues. Now she handles a host of legislative issues, including abortion, bioethics, education, disability rights, veterans’ and Native American issues, crime and prisons, and healthcare. Brownback’s office is known for having staffers and interns with atypical backgrounds. A fifth intern from the American Association of People with Disabilities recently finished a stint, and interns from Sudan, Korea, and Israel have also graced the three-term senator’s office. “I think the senator’s office is always interested in hiring a diverse crop of interns,” Cervenka said.

Cervenka admitted she was nervous when she first began giving tours, which she did daily as a staff assistant. “I was kind of concerned about how people would react to me when I said, ‘Hi, I’m your tour guide; I’m blind,’” she said. “I mean, I don’t say that, but I do come out with my cane, and I wondered whether they were going to say, ‘Ugh, we don’t really want to go with you.’” Thankfully, the only reaction she ever received was graciousness.

For the most part Cervenka no longer gives tours, although she’ll still do it to honor a special request. For example, she recently led a tour for a group of blind teenagers from the Teen Empowerment Academy at the National Federation of the Blind. Cervenka is still known for giving one of the best tours on the Hill, and this, combined with her legislative work, has made her well-known.

When she’s not working on the Hill, she volunteers for several blind groups across the country. At a recent National Federation of the Blind event in Dallas, she told a young girl that she worked in Brownback’s office and would be leading them on a tour when they visited the Capitol the following week. The blind girl turned to Cervenka and said, “Do you know Stacy Cervenka, who works for Senator Brownback?”

“It was really funny,” Cervenka said.

Cervenka travels to the Senate Hart Office Building by Metro, navigating the streets and the halls, which she said are mostly blind-friendly, with a cane. She has software on her computer that announces every action aloud and a Braille display with pins that pop up and down according to the letters in a word. “It’s been really easy, and the office has been really great about getting me everything I need,” she said.

In her more than two years on the Hill, Cervenka’s fondest memory is when U2 lead singer Bono came to Brownback’s office to speak with him about helping people with AIDS in Africa. “They had gotten done with the meeting, and people were milling around. I stuck out my hand just to say ‘hi,’ and he’s all, ‘Aw, give me a kiss!' and he threw his arms around me and gave me a big kiss,” Cervenka said.

While she loves her current job, she fantasizes about traveling the world, like Bono, in search of dynamic change. “My dream job would honestly be as a reporter for National Geographic and to be in the middle of some rebellion in Botswana, but I don’t think that’s where I’m going,” she said.

Cervenka doesn’t pretend that her other senses give her superhuman abilities, but she said they are quite fine-tuned, given her need to rely on them more frequently than other people do. “I wouldn’t say that I have hearing like a dog. I use it to cross the street and to tell when people are coming, but I wouldn’t say that they’re bat senses,” she said.

In her work on the Hill, Cervenka hopes she will be able to spread the awareness that people with disabilities are just as capable, if not more so, of handling workplace environments. “I get to meet people from a lot of different fields and talk about the issues that they want to discuss with the senator,” she said. “They get to see me as a blind person working in an office environment. I always hope, when they go back to Kansas or wherever they’re from and a blind person were to apply for a job, they remember me and give that person a chance.”
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